A Transformation on Race

Barack Obama's "post-racial" posture reflects a quiet but radical shift in liberal ideas about race in America

Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, by Randall Kennedy, New York: Pantheon. 228 pages, $22.00

Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, by John L. Jackson, Jr., New York: Basic Civitas, 274 pages, $26.00

When New York magazine's "race issue" hit newsstands in early August, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama held a formidable, though hardly insurmountable, lead over Republican rival John McCain—49 percent to 41 percent, according to Gallup's daily tracking poll. Despite Obama's advantage, an article titled "The Color-Coded Campaign," by New York political correspondent John Heilemann, wondered why Obama wasn't "doing better" and warned that it was because of an "answer that no one wants to hear."

Contrary to Heilemann's claims of originality, this "answer" has been parsed endlessly on blogs, talk radio, and Sunday chat shows. It goes roughly like this: Almost 50 percent of American voters backed Barack, but this transcendent, inspirational politician hasn't yet reached Vladimir Putin levels of popularity, where Heilemann and New York think he belongs, because too many Americans are racists. Whether or not most voters realize it, Obama's supporters explain, his campaign provides an opportunity for a long-overdue reassessment of American attitudes toward an integrated, multiracial society.

Lacking clear-cut examples of racist campaigning against Obama, the defenders of this position turned to what we might charitably call nonobvious examples. Those Britney Spears ads accusing Obama of vapidity and "celebrity," we were told, transmitted a racial code, because the juxtaposition of the candidate with young white women subconsciously stoked fears of miscegenation. The phallic monument in Berlin where Obama gave his speech? The ad included that icon to play on old stereotypes of black male supersexuality. "Race will be central to this campaign because McCain needs it to be," former New Republic Editor Peter Beinart wrote in The Washington Post. "He simply doesn't have many other cards to play." The media sophisticates, having long been warned about unconscious and subterranean racism, knew the racial attacks would happen, even if they weren't visible to the naked eye.

As television pundits debate the unquantifiable American racial subconscious, the more interesting question of how Obama would lead on the issue of race has received significantly less attention on the O'Reilly-Olbermann circuit. Would the first African-American president herald the beginning of a "post-racial America," as his boosters promise, or would he hew closer to the standard views of the post-Martin Luther King civil rights movement? And if Obama ascends to the White House, what will black Americans make of his complicated racial politics?

Entering the home stretch, both candidates have treated race gingerly, though during the Democratic primaries questions of ethnic identity were far more pointed. A questioner in the July 2007 YouTube presidential debate wondered whether Obama, the half-Kenyan, half-white Harvard law graduate, was "black enough" for African Americans. Was he, as PBS shout fest host John McLaughlin bluntly inquired, "an Oreo"? Writing in the New York Daily News, columnist Stanley Crouch declared, "When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,' I do not know what they are talking about." The Los Angeles Times wondered if the candidate was "really black," and 60 Minutes inquisitor Steve Croft pushed the candidate to admit that he had grown up identifying as white. It was a common enough question that Obama felt compelled to respond, relating that even his "black activist friends from here to Boston say that you are not black; you are multiracial."

So the first broad discussion of the “race issue” was not whether white Americans would accept Obama as an African-American president but if blacks would. That question has receded into the background since Obama grabbed the party’s nomination—most of his supporters are now distracted by the prospect that he might actually win—but it periodically re-emerges, as in his August back-and-forth with a group of African-American hecklers in St. Petersburg, Florida, who accused him of selling out blacks to be accepted by whites. It’s the latest incarnation of an old idea: that blacks should have a broad unanimity of political opinions, that some opinions and actions are disloyal to the race, that political success is incompatible with political principle.

The history of that idea is engagingly recounted and dissected by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in his latest treatise on race in America, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, one of a passel of recent books on race relations that illustrate how far the national debate has progressed even since the 1990s. Race treason is a concept so prevalent in black culture that Kennedy can open with a quote from Oprah Winfrey, a rich celebrity adept at bridging cultures, who in 2007 instructed an audience of graduating Howard University students that they mustn’t “be a slave to any form of selling out.”

Kennedy explores the views of black critics of affirmative action and race-based college admissions, such as the novelist and Yale law professor Stephen Carter, who “seek to embrace libertarianism on behalf of group advancement.” By rejecting what has become a key plank of the civil rights agenda, are opponents of racial preferences engaging in “racial betrayal”? Kennedy says no, but he also argues that “every group confronts the task of free riding and defection.” Indeed, Kennedy sees “no reason why, in principle, an African American should not be subject to having his citizenship in Black America revoked if he chooses a course of conduct that convincingly demonstrates the absence of even a minimal communal allegiance,” though it is unclear just who would adjudicate a case of racial treason.

Critics like Carter, Kennedy writes, “speak as if ostracism, per se, is wrong” and ignore the “ostracism that is good—ostracism of racists, misogynists, fascists, and purveyors of other hateful ideologies.” The reader can reasonably trust that Kennedy doesn’t mean to compare proponents of race-neutral university admissions (or Carter himself) with fascists. His point is that ostracism is not always wrong but that exiling certain blacks from polite company for holding “inauthentic” views borders on the Stalinist.

Sellout is filled with blacks speaking of other blacks in terms of treason and warfare. Former Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) thunders that the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was as if “the collaborator Marshal Petain had been awarded a medal after the liberation of France in World War II, or if in Norway Quisling had been made a high official in the government.” Columnist Carl Rowan unloads on the conservative black economist Thomas Sowell: “Vidkun Quisling, in his collaboration with the Nazis, surely did not do as much damage to the Norwegians as Sowell is doing to the most hopeless of black Americans.” The psychologist Halford Fairchild warns that dating or marrying a white woman is an unforgivable act of betrayal. “We are under siege,” he says. “We are at war. To sleep with the enemy is treason. Racial treason.”

Yet the concept of selling out may be losing its resonance with black voters. Take Newark Mayor Cory Booker. When Booker ran against Newark’s then-incumbent mayor, Sharpe James, in 2002, the Yale—and Oxford—educated son of bourgeois parents was told that his blackness would be a focus of the campaign. “I’m going to out-nigger you in the community,” James hissed. James did just that, winning a fifth straight term. But Booker prevailed in 2006 over James’s handpicked successor, suggesting such tactics may have a limited future. (In April, James was convicted of fraud for embezzling money from programs designed to help Newark’s poor.)

A 2001 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found significant “generational differences among black elected officials.” The younger ones, the study found, “more strongly support school vouchers, are less positive toward the federal government and more in favor of devolution, are more supportive of the partial privatization of Social Security, [and] are more pro-business.”

In other words, they are more likely to be libertarian in their leanings than older, more traditionally leftist black politicians such as Barbara Lee, Cynthia McKinney, Ron Dellums, and Maxine Waters. (African-American politician Harold Ford Jr., a rising star in the Democratic Party, was a keynote speaker at this year’s Milton Friedman dinner, sponsored by the libertarian Cato Institute.) “Out-niggering” might have delivered the 2002 election to James, but it also coincided with the birth of a new generation of successful black political leaders who focus less on “authenticity” and more on innovative ways of alleviating poverty and fixing inner-city schools.

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  • ||

    I don't know Michael, Tavis Smiley has already spouted off this morning. He has too much to lose to let Obama spoil the black brand.

  • ||

    I saw Jesse Jackson cry yesterday . . . maybe because Obama's triumph represents the end of his racial extortion racket.

  • ||

    Wow, no doubt about it. We are going to see some major change in LOT of areas. I will take all of it over Dictator Bushes stupidity and arrogrance.

    Jiff
    http://www.Ultimate-Anonymity.com

  • ||

    I wonder what the reaction would have been if someone with the views of Walter Williams would have been elected?I'd love to see his first 100 days.

  • ||

    Michael Pack,

    I gave some thought about what a libertarian should do as POTUS and came up with a Libertarian President Top 100 list.

    Guess I shouldn't bother sending the list to Obama, huh?

  • ||

    More evidence that Michael is jumping the gun is the fact that I'm once again represented by a Republican. The Democrat would have most certainly won had there not been a black no-party candidate. Race trumped party for thousands of blacks that helped put Don Cazayoux over the top just six months ago.

  • ||

    But what if Obama's wife was white? What impact would that have had on the race?

  • ||

    I predict an uptick in black patriotism.

    I'm not saying African-Americans will suddenly turn into strident nationalists, but that whole "I don't salute the flag. I'm black" thing is going to take a real beating.

  • ||

    I'm not racist and I'm not a paranoid black guy either, but I don't believe Barry Jennings death was a accident.

    Just because Obama tells us that it is all good now because he is president doesn't mean that we should ignore that Barry Jennings was killed.



    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwSc7NPn8Ok

    http://badamerican.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/barry-jennings-wtc7-witness-found-dead/

  • ||

    joe,

    Unless they decide Obama has sold out. He's got a razor's edge to walk, more so than most presidents.

    To properly encompass the reaction of some blacks if he doesn't meet their expectations, play this video. . .the payoff is at about 11 seconds in.

  • James||

    James, you don't think those thousands of Democrats who voted for Jackson might have been doing so because they preferred his stands on the issues?

    After all, blacks support Democratic candidates just about equally, whether the candidates are white or black. The same isn't true of white voters, however.

  • ||

    I hope your wrong Joe,
    Thomas Jefferson and George Mason never once said a pledge of allegiance to the American flag...so any black man that on the same page as those guys is ok in my book.

  • ||

    Pro Lib,

    I daresay that Barack Obama has a pretty significant haul of "political capital" stored up with African-Americans.

    He'd have to turn into the blind Klansman from that Chappelle sketch.

  • Seward||

    joe,

    The last thing we need is more patriotism in the U.S.

  • ||

    Well, fear not, Seward. I imagine we'll be seeing some cooling off of patriotic ardour in certain other socio-political segments of America, as a result of Obama's election.

  • ||

    joe,

    I can see why you'd think that, since there's the example of blacks voting consistently Democratic, despite often being taken for granted, but I think the expectations are ratcheted up awfully high for Obama to get away with charting a middle course for long. The more radical elements will hate him for not enacting reparations; the less radical will grow disenchanted if he's too much the "same as the old boss." The latter point will hold for the far left in general, of course.

    No one ever said being president was easy. If the recession lasts for 18 months and doesn't end with a big growth spurt, he'll be almost certainly facing a GOP Congress in 2010, regardless of what he does in office. Fickle people, Americans.

  • TallDave||

    Almost 50 percent of American voters backed Barack, but this transcendent, inspirational politician hasn't yet reached Vladimir Putin levels of popularity, where Heilemann and New York think he belongs, because too many Americans are racists.

    Yep, already any criticism of Barack is being deemed racist by the usual jacakasses on the left.

  • Seward||

    Pro Libertate,

    Obama has roughly 6-10 months enact any of his agenda. From then on it will be an increasingly hard slog.

  • ||

    The more radical elements are a smaller and smaller segment of the population, Pro Lib.

    Also, let's not cast Barack Obama purely as a consequence and recipient of political developments in the black community. He's also a leader.

  • ||

    Yep, already any criticism of Barack is being deemed racist by the usual jacakasses on the left.

    It's not coincidental that the person who wrote this is also the person who drank the Reverend Wright/Ashley Todd Kool-Aid the deepest, and spammed threads over and over again with stories about scary black men.

    Somebody certainly hais interested in making complaints about racially-incendiary attacks on Barack Obama seem unfair and disreputable. Gee, I wonder why?

    Rock. TallDave. Scuttle.

  • TallDave||

    might want to care a little less about appearing authentic and more about the corrosive consequences of racial paranoia.

    No, leftists are far too vested in racial paranoia now. As long as Dems can play the identity politics card, they can ignore uncomfortable questions about whether socialism actually works.

    That's why we get Charlie Rangel claiming tax cuts are a code word for racism.

    Socialism can never stand on its own. It needs supporting narratives of social justice.

  • Seward||

    joe,

    What exactly are we to think of Obama's relationship with Wright? Was it mere political oppurtunism? If so, I'm not quite sure if that is much of a defense.

  • ||

    Ah, yes, can't have that racial paranoia, can we, ToolDave?


    TallDave | October 23, 2008, 4:32pm | #

    Speaking of carving, anyone else see that Drudge flash?

    Scary, if true.
    TallDave | October 23, 2008, 4:33pm | #

    Ah, there's a link now:

    http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/17789356/detail.html

    Richard said the robber took $60 from the woman, then became angry when he saw a McCain bumper sticker on the victim's car. The attacker then punched and kicked the victim, before using the knife to scratch the letter "B" into her face, Richard said.

    Looks like the felon-American community is really taking Obama's "get in their faces!" exhortations to heart.

    TallDave | October 23, 2008, 5:03pm | #

    It's best to give this stuff 48 hours to shake out.

    True, it might not pan out, though women are generally not inclined to disfigure their own faces with a knife.

    TallDave | October 23, 2008, 5:15pm | #

    There are pictures of the girl now. She has a pretty good black eye to go with her new Obama campaign material.

    Fortunately, the damage to her face doesn't look permanent.

    TallDave | October 23, 2008, 5:23pm | #

    Aaaaand the race gets played.

  • ||

    Gotta hate that racial paranoia, huh?

    I love that last one: complaining that someone else is playing "the race card" because they called TallDave on what he was doing.

  • TallDave||

    I rarely read joe aymore, as he generally just throws rhetorical feces around, but his 4:48 post is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

    The Ashley Todd incident, as first reported by the police, had little to do with race. What was striking was the "B" supposedly carved into her face. Like most normal people reading the story, I barely noticed race at all (and noted several times it might not be true, despite it being a report from police). But joe has to call me a racist kool-aid drinker, because leftism is so philosophically barren it cannot survive without creating such paranoia.

  • ||

    The blind, black KKK dude was comedy gold. I miss Chappelle.

    joe,

    I don't think he's that firmly established as a national black leader. He's got that status as the nominee and president-elect, and will have it as president, but that's different than actually being a trusted black leader on the national level. Hope/faith and earned trust aren't the same thing.

  • TallDave||

    And you'll notice, joe, that not once did I bring up race, until someone else mentioned it.

    Of course, debating with someone like you is pointless, as you are entirely dishonest, so I will go back to ignoring you again.

  • ||

    The Ashley Todd incident, as first reported by the police, had little to do with race.

    No, the fact that she reported a blacketty black black man in black shoes and a black jeans and a dark shirt as the perpetrator was wholly irrelevant to why tools like you decided to go viral with it. Hell, she could have picked any race; it's utterly random that she ended up choosing a black guy.

    Like most normal people reading the story, I barely noticed race at all

    OK, does anyone want to pipe up and proclaim that they believe ToolDave here? Anyone? Gee willikers, did she say it was a BLACK man? Golly, I didn't even notice that part!

    leftism is so philosophically barren it cannot survive without creating such paranoia.

    Uh, yeah, when I think about racial paranoia over the past year, and its relationship to our politics, I think of the left.

    Why, I'm so incredibly paranoid, I think douchebag wingnuts are going to try to pull dirty tricks like inventing and propagating accusations about big black men sexually assaulting and mutilating young white women in an effort to influence the election! Quick, someone call a psychiatrist, I'm all paranoid-ey!

    How about you hold off on lecturing people about race for another month? Think maybe that would be a good idea?

  • ||

    And you'll notice, joe, that not once did I bring up race, until someone else mentioned it. *snort*

    TallDave's brain: "Just don't say any of this list of magic words, and no one can accuse you of racism!"


    Pro Lib,

    He's got that status as the nominee and president-elect, and will have it as president, but that's different than actually being a trusted black leader on the national level.

    I don't think it's quite so different, at least not for this president.

  • ||

    Of course, debating with someone like you is pointless, as you are entirely dishonest, so I will go back to ignoring you again.

    You do that.

    For my part, I'm going to post my 4:55 comment on every single thread you decided to pollute with your little theories about race relations.

    See ya.

  • ||

    joe,

    Well, we'll see. I think he remains a cipher to most people, black or otherwise, and it's more hope and faith at this point than anything else. Understandable enough, but people who place their trust in someone turn all the more bitter when they feel betrayed.

  • Ashley Todd||

    We'll fight the REAL Racists together, TallDave!

    Can I have a ride in your corvette!?

  • LarryA||

    I gave some thought about what a libertarian should do as POTUS and came up with a Libertarian President Top 100 list.

    What? No "Everybody can carry a gun, openly or concealed" law?

  • ||

    LarryA,

    How interesting--I did overlook the arming of the citizenry. Perhaps I need to draft another 100 to cover such omissions. Though writing the first 100 was hard enough.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Ashley Todd for a win?

    TallDave,

    Yep, already any criticism of Barack is being deemed racist by the usual jacakasses on the left.

    God love him, TallDave is predictable.

    Theory: TallDave's handle smooshes together two capitalized words LikeThis.
    Does it reveal anything about his identity?
    Is TallDave really LoneWacko?

  • economist||

    "I predict an uptick in black patriotism."
    All we had to do was elect a black guy? I told you we should have run Walter Williams!

  • economist||

    I have this odd feeling that race is going to come up as an issue more often rather than less often in the next four years. Then again, I could be completely wrong.

  • Neu Mejican||

    economist,

    I think you are correct.
    But it will always be brought up by people over the age of 45.

  • TallDave Colbert||

    I don't see race.

  • Hogan||

    But it will always be brought up by people over the age of 45.

    You've got to be kidding. Spent any time around a college lately?

  • Neu Mejican||

    LarryA,

    What? No "Everybody can carry a gun, openly or concealed" law?

    Wait, you mean your right to bear arms comes from the government?

    You, of course, mean a "No gun laws law."

  • Neu Mejican||

    Hogan,

    I am at a college at the moment, why?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Hogan,

    Youngster brings up race:

    "Why are those old hippies always going on and on about race."

    Doesn't count.

  • Hogan||

    NM, how old are you?

    I'm 23, recently out of grad school. My peers definitely talk about race, racists, racism, racist Republicans and their racism.... you think this topic will die down during the Obama administration?

  • Hogan||

    comme ca. plenty common among the young set.

  • ||

    Neu,

    Maybe it's different here in Hockeytown, but race is a recurring topic of conversation by young and old, black and white, middle eastern and hispanic.

    As a society, we have travelled far but the end of the jouney is not in my sight.

  • economist||

    Race always becomes a topic when the economy's bad. I have a theory on why...

  • Neu Mejican||

    Hogan, JsubD,

    Clearly you took my comment too literally.

    But, I will say that there is a distinct difference in the content of a "discussion about race" when you look across generations.

    My experiences at 43 are that discussions with those older than me are much different than with those younger.

    So, yes, we have a ways to go, but I disagree with JsubD...in my lifetime race will be come a very marginal issue in American life.

  • economist||

    Neu Mejican,
    I make the opposite prediction.

  • ||

    So, yes, we have a ways to go, but I disagree with JsubD...in my lifetime race will be come a very marginal issue in American life.

    You either expect to reach Methuselah type years or lack the cynicism that is warranted by 20th-21st century America the history of the human race.

  • Seward||

    Neu Mejican,

    ...in my lifetime race will be come a very marginal issue in American life.

    If that is the case it will merely be replaced by something else for us to be tribal over.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Seward,

    Indeed.

    JsubD,

    You either expect to reach Methuselah type years or lack the cynicism that is warranted by 20th-21st century America the history of the human race.

    Actually, millions now living will never die, and I think that will include me.

    http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2005-01/prophet-immortality

    As for cynicism...see Seward's comment.

    =;^)

  • Neu Mejican||

    economist | November 5, 2008, 6:33pm | #
    Neu Mejican,
    I make the opposite prediction.


    We'll have to do one of those long bets I guess.

    Talk to me when I am 120.

  • economist||

    "Talk to me when I am 120"
    That might be a problem, NM, seeing as I don't plan to live long past eighty. Everyone in my family who lived to eighty started going really senile, and there have been several instances of Alzheimer's Disease, so I figure that if I keel over from a heart attack at about eighty I'll be saving myself a lot of grief.

    I'm just full of so many cheery thoughts today.

  • economist||

    Plus, NM, not everyone can be immortal. We would end up suffering from overpopulation until the younger generation decided to kill us all to save money on social security.

  • ||

    The only group that I am truly worried about right now are... comedians. Especially black comedians. Will Chris Rock lose his job now?

  • Justen||

    Kayne West the intellectual? I suppose Madonna is an intellectual too? Seriously :P

    I think Obama's position on racial politics can be divined from his time as president of the Harvard Law Review moreso than where he spends his Sunday mornings.

  • ||

    joe,

    Is it okay with you that blacks hate gays even more fervently than the religious right does? The religious right is certainly happy to take them as allies on things such as Prop 8.

    Or do you think you should criticize blacks more often for their venomous hatred of gays and tell them to clean up their act?

  • ||

    You know what I can't wait for? I can't wait for when those uptight, upper-middle-class, guilt-ridden whites who voted for Obama to prove that they are racists are berated for being racist the first time they utter one peep about a lighter wallet or diminished bank account.

    High comedy, that.

  • ||

    Should have said that they voted for Him to prove that they are not racists...

  • ||

    SuprKufr,

    You shouldn't lump everyone in a race together like that. Black voters are much less likely to vote against gay rights than the religious right. Yes, prejudice like that bothers me. No, I'm not going to denounce black people as a whole because some of them are homophobic.

    Do you have any other stupid questions?

  • ||

    I guess a bonus from an Obama presidency is that blacks cannot complain so much about their position and will maybe begin to realize that they are largely responsible for their own problems.

    Whatever politically correct garbage the democrats and President Barack come up with, blacks will remain an underclass. I wish this were not the case, but there are complex historical and sociological reasons for their status. Much of their struggle comes down to dramatic IQ differences that exist between them and other groups. There are certainly plenty of high IQ blacks out there who are capable of living very productive lives, but blacks do make up a disproportionately high percentage of the low IQ population. Low IQ is strongly correlated with all sorts of disfunctional and anti-social behaviors. This should not be used as an excuse for discrimination, but does shed light on the core of the problem and could direct policy makers towards more enlightened solutions. The differences that arise because of this will always be a sore-spot between blacks and whites, not matter who is in charge. Before you call me a flaming racist, please do some research on the topic and see what I'm talking about.

  • ABC||

    There´ll be real change when the fact that 90% of the black electorate voted for the black guy, 95+% in some states, raises an eyebrow and people feel comfortable enough to comment about it openly.

    Frankly the issue of racism has been blown out of proportion. It is an issue to address, but to label non-violent racism as a mortal as opposed to a venal sin is a bit silly. Especially when you start expending it to the subconscious.

    And as far as Jackson´s paranoia is concerned, he´s got somewhat of a point about the advantages of honest racism versus subtle racism.

  • nfl jerseys||

    mrhg

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