Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

Friday, August 26, 2011

Harvard professor of law Randall Kennedy looks at racial politics and the Obama presidency, and examines the complex relationship between the first black president and his African-American constituency. The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency explores the nature of racial opposition to Obama, whether Obama has a singular responsibility to African Americans, the challenges posed by the dream of a post-racial society, and cultural biases.


Randall Kennedy

Comments [41]

E io ch’avea d’error la testa cinta,
dissi: "Maestro, che è quel ch’i’ odo?
e che gent’è che par nel duol sì vinta?".

Ed elli a me: "Questo misero modo
tegnon l’anime triste di coloro
che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.

Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro
de li angeli che non furon ribelli
né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro.

Caccianli i ciel per non esser men belli,
né lo profondo inferno li riceve,
ch’alcuna gloria i rei avrebber d’elli".

E io: "Maestro, che è tanto greve
a lor che lamentar li fa sì forte?".
Rispuose: "Dicerolti molto breve.

Questi non hanno speranza di morte,
e la lor cieca vita è tanto bassa,
che ’nvidïosi son d’ogne altra sorte.

Il terzo canto dell'inferno -Dante Alighieri

'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.'"

A preferred quote of JFK

Aug. 27 2011 05:18 PM

From Cornel West who is NOT a weenie!

Aug. 26 2011 06:10 PM
Henry from Manhattan

I guess I’m not that critical of Obama. I wasn’t expecting much. Okay, I got a little swept up in the inaugural hype, but I recognized it for what it was and it was a cause for celebration moving on from Bush.

Again, if McCain won (in an alternate universe where Palin didn’t enter the equation) I wouldn’t have been all that heart broken. Between Obama and McCain wasn’t a real chocolate or vanilla difference, more like to competing brands of the same price point strawberry. (Adding Palin was like dumping a cup of vinegar to McCain’s batch of ice cream)

I’m glad Obama is in office over the alternative. Considering the Republican nominations so far, I hope he stays there. It’s hard to get anything done with the Party of No, but that’s the breaks.

At least with Obama our foreign image improved; it’s very unlikely that would have happened with McCain. Unfortunately the continued impact of out economic meltdown and protracted warmongering doesn’t help to endear us with the world.

As for the black/white racial critique of Obama, he probably cares about as much as I do, which is to say not at all. As a mulatto, by time you’re into your twenties, you just get over other people perception of how white or black they think you are or should be.

Aug. 26 2011 06:04 PM


Aug. 26 2011 03:51 PM

... weenie.

Aug. 26 2011 03:49 PM

Low expectations produce mediocre results.

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Get excited, fer cryin' out loud!

Aug. 26 2011 03:48 PM
Matthew from Brooklyn

Thanks for the substantive response, dboy. In my opinion the house was on fire during the Bush years, and our current president assumed the rather thankless job of snuffing out those flames. But memories are very short, and impatience is a hallmark of our society of immediate gratification. So I'm sure there are many who share your demands for all the changes they wanted to see, right now.
Is President Obama a super-human savior? No. Do I think his presidency has made this country a much better place? Yes. Am I expecting much more from him in the coming years? Yes. Which is why I will support his re-election, and oppose the candidacy of Romney, Bachmann, or Perry -- that's when you'll feel the burn.

Aug. 26 2011 03:08 PM

@ Matthew from Brooklyn


Aug. 26 2011 02:29 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ DarkSymbolist

I’ve been told more than a few times that I look like Obama though I’m lighter. I’ve grown my hair out, so I haven’t gotten that comment in a while.

By self identify, I mean in a public sense, like filling out government paperwork or whatever.

As a Jewish comedian will make Jewish jokes because she can get away with it, I’ll make black jokes because I can get away with it, but as my mother was a Jamaican immigrant, she didn’t really identify all that strongly with Black American culture, so I don’t either. In a group of Caucasians, I’m the “black” guy, and I’m fine with that, in a group of African Americans, I’m probably a bit “too white.” That should sound familiar in the discussion of Obama.

I like the term bi-racial, but I don’t generally use it. Black or African American is easier to go along with. Also, people sometimes mistakenly think I’m HIspanic (if my hair is short) and I’m not at all, so I prefer to lean black to avoid confusion. I like mulatto as well, which is funny because when I was younger I didn’t’ like the sound of the word, maybe because black social groups used it as a way to isolate me from them. Mulatto is a little more specific than bi-racial (could be Chinese/Indian maybe), I think that’s why I like it.

I admit that my Black American identity was intellectually cultivated. I took a Black Literature class in college, more because it was it fit into my schedule and gave me a credit than any other motivation. I got into the reading, and pursued more books on my own and gleaned a better appreciation of the historical Black Experience, one I could identify with on both a personal experience, and as human experience. But again, I think “true” blacks have the Black Experience embedded in their consciousness a bit deeper.

Aug. 26 2011 01:59 PM
Matthew from Brooklyn

@ dboy
There's really no need to SHOUT with capital letters.
While I certainly understand that many people are disappointed by certain actions that President Obama has or has not taken (as am I), he will never please everyone. I remain quite impressed by his numerous accomplishments thus far, and I'm much happier to claim him as my president than his immediate predecessor.
One should also note that most of his accomplishments were achieved prior to the 2010 mid-term elections, when intense opposition to his every move was consolidated. He does not govern alone, and requires the sincere efforts of a Congress that wishes to make this country a better place. President Johnson, by the way, enjoyed significant Democratic majorities in both houses to help advance his Great Society agenda.
And I must point out that your repeated criticism of him as a "weenie", and your suggestion that he possess more "backbone" and "testicles", betrays a belief that a leader needs to be a tough, macho d*** to get things done. Alas, many Americans probably share this sentiment because we still live in a society that valorizes masculine aggression.

Aug. 26 2011 01:57 PM

No, DS, you did not listen carefully.

There was a lot of double-talk and innuendos in this segment.

For example, Randall Kennedy did say that black overwhelmingly support Obama DESPITE his policies. Why? The answer is obvious.

Yes, majority of whites did not vote for Obama. BUT, there was a sizable chunk that was. This was mentioned. Thus, unlike blacks, whites did not vote along racial lines.

Yes, there are some blacks who do not support Obama, but their numbers are minimal.

Prof. Kennedy did say that Obama's message to whites was that he is not one of those "angry" blacks - meaning WHAT? Just listen to the segment again.

Aug. 26 2011 01:13 PM

@ jk

You're on to something!!

Man can survive on rhetoric, hollow promises and touchy/feely racial triumphalism for only so long.

I am exhilarated that a black man is in the highest office of the land, I'm just devastated that he is a colossal WEENIE!!

... and apparent SELL-OUT!

Aug. 26 2011 01:13 PM

Obama is a prissy, preening milquetoast who didn't have the guts to defend many qualified appointees such as Dawn Johnsen, Goodwin Liu, Charles Freeman, and Elizabeth Warren. This is a tiny sample. The full list of people who withdrew their names from consideration from jobs in the fed govt after Obama hung them out to dry is a mile long.

He is a tool and shill for Wall Street.

Obama is preferable to any Republican currently running, but that's only because they are horrific.

Aug. 26 2011 01:08 PM


Not slapping the $*%T out of Lieberman, when he should have!


Aug. 26 2011 01:07 PM


Healthcare??? Oh, you must be referring to FORCING every single person in Amerika™ to buy an inferior "insurance" product??

True healthcare reform would ELIMINATE the corrupt/IMMORAL so-called insurance industry, all together.

"ObamaCare"®, as the opposition refers to it, is a BOON to the insurance industry!!! More aptly referred to as WeenieCare!! Just a tad more backbone would have resulted in true reform. Not business as usual.

Two wars... still!

More innocents killed by unmanned drones compared to GWB.

More punitive action taken against whistleblowers than GWB.

Losing the House.

Bring Johnson back! Someone who knew how to face a fight!!

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Voting Rights Act

Immigration Act of 1965

The Great Society legislation of the 1960's

Revenue Act of 1964

Economic Opportunity Act

Head Start

Food stamps

Work Study

Medicare and Medicaid

Gun Control Act of 1968

This is a guy that had a set of testicles!

Like I said WEENIE!!!

Aug. 26 2011 12:59 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

"I don't need a professor to tell me that blacks are "angry" and vote along racial lines." you didn't listen very carefully

1- He didn't say blacks are "angry and therefore vote along racial lines"

2- If anything what came out of it was that everyone white, black or whatever vote along racial lines (or did you miss that part about who the majority of white voted for?)

Aug. 26 2011 12:52 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

@ Henry

As a fellow bi-racial individual, I agree with your comments as they reflect exactly how I felt and feel (except that I self-identify as bi-racial).

Especially regarding his speech on race, I felt exactly the same way you did.

Aug. 26 2011 12:48 PM
A listener

[[john from office - Obama, who I support, is a white minded person. He was born to a white woman, bearly knew his dad and was raised by his white grandparents. Sorry, no "black" experience.

Aug. 26 2011 12:36 PM]]

What is "white minded"? Focused? Accomplished? Successful? Faithful?

Maybe we can get all the black children who have been abandoned by their fathers into houses with white women.

This could be the answer to many social problems.


Aug. 26 2011 12:45 PM

I had learned nothing new from this discussion.

I don't need a professor to tell me that blacks are "angry" and vote along racial lines.

Thus, I disagree with the guest that Obama's presidency changed anything. Things will remain the same for a foreseeable future, and will eventually produce a new wave of riots.

Aug. 26 2011 12:45 PM
Lois from Manhattan

Thank you Professor Kennedy. finally a nuanced, balanced and truthful assessment of Obama from an informed source. I could actually listen to it (maybe because I'm Black and I think Kennedy was able to provide the added dimension of how African americans view Obama, not because it was what Kennedy thinks and feels but because Kennedy can "read" African americans or maybe just because he takes the time to do it.

Aug. 26 2011 12:44 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

"Obama, who I support, is a white minded person. He was born to a white woman, bearly knew his dad and was raised by his white grandparents. Sorry, no "black" experience."

Wow...what an incredibly dumb ignorant comment. Just in the recent book about his mother the discrimination he experienced for being a person of color is well documented.

His experience is one typical of an individual of MIXED "racial" background. Which is why I agree with the guest 100% that it was a shame that politically he claimed only one side of his heritage in the end.

The canard that he's not "black enough", "just has white experience" or anything like that just shows the ignorance or outright racism of the person expressing those moronic statements.

Get a clue and get a grip.

Aug. 26 2011 12:44 PM
Stan from Queen

I just hate that many Americans just don’t think that Black people can’t have different and sometime opposing viewpoints. I never think that all Asians or Whites think the same way on everything. Most look at us as this large black group walking in lock step. Hate to let you know we are just like you with different ideas and thoughts.

Aug. 26 2011 12:42 PM
A listener

The author's final statement that the Obama presidency has changed "everybody in America" is absurd. The author should get out of his Ivory Tower and travel through some of America's ghettos.

President Obama is not a miracle worker...the guys who were slinging dope on street corners before he was elected are still slinging dope on street corners, that is, if they aren't dead or in prison.

Aug. 26 2011 12:41 PM
Matthew from Brooklyn

I know what you mean, dboy. Obama is such a "weenie" for:
1. signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act
2. ending "Don't Ask Don't Tell"
3. enacting the most significant healthcare reforms in decades
4. slowly digging us out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression (put that in perspective)
5. overseeing the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden
I could go on and on. And doing all this in the face of intense and utterly uncooperative opposition from nearly every Republican in this country, despite his sincere efforts to reach across the aisle. What a "weenie".

Aug. 26 2011 12:38 PM
A listener

[[dboy Can we discuss how much of a weenie BO is as opposed to what color he is?!?!? Aug. 26 2011 12:28 PM]]

Excellent point! Let's get Osama bin Laden's opinion on the matt...oh, wait. Never mind.

Aug. 26 2011 12:37 PM
john from office

Obama, who I support, is a white minded person. He was born to a white woman, bearly knew his dad and was raised by his white grandparents. Sorry, no "black" experience.

Aug. 26 2011 12:36 PM
Henry from Katonah

Interesting discussion abt the current political situation.
I read a recent biography of Justice Wm Brennen that quoted him as critical of Thurgood Marshall , preferring to write dissents in the 1980s, rather than trying to build majority decisions. It did not occur to me that the rightward turn of the Supreme court started in the 1970s, way before the country did. Any comment from the prof abt that?

Aug. 26 2011 12:36 PM

Ed from Larchmont-- Just to counter your view of Obama, I see him as a Neo-Liberal Corporatist with a strong anti-civil liberties bent (more and stronger prosecutions of whistleblowers than any other president, for example). Obama is doing a great deal to place in concrete the executive power grabs of the Bush/Cheney administration; hence, some call him Bush III.

He has a guiding Inner Republican that comes. perhaps, from his admiration of Ronald Reagan. Whatever is guiding his actions, he is regressive economincally and is probably doing a grand job of becoming the Hoover of the 21st Century. With a touch of Harding.

He is not liberal, not progressive, too cozy with the Wall Street Gang Banksters, and says of himself he is a Blue Dog Democrat. If that!

And Dems dare not stand up to his rightward pushing of the party. Alas.

He needs to be primaried from the left -- he's already being campaigned against from the left by Republicans. He is doing a great deal to destroy the Democratic Party, pulling it away from its core principles and moving purposely and forcefully to undermine its great social legislative achievements. He will do more to damage or destroy SocSec and Medicare/Medicaid than any Republican president ever could have done.

I had so hoped he would declare himself the Republican he is acting as, but, the stupid R's won't have him. They can't get over his looking like a liberal and having a D after his name on the ballot to see him as the conservative he is.

Aug. 26 2011 12:35 PM
Henry from Manhattan

As a mulatto like Obama, I wasn’t really all the excited about his candidacy until I heard his race speech. Many people, blacks especially, liked that speech, but as an individual with a “white” father and a “black” mother, I deeply identified with it. I don’t think people with similar ethic parents could experience quite the same resonance.

I identify as black, but I don’t think that that I internalize that identity like many “pure” blacks do. I’m apart of both “white” and “black” culture and at the same time, I’m slightly alienated by both.

I don’t think Obama’s “blackness” is important, but I do feel that people that grew up with shared identities (doesn’t have to be race), being attached to different cultures, perhaps have a better-developed empathy and appreciation for different ways of life. In general, homogenous groups that don’t interact with others tend to be less tolerant.

However, all that being said, I never had any delusions that Obama was some sort of left wing socialist messiah. Policy wise, the difference between him and McCain could almost be decided by a coin toss for me, but I felt that Obama would be better for our foreign image (and he was) than going with McCain (and Sarah Palin= FAIL.)

Aug. 26 2011 12:33 PM
The Truth from Becky

Stoooppp it Randall! I never heard the President make any of those statements!!

Aug. 26 2011 12:32 PM
SusanK from NYC

From what I understand, Travis S's anger arose after Mrs. Obama came to a party of his instead of the President himself.

After that night, he switched his point of view.

Aug. 26 2011 12:30 PM
Pam from NY

The professor is spot-on. Further, only a light-skinned Harvard grad. who identifies as black could have been elected: no dark-skinned average vernacular-accented black man could have been despite the fact that any white clown can run and, even, win.

Aug. 26 2011 12:28 PM

Can we discuss how much of a weenie BO is as opposed to what color he is?!?!?

Aug. 26 2011 12:28 PM

Very interesting discussion!

Aug. 26 2011 12:26 PM
Matthew from Brooklyn

This issue is consistently ignored by the media, who prefer the easy and naive sound-bite of a "post-racial" presidency and America. Far from it. I believe much of the intense backlash against President Obama - including the sudden rise of the Tea Party in 2009 - is fueled by racism. No one admits to this, of course. But the right wing embraces the racial animus of many Americans and uses it to their advantage.

Aug. 26 2011 12:25 PM
The Truth from Becky

I don't recall telling anyone I "bolted" for then candidate Obama...don't speak for me or "Blacks"

"Blacks" didn't just "Bolt" for then candidate Obama, they did their research and homework and studied his issues

Aug. 26 2011 12:21 PM
Barbara from Brooklyn

recent debate over Obama hanging a Norman Rockwell painting as a comment on race...

Aug. 26 2011 12:20 PM
Wayne Johnson from Brooklyn

I think Tavis Smiley and Cornell West are on the money in their criticism that the President has ignored the poor in favor of the wealthy and powerful. What does Professor Kennedy think?

Aug. 26 2011 12:13 PM

There is a world of difference between saying that _everything_ about Obama is seen through a racial lens is very different from saying that _everybody_ sees Obama's actions through that lens.

Maybe Randall Kennedy is someone who sees _everything_ through a racial lens.

Aug. 26 2011 12:09 PM

i cringed the night of the election,because i knew, that obama was going to be caught between so many conflicting,constituencies. black people would not feel free to challenge,lest they be seen as disloyal to a black president;and, the repblican/tea-pods,where going to exploit that dissention. did you all really think, that it was going to be a new day, for kumbaya,and post racial BS ?!

Aug. 26 2011 11:59 AM
Ed from Larchmont

President Obama is a radical pro-abortion president, both at home and abroad. This is odd if only because so many children in the black community are killed in abortion. (See the video MAAFA 21.)

Aug. 26 2011 08:13 AM

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