Kennedy: Color Line Persists in U.S. Politics

Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's book calls Obama “enigmatic” on race.

although Barack Obama’s election was thought by many to be the ultimate sign of racial progress in America, it has also resulted in “an inflated sense of accomplishment” within the United States, warns Klein professor of law Randall Kennedy in his new book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (Pantheon Books).

The 2008 presidential election “changed the perception of what’s possible in America,” but President Obama’s reaction to racially sensitive issues since taking office has been an “enigma,” according to Kennedy, reports the New York Times. The president, he says, has been too tepid in his public statements about Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation, and about criticisms of America by the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s former pastor.

“His politics, particularly his racial politics, are chameleon-like: they change,” Kennedy said during a recent appearance on the public radio program The Takeaway. “He’s something of a Rorschach test—lots of people can look at him and impose upon him their own beliefs. He’s very careful with respect to the question of race and allows people to draw their own conclusions.”

Kennedy also criticizes Obama’s stance on gay marriage, calling it “bitterly ironic” that the first black president would essentially adopt a tolerance for "separate but equal" when it comes to same-sex relationships.

“I wish the president were more forthright; I wish he was stronger in pushing gay liberation,” Kennedy said on The Takeaway.

Brent Staples of the New York Times calls Kennedy’s book a “breath of fresh air on many counts,” adding that it 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.”

“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,” Staples wrote.  “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.”

Kennedy is the author of several books, including Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (Pantheon), which discusses the uses and abuses of the “sellout” label from the days of slavery to the present; and Interracial Intimacies (Pantheon) which examines the history, lore, and legalities, primarily in the United States, surrounding sexual, marital, and familial relationships among people of different races.

Updated 9-7-11 at 11AM

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