Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America

Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America

Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America

Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America


Barack Obama's election as the first black president in American history forced a reconsideration of racial reality and possibility. It also incited an outpouring of discussion and analysis of Obama's personal and political exploits. Paint the White House Black fills a significant void in Obama-themed debate, shifting the emphasis from the details of Obama's political career to an understanding of how race works in America. In this groundbreaking book, race, rather than Obama, is the central focus.

Michael P. Jeffries approaches Obama's election and administration as common cultural ground for thinking about race. He uncovers contemporary stereotypes and anxieties by examining historically rooted conceptions of race and nationhood, discourses of "biracialism" and Obama's mixed heritage, the purported emergence of a "post-racial society," and popular symbols of Michelle Obama as a modern black woman. In so doing, Jeffries casts new light on how we think about race and enables us to see how race, in turn, operates within our daily lives.

Race is a difficult concept to grasp, with outbursts and silences that disguise its relationships with a host of other phenomena. Using Barack Obama as its point of departure, Paint the White House Black boldly aims to understand race by tracing the web of interactions that bind it to other social and historical forces.


There would be no great problem if, when the things changed, the
vocabulary died away as well. But far the more common situation in
the history of ideologies is that instead of dying, the same vocabulary
attaches itself, unnoticed, to new things…. In this they resemble
those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life
of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings.

—Barbara J. Fields

On December 18, 2006, months before Senator Barack Obama formally announced his intention to seek the presidency, Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Diane McWhorter discussed the obstacles to electing a black president in the United States. The primary barrier, according to McWhorter, was whites’ reluctance to give up white privilege. She explained, “[during the civil rights movement] one of the reasons that the whites were so obstinate about giving into any quote, ‘demands’—as they called them, quote, ‘Negro demands’—was that, you know, the expression was if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. To me, the primitive fear of white people is that, if you have an African-American as the leader of the free world, that they’re going to give away white privilege—you know, that we are going to have to give up something that we have taken for granted.”

“White privilege” is a slippery phrase. McWhorter’s understanding is rooted in measurable economic and political advantages. As a group, white people sit atop the unjust racial and economic hierarchy, and they collectively benefit when people of color are mistreated or denied opportunity. But white privilege is not just about quantifiable economic ad-

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