Racial politics and Obama: A new era?

Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, published in 1965 two issues on “The Negro American.” Some 56 years later, in 2011, the journal has published a kind of follow-up, a two-volume issue on race in the age of Obama. The first issue, edited by Washington University’s own Gerald Early, takes a humanities-centered approach. The second, edited by Lawrence D. Bobo of Harvard, features the work of social scientists. Both issues make for fascinating reading—perhaps the most varied and learned discussions of present-day racial issues in America available in one place anywhere. (You can buy the Daedalus  journals for $13 apiece.)

I recently read with particular interest an article called “Barack Obama & American Racial Politics,” by a trio of eminent political scientists, Rogers M. Smith, Desmond S. King, and Philip A. Klinkner. This article framed the history of racial politics and political alliances with great clarity, and its analysis of the current moment struck me as being absolutely correct. Although the authors’ description of President Obama’s political acumen gives me great hope, their larger points about the realities of race in America  serve as disquieting reminders of the challenges we face.

The article describes three eras of racial politics in American history, each divided by a transitional period: 1) the era of slavery (1790 to 1865); 2) the era of Jim Crow (mid-1890s to mid-1960s); and 3) the era of race-conscious controversies (1979 to the present).

Most distinctive about our current era, the era of race-conscious controversies, according to the authors, is how neatly racial alliances match up with partisan alliances. Unlike previous eras, in which a variety of positions toward slavery and segregation could be found in either of the two major parties, in our current era, “Republicans regularly endorse color-blind policies, while Democrats support race-conscious ones.” This partisan division means that even though the racial issues currently at stake may be less dramatic and stark than the issues of slavery and segregation, they seem even more intractable because they are tied to the political fortunes of one party or the other.

As Lyndon Johnson brought an official end to the Jim Crow era of de jure segregation, he remarked that he had lost the south for the Democratic Party for a generation. The authors note that “he was more right than he knew,” pointing out that no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since LBJ himself was elected in 1964.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s Great Society legislation—e.g, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the Higher Education Act—also led to changes in the electorate overall that eventually made possible the presidency of Obama.

One of the most interesting observations in the article is that “With the emergence of each new structure of rival racial alliances, members of both alliances have professed allegiance to the resolution of the previous era’s disputes.” Republicans accuse Democrats of betraying Martin Luther King’s dream that his children would be judged by the content of their character and without regard to the color of their skin. Democrats, in turn, accuse Republicans of willfully ignoring the enduring inequalities that have been left unchanged by civil rights gains.

The authors note that most white people oppose race-conscious measures to alleviate inequality—and even white Democrats favor them somewhat half-heartedly. So Barack Obama as a candidate had to tread very cautiously in discussing these matters, expressing support instead for policies that would appear race-neutral but actually have a disproportionately beneficial effect for African Americans and Latinos. (Health care reform falls into this camp, as does, interestingly, Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity.) Meanwhile, John McCain had to be careful about overt race-baiting during the campaign since his party professed an ideology of color-blindness. Yet, as we all remember, issues of race simmered just under the surface throughout the run-up to the election.

Despite Obama’s adroit navigation of the treacherous currents of race in America during the 2008 campaign and his impressive record of achievements as president, the 2010 midterm elections serve as only one reminder of the challenges that Obama faces in bringing progressive change—and, indeed, in leading America out of the era of race-conscious controversies and into a new and, one hopes, happier era.

The authors note that Obama has used his personal story as an emblem of the American motto of e pluribus unum, as a call to Americans to set aside divisions and instead work together to find common ground and compromises that can help us move forward as a country. As the earlier part of the article makes clear, however, these divisions are not so easily set aside. Moreover, the approach of using universal or race-neutral programs to effect changes to racial inequality often falls short of producing substantial change.

President Obama is both admired and mocked for his seeming unflappability, his coolness. That coolness was probably an essential characteristic for his ascendancy to the White House. On the level of image, it no doubt assured some white voters that he was not a threatening “angry black man”; on a more practical level, his equanimity probably allowed him to make wise strategic decisions that helped him win the election and achieve the political victories that he has won while in office. At the same time, the president’s critics have sometimes found him to be overly aloof, too distant from the fray, too calculatingly aware of the long-range strategy to get involved in the heat of political battle.

In my own limited experience with race-conscious controversies, I have also found coolness to be a useful virtue. Assuming the best of those who might criticize me, being slow to take offense, being willing to compromise even with opponents who may seem irrational or malicious—I have found these to be strategies that effectively avoid inflamed and destructive conflict. And so I tend to trust President Obama.

But was the election of the first African American president the momentous event that has ended the third period of racial politics in American and propelled us into a period of transition? Will his re-election in 2012 be the final turning point in ending this third era? And what would a new era look like?

A new era would seem to require both a diminishment in awareness of race as well as a diminishment in the inequities that correlate to race in America. As we move toward an America in which there is no longer a single racial majority, and in which economic inequality reaches ever greater proportions, it seems unlikely that either of those two requirements will be attained. Even the two-term presidency of Barack Obama, whom I believe to be an uncommonly brilliant man, will thus probably not spell the end of our current era of racial politics.

Obama’s coolness may indeed be a great presidential virtue. Yet the two previous eras of racial politics in America—slavery and Jim Crow—ended only after periods of intense heat: the massive upheavals of the Civil War and the Civil Rights revolution. As I look into the future, I feel a bit of trepidation as I consider the suffering and strife that may accompany the end of our current era and the transition to the next.