Academic journal article International Social Science Review

The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

Article excerpt

Dyson, Michael Eric. The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Harcourt 2016. Xvi + 346 pages. Paperback. $27.00.

As the nation grapples with a resurgence of white nationalism and racial divisiveness unseen since the early twentieth century, this book is as timely as it is necessary. In The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race, Michael Eric Dyson extends the research on race in America, particularly the politics of race in the era of a black president. He critically examines the Obama presidency, never hesitating to criticize Obama's faults or extol his virtues. Dyson presents a well-rounded book that does not fully excuse Obama for his lack of action on behalf of the black voters who overwhelmingly helped in his historic win, presenting a portrait of a man who "gives African legs to the Declaration of Independence and a black face to the Constitution" (p. xii). This is the story of the sustaining power of race in America, told by a scholar who is a renowned wordsmith on the issues of race and politics in America. The book gives us an account of eight years that should have changed American race politics, creating a true post-racial America, and explains with candor and scholarship why that alteration did not happen.

One of the strengths of the book is Dyson's more than two-decade relationship with Obama from his days of community planning to after he became the president, including the author's work on the campaign to elect the first black president. He relates many of the occasions when he spoke directly to President Obama before and during his presidency. The closeness to the president lends an authenticity to the book that would be lost otherwise. However, that closeness does not blind him to the faults and miscalculations of Obama, and he does not offer excuses for Obama's decisions. Indeed, he is often scathing in his rebuke of the president.

A second strength of the book is Dyson's excellent knowledge of racial projects spanning the many white presidential administrations before Obama, the divisiveness of black leadership across generations, and the limitations of race rhetoric for a man attempting to be viewed as not just the president to black people. In examining Obama's reluctance to speak on the struggles of blacks in America, Dyson scrutinizes Obama's failure to address white privilege or denounce the beliefs among working-class and middle-class whites that they do not benefit from their whiteness. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is Dyson's observations of what he calls "the scold of black folk."

In Chapter 5, he dissects the meanings of how Obama "in the worst way possible, targeted black people, not for support but instead for moral reproach" (p. 168). It is a problem that I grappled with throughout Obama's presidency, and it was refreshing that Dyson not only addresses the behavior but does a great job of explaining the behavior even as he condemns it. …

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