Every campaign enlists its own meta-language. As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency,” the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate. On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger or make common cause with people, living or dead, who used race as a platform for grievance. On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing, his white family ties and his predominantly white political support.
The press viewed this courtship of black voters as largely beside the point for a “post-racial” campaign that had bigger fish to fry on the white side of the street. Kennedy, who teaches law at Harvard, is having none of that. He argues with considerable force that the candidate deliberately set out to blacken himself in the public mind — while taking care not to go too far — and would have lost the election had he not done so. He sees Obama’s courtship of black voters not as tertiary, but as the main event and as the perfect vantage from which to view the campaign and the presidency.
“The Persistence of the Color Line” consists of an introduction and eight interrelated essays that offer a fresh view of events that had prematurely taken on the cast of settled history. One essay, “The Race Card in the Campaign of 2008,” lays out an exacting standard for determining when the charge of race baiting is appropriate and applies it to several statements that were labeled as racist, or at least nearly so, during the last presidential campaign. Kennedy praises the Republican nominee, John McCain (he “imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability”), and redeems the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who was run out of the Clinton campaign essentially for saying what was indisputably true: Obama’s blackness mattered to his stature as a candidate. Without it, he would never have appealed so strongly “to the emotions of millions of white Americans who yearned for a moment of racial redemption.”
... He sees [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright’s critique of America as excessive, but notes that it is, at bottom, more integral to the African-American worldview than was generally acknowledged during the episode.
The messianic glow that surrounded Obama’s candidacy — Kennedy and others call it “Obamamania” — precluded closer scrutiny of his pronouncements, especially those having to do with race. The widely held notion that the now-famous race speech, “A More Perfect Union,” ranked with the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream” strikes Kennedy as delusional. The speech, he writes, was little more than a carefully calibrated attempt to defuse the public relations crisis precipitated by the Wright affair. Far from frank, it understated the extent of the country’s racial divisions and sought to blame blacks and whites equally for them, when in fact, Kennedy writes, “black America and white America are not equally culpable. White America enslaved and Jim Crowed black America (not the other way around).” The speech was in keeping with the candidate’s wildly successful race strategy, which involved making white voters feel better about themselves whenever possible.
The cornerstone essay, “Obama Courts Black America,” is a breath of fresh air on many counts, not least of all because it offers a fully realized portrait of the black political opinion — left, right, center, high and low — that was brought to bear during the campaign. This is the most comprehensive document I’ve yet read on the near street fight that erupted over the question of how Obama should identify himself racially. There were those who viewed him as “too white” to be legitimately seen as black; those who had no problem with his origins; those who viewed the attempt to portray him as “mixed race” as a way of trying to “whiten” him for popular consumption; and those who accused Obama of throwing his white mother under the bus when it became clear that he regarded himself as African-American.
Tallying votes, Kennedy reckons that it would have been political suicide for Obama to identify himself as anything other than black. This would have undermined his standing among African-Americans, whose overwhelming support he needed to win, and gained him nothing among those whites who were determined to punish him for his skin color, no matter how he described himself.