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.

Obama is largely immune from accusations of selling out (though not entirely, as demonstrated by Jesse Jackson's whispered threat to castrate him) because, for the most part, he has maintained the "correct" ideology. But there are notable exceptions. In his 2005 manifesto The Audacity of Hope, Obama advises readers to "acknowledge that conservatives—and Bill Clinton—were right about welfare as it was previously structured." It isn't a throwaway line, for he repeats the point later in the book, declaring that "Reagan's central insight—that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie—contained a good deal of truth." According to many black leaders quoted by Kennedy in Sellout, such opinions would qualify as race betrayal, on the grounds that African Americans were disproportionately affected by welfare reform. Having broken with his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; emphasized class over race in affirmative action; rejected the idea of slavery reparations for black Americans; and suggested that absent fathers are just as much the architects of their children's misfortunes as "society," Obama might be a pretty standard Democrat, but he also fits comfortably with the new generation of "post-racial" black leaders.

Speaking to The New Yorker, the black author and TV host Tavis Smiley bristled at Obama's post-racial approach, grumbling that "optimistic Negroes scare me." Smiley, a hugely influential figure in the black community, initially resisted endorsing Obama, and he recoils at talk of the candidate "transcending race." Along with his close friend Cornel West, the celebrity African American studies professor from Princeton, he seems slightly uncomfortable with the prospect of the first black president not being a dyed-in-the-wool "race man" who speaks in the cadence of a black preacher and sees racism as the largest obstacle facing black America.

In Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, John L. Jackson Jr., an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that "racial paranoia isn't about seeing racism where it doesn't exist" but rather acts as "a rudimentary and imperfect recognition that spotting racism at all these days demands new ways of seeing altogether." Since racism has gone underground, Jackson maintains, paranoia has become an effective, if imperfect, means of identifying it.

Paranoia is certainly prevalent among famous African Americans. One of the world's most popular hiphop artists, Kanye West, has publicly stated (and rapped about) his belief that AIDS is used by "the government" to destroy blacks in both America and Africa. Nor is his an anomalous opinion. A recent poll by the RAND Corporation and Oregon State University found that 50 percent of African Americans believe AIDS is man-made and 25 percent think it was concocted in a "government laboratory," presumably with the idea of unleashing it on blacks. Even Bill Cosby, scourge of the black intellectual establishment and much-derided "sellout" for his jeremiads against the black underclass, endorsed the AIDS conspiracy theory in 1991, when the New York Post quoted him as saying the virus was "started by human beings to get after certain people they don't like."

On a recent edition of Real Time With Bill Maher, Cornell West told rapper Mos Def that while he didn't
agree with Def's similarly far-fetched 9/11 conspiracy theories, he thought that, considering the amount of institutional racism in America, such "paranoia is justified." Jackson offers a similar explanation for paranoid behavior: The success of driving racism from the public square "happened so fast, in just one generation or so," that African Americans were left wary of this new, rather sudden, racial placidity. "The subtler racism gets," Jackson argues, "the more paranoid people become about hidden racial motivations and intentions." By this reading, such paranoia can never go away; each advance in racial progress—even an Obama presidency—would drive many to an even deeper paranoia.

But like radical Islamists who blamed the 2005 tsunami in southeast Asia on secret underground Israeli nuclear tests, or those who see a Jewish plot in the 9/11 catastrophe, people who peddle such paranoid explanations for historical events can be deeply poisonous. Rather than indulging the "root causes" of hateful irrationality or explaining them away as wrong but understandable, public intellectuals such as West, who treated Mos Def's ranting on Osama bin Laden's innocence with undue respect, might want to care a little less about appearing authentic and more about the corrosive consequences of racial paranoia. The bland acceptance by African American studies departments of such anti-Semitic books as The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews comes from the same noxious spirit that fueled the anti-Jewish violence of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn.

Interestingly, Jackson blames the rise of political correctness for the persistence of racial paranoia, writing that "political correctness has proven tragically effective at hiding racism, not just healing it." He would, it seems, prefer recrudescent racism to excessive racial sensitivity. "It is racism that is most terrifying because it is hidden, secret, papered over with public niceties and politically correct jargon," he writes. Jackson repeatedly argues that racism has been driven "farther underground into intraracial 'safe' spaces where people can vent about 'others' under the cover of communal sameness." The repeated references to the vast network of "underground racism" can at times make Jackson himself sound slightly paranoid. "Public tolerance doesn't necessarily mean the absence of racism," he writes, "and liberalism might just as likely be a cover for continued racial malice, racism with a poker face instead of a Klansman's mask." Such sentiments encourage the racial paranoiacs to distrust their erstwhile liberal allies.

Even if Jackson's diagnoses are correct, his prescriptions are often weak. He writes, for instance, that you can work toward extirpating racial paranoia by "renting apartments and buying homes with an eye towards ethnic and racial diversity in your neighborhood." And how will racial paranoia manifest itself if Obama is elected president? Will conspiracy theorists who worked against the current president—such as Kanye West, who famously said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people"—arise in defense of his African-American successor?

Despite the overheated rhetoric of the racial paranoiacs and the guardians of authenticity, the racial
paradigm has clearly and decisively shifted from the days of the civil rights struggle. After a post-King interregnum that saw the increased prominence of nationalism, Afrocentrism, and militance, black politics seems to be trending to figures like Obama and Cory Booker. It would have been unimaginable, in the thick of the old culture wars, for liberal African-American academics such as Kennedy and Jackson to write monographs on the meaning of "racial paranoia" and "selling out" without being themselves denounced as right-wing shills. Likewise Richard Thompson Ford, a black liberal who recently wrote a book denouncing overuse of "the race card." Nowadays, by contrast, if any of these authors categorically defended conspiracy theories or the concept of race betrayal (as opposed to exploring their root causes), they would seem like relics from another age.

Racism may not be a defeated force in American life, but it is greatly embattled, with even a hint of racial impropriety being enough to throw a successful professional career into tumult. (Just ask radio provocateur Don Imus.) It is therefore encouraging to see so many academic thinkers dealing sensitively and fearlessly with the complex issue of race, rather than relying on the increasingly unconvincing monocausal theory that racism alone accounts for the troubles that continue to hobble black America.

Which leads back to the Obama phenomenon. It is both unexceptional and discomfiting that Obama's previous views on race and his association with the paranoid preacher Jeremiah Wright have been so thoroughly investigated. But Obama's attendance at the rabblerousing Trinity Church probably doesn't reflect his "real views" on race as much as a keen attention to political expediency. When he was running for office in Chicago (against the far-left ex-Black Panther Bobby Rush), it was necessary for Obama to show an allegiance to the black community and to black authenticity—to balance his Harvard résumé with something more street.

But Kennedy's and Jackson's books presage the arguments of a new racial politics that could challenge an Obama administration. If racism resides underground, lives deep in our subconscious, and can produce misunderstandings, overreactions, and paranoia, how can we combat this immeasurable, invisible force? If the legal apparatus to fight racial discrimination is already in place, what more can an Obama administration do to combat race hatred?

When he addressed the nation in his now-famous "race speech," Obama commented that he could "no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community." Perhaps not. But whatever else might be said about his views, Obama clearly has disowned the ossified policies of the post-King civil rights movement. Wright's brand of paranoia, Obama argued, might be explicable when seen in historical context, but "too often it distracts attention from solving real problems."

Such attitudes aren't post-racial; nor are they the words of a race traitor. They are the uncontroversial views of a mainstream black politician who came to prominence in the post-boomer era. And they are, one hopes, the future of American racial politics.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at reason.