[Marxism] Randall Kennedy's acid commentary on Barack Obama

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 12 07:39:15 MDT 2011

NY Times Book Review August 11, 2011
One Nation, Still Divisible by Race

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
By Randall Kennedy
322 pages. Pantheon Books. $26.95.

August is not half over, and already it’s been a punishing month 
for Barack Obama: the debt limit fiasco; the Standard & Poor’s 
downgrade; the deaths of Navy Seals and other troops in 
Afghanistan. This powerful and ruminative book by Randall Kennedy, 
“The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama 
Presidency,” is unlikely to put the president in a more cheerful mood.

Mr. Kennedy, who is African-American, has long been among the most 
incisive American commentators on race. His books, which include 
“Race, Crime, and the Law” (1997) and the best seller “Nigger: The 
Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” (2002), tend to arrive in 
full academic dress (his new one has footnotes and endnotes) and 
seem to be carved from intellectual granite, yet they have human 
scale. When it suits him, he can deploy references to Stevie 
Wonder and Kanye West as well as to Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du 
Bois, Mahalia Jackson and Malcolm X. He has the full panoply of 
the black experience in America at his fingertips.

Mr. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, sets what we know of 
Mr. Obama’s presidency thus far in relief against the sorry 
history of racial politics in the United States. He worries, even 
in 2011, about “an inflated sense of accomplishment” in regard to 
racial progress. He points out that, in all of its history, 
America has elected only three black senators and two black 
governors. Mr. Kennedy examines recent racial flare-ups — over 
criticisms of America by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. 
Obama’s former pastor; over Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court 
confirmation; over Mr. Obama’s remarks when the Harvard professor 
Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by a white police officer after 
forcing open his own front door — and declares, using what is, I 
think, his book’s sole exclamation point: “Race still matters!”

His book is also, crucially, a running and sometimes acid 
commentary on Mr. Obama and what Mr. Kennedy refers to as “the 
Obama enigma.” How progressive, deep down, is this man? Does he 
have the audacity, to borrow one of Mr. Obama’s favorite words, to 

Mr. Kennedy is, deep down, an admirer of the president’s. (Mr. 
Obama, a Harvard Law graduate, signed up for, but did not 
ultimately take, one of Mr. Kennedy’s courses.) When he lists the 
many things black people love best about the president, it’s 
apparent that he’s speaking for himself as well. Among these 
reasons: Mr. Obama identifies himself as black, when he could 
have, like Tiger Woods, spoken of himself as mixed race; he 
married a black woman, while other powerful black men often marry 
white ones; he is dignified, “the most well-spoken, informed, 
gracious, cosmopolitan, agile, and thoughtful politician on the 
American political landscape.”

Mr. Kennedy observes, “In the hearts and minds of most black 
Americans — indeed, the overwhelming mass of African-Americans — 
Barack Obama is the most admired person in the canon of black 
celebrity and accomplishment, surpassing Frederick Douglass, 
Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jackie 
Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and even 
Martin Luther King Jr.”

Once all that is out of the way, Mr. Kennedy is free to get down 
to business. He’s frustrated by many aspects of Mr. Obama’s 
leadership and is not shy about expressing himself. About Mr. 
Obama’s evolving stance on same-sex marriage, for example, Mr. 
Kennedy declares: “That the nation’s first black president defends 
separate but equal in the context of same-gender intimacy is 
bitterly ironic.”

During Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation, Mr. Kennedy observes, Mr. 
Obama pretended not to care that his choice was a liberal. Here he 
contrasts Mr. Obama unfavorably with, of all people, George W. 
Bush. He writes: “George Bush openly said that he preferred 
conservative jurists. By doing so he reinforced the legitimacy of 
being a conservative in the public’s mind. Obama, by contrast, 
took care to avoid championing liberalism in the judiciary, 
thereby contributing to its continued marginalization and weakness.”

Mr. Kennedy is a realist; he’s aware that Mr. Obama must 
frequently compromise to pass legislation. But he regrets Mr. 
Obama’s “excessive cautiousness” on issue after issue. He ruefully 
declares, “Obama has been more conservative than regard for public 
opinion requires him to be.”

Among the best things about “The Persistence of the Color Line” is 
watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama 
staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from 
Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. 
He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced 
skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama,” Mr. 
Kennedy quotes, with seeming approval, a headline on the Web site 
TheRoot.com that asked, “Who Died and Made Tavis King?”

Mr. Kennedy has special scorn for the (white) Princeton professor 
Sean Wilentz, a Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter who, during the 
2008 campaign, the author writes, “was persistently tendentious, 
casting in the worst light the possible motives of Obama and his 

The finest chapter in “The Persistence of the Color Line” is so 
resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book 
of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: 
Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”

Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. 
Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his 
own father, who put each of his three of his children through 
Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist 
mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”

His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him 
“boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished 
Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him 
‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in 
sympathetic historical light.

“Many Americans suspect that, in general, African-Americans are 
less patriotic than whites,” Mr. Kennedy observes. He suggests 
that African-Americans have never been especially fond of the 
Fourth of July, for example, partly because the framers of the 
Declaration of Independence tolerated slavery and partly because 
the day could be menacing. Whites sometimes “took offense at the 
sight of blacks celebrating,” he says, “as if they were members of 
the American political family.”

Pay attention to the footnotes in Mr. Kennedy’s book. He tucks 
beguiling things down there, like bits of Langston Hughes poems 
and agile chatter from Web sites. Pay attention too to this book’s 
many ringing sentences.

Let me close with this poison-tipped one. “When people exclaimed 
that they never thought that they would live to see the day a 
black man was elected president,” Mr. Kennedy observes, “they were 
indicating how little they expected of their fellow Americans.”

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