Can anyone who has known racial oppression and, with it, a community of color’s endurance, defiance and memory, resist appeals to racial solidarity that foresee freedom in the rise of “the race”? Racial identity may be only a social construct imposed upon people of certain colors and cultures, but for anyone subjected to it, it can become all-defining, the more so if tempered by communal lore and love, and soon it binds everyone it touches. The danger is that the defensive side of racial identity—which insists, “I am excluded, therefore I am”—will incline its bearers to impose past experiences on new possibilities in ways that diminish them. Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, has tried through his legal scholarship, popular books and, sometimes, activism to reduce that danger. But Kennedy is so frank and exacting about the journey’s difficulties that his road is as demanding as Barack Obama’s campaign trail was. Obama the author has acknowledged some of the same difficulties in his accounts of his journeys in and out of racial constructions, but in Kennedy’s judgment Obama the politician finesses those challenges, often dropping the subject of race as if he could just put it behind him and lead us to… what? A neoliberal promised land where liberty and justice are receding?
If the title of Kennedy’s new book, The Persistence of the Color Line, like those of two of its predecessors, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (2008) and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002), suggests to some readers the work of a “race man,” pretty much the opposite is true. Kennedy doesn’t believe that the persistence of racism is proof of its perpetuity and, with it, racial destiny. He’s quick to spot racialism’s dimming actuarial prospects, noting that although Obama lost the white vote to John McCain, he not only won more of it absolutely and proportionately than had his white Democratic predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore but he “beat John McCain 54 percent to 44 percent among whites under thirty.” When Obama showed in the primaries that he might garner enough white votes to win, “blacks broke toward him in a frenzy and never looked back.”
Kennedy recounts being swept up in the euphoria (and, often, near incredulity) at Obama’s triumph. How could he not have been, knowing African-American history as he has from living it—he was born in South Carolina in 1954 but raised in Washington, DC, after his parents, a postal worker and a teacher, moved there to escape Jim Crow—and from trying to bend its arc toward justice? He was a guest at the inauguration, but even if he had not been invited, he makes clear he wouldn’t have missed being there for the world, carrying as he does the memory and dreams of ancestors and intimates who hadn’t reached this turn in the road. But Obama’s victory moved him more, he realizes, because it was a quintessentially American one. The Republic was taking a big step beyond racialism because “the race” was transcending itself, as Martin Luther King Jr. had envisioned when, forty-five years earlier at the other end of the Mall, he told America about his dream.
Kennedy is well aware that as a tenured professor at Harvard Law he can publicly parse the pros, cons and ironies of transracial strivings as few elected officials can. But Obama, too, has unusual advantages: having found transracialism in infancy and again in adolescence in Hawaii, he married into a South Side Chicago city worker’s family whose circumstances were marked by Jim Crow, thereby claiming an identity he could stand on but reinterpret for himself and others. His embrace of African-American blackness was existential and political more than “essentialist” in the way American constructions of race make it seem. His was an infinitely more “American” embrace in another sense, one that manifested itself in the transracial euphoria in Chicago’s Grant Park on November 4, 2008, and again at the inauguration. Obama’s segue from Hawaii to the South Side reinforced the cosmopolitan, multiracial ethos that Kennedy has long espoused. By dint of Kennedy’s experiences and choices, he’s especially well suited to assess Obama’s complicated affirmation and reinterpretation of an African-American racial identity this country still imposes.