Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics

Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics

Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics

Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics


This collection looks at the confluence of a politician, a process and a problem - Barack Obama, the 2008 US presidential election and the problem of race in contemporary America. This book was originally published as a special issue of the journal Patterns of Prejudice.


Any collection on a topic so broad and contemporary as this one risks huge omissions. When the focus falls specifically on race and its complex relationship to Barack Obama’s life and political career, as it does here, it is not clear how much the overlap of race and politics needs to be explored. With a couple of exceptions, the articles included here have shied away from straightforward political analysis. This risks missing the most important thing about Obama and race: the political process that led to his election as president of the United States. Put slightly differently, Barack Obama can be approached primarily as a black American candidate who was surprisingly elected president or he can be viewed as a talented politician who ‘merely’ happened to be African American and won the presidency. Where the former approach tends to assume that there were few, if any, hints of the relative ease with which Obama won the election, the latter assumes a certain blasé quality, as though race were of not great, or enduring, moment in the 2008 election.

One way to explore the relationship between politics and race, and touched on in the essay by Richard King, is to analyse the degree to which Barack Obama was, and is, part of a black American political tradition. Carmel King’s moving portfolio of photographs taken in Harlem on election day, November 2008, should remind us of just how much the election of Barack Obama meant to African Americans, as well as to many white Americans. And yet, by focusing on race exclusively, important political developments such as the Tea Party movement remain difficult to understand. In fact, none of our contributors addresses this phenomenon. It is wrong to see the Tea Party movement as merely a disguised expression of white racist discontent. Its goals have little to do with race as such. Yet it is also dangerous to ignore the importance of race completely in an overwhelmingly white movement with roots in middle America and grassroots libertarianism.

This might lend credence to the idea that the presence of a black candidate for president meant not that race would be the defining issue of the campaign, but that race would be relegated to a shadowy region of hints, innuendos and code phrases. Indeed, as president, Barack Obama has avoided the politics of race more assiduously than a white liberal president would have done. What he seems to have learned from the Gates Crowley confrontation in the summer of 2009, at least according to David Remnick, is that he should avoid racial issues unless he has firm control over the terms in which they are presented.

A broadly formulated brief such as ‘Obama and Race’ also means that contributors have considerable leeway in how they approach the topic. The contributions by Emily Bernard and Damon Freeman have a personal . . .

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