Performing blackness

To many, Obama's election meant the dawn of a new "post-racial" era for America. But, say many leading black American thinkers, the reality is much more complicated
December 20, 2008
For his article "Post-racial kitsch?" (Prospect, December), Jonathan Derbyshire interviewed a number of leading African-American thinkers, both before and after the US election, about how an Obama presidency would affect America's fraught racial politics.

His conversations with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Ghanian-American philosopher and theorist of identity, John McWhorter, an African-American linguist who has attacked "black victimology," and Tommie Shelby, a historian of the black solidarity movement, are recorded in full here.

3rd November 2008
Conversation between Jonathan Derbyshire and Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist. He is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University

Jonathan Derbyshire (JD): In your epilogue to Color Conscious (1996), you write the following: "There is a great deal of angry polemic about race in this country today...In this respect, discussions of race are perhaps typical, since...public debate on many questions has developed an uncivil inflection." It does seem as if you've been waiting for someone like Barack Obama these past twelve years.

Kwame Anthony Appiah (KAA): I have felt all along that our public debate has been unhelpfully lacking in courtesy. A lot of shouting, not much listening; more posturing than real candour. These are legacies of the so-called "culture wars."? And so it's true that one of the many things that interests and attracts me in Senator Obama is his well-developed sense not just of what has been wrong with our public policies, but also of what is wrong with our political processes. He is deeply committed, so far as I can tell, to the idea that it's important to listen and converse with those with whom you disagree; and to try to remain civil even on topics about which one feels passionately...It's the idea that underlies my defence (in the book on cosmopolitanism) of what I call "conversation across differences." Coming to understanding is often all we can achieve, rather than coming to agreement. But if we can come to an understanding, living with disagreement will often be easier.

JD: In the opening paragraph of that epilogue, you say that discussions about race are typical of a wider rancour infecting public discussion. If we credit Obama, as you do, with a certain degree of theoretical sophistication, then could we say that he is attempting to answer "yes" to a question posed in the title of Ronald Dworkin's recent book Is Democracy Possible Here?

KAA: I believe that part of what is good in democracy, at least when it goes well, is that we address each other as fellow citizens who accept that every reasonable view has a right to be heard...People who have been heard are more likely to accept the outcome of a debate, even if it isn't the outcome they favour. Mr Obama seems to have, as you say, a theoretical appreciation of these ideas. This has shown up in his refusal to attack the Republican party as such, and to focus his criticisms instead on the current administration's policies, where he disagrees with them. And he always frames his criticisms of Senator McCain's ideas with comments about McCain's long and honourable public service.

JD: So you're saying that Obama will make those policy objections in the name of certain fundamental values, rather than simply to score partisan points?

KAA: I certainly hope so. And I think we have reason for hope in the way he has conducted the public debate. There is evidence of this not just in what he has said but also in his electoral strategy, which has been to carry his campaign to parts of the country that had been assumed to be solidly Republican. This isn't just a search for a cushion of extra votes in the electoral college. By winning Virginia, whose capital, Richmond, was the capital of the Confederacy, and Colorado, he can claim to speak for the south and for the mountain west, and not just for the east and the west Coasts. That isn't just a matter of winning. It's a matter of being able to speak, as he has often said, not for a blue America or a red America but for the United States of America.

JD: You have said that there's something distinctively American about the tradition of "reasoned debate among citizen equals"; or, at least, that there is a distinctively American take on that Enlightenment idea. It is striking that you seem to be drawn to figures, such as Frederick Douglass and, in some moods, WEB Du Bois, who denounced racial injustice as American citizens. That is, in the name of fundamental values shared by all Americans.

KAA: There's a related point there that Richard Rorty used to make, and I think it's a crucial insight. He used to say that we should defend the welfare safety net not by saying—about the conditions of the domestic poor—"No human being should live like that," but by saying "No American should live like that."? While I believe, as a good cosmopolitan, that we do have shared fundamental obligations to every human being, that's consistent with recognising special obligations to those with whom we share this republic. Still, this is not exactly the same thing as what Ronald Dworkin was saying. He was arguing that we have a shared body of principles, as you say. I actually wouldn't put it quite that way myself. What Americans share, above all I think, is more a commitment to the institutions and traditions of the republic than articulate principles. Catholics in many countries—Spain, Italy, Ireland, for example—have no objection to religious establishment, or to the state's having a special relationship—a concordat—with Rome, that it doesn't have with Protestants or people of other faiths or none. But American Catholics are mostly as committed as the rest of us to the separation of church and state, as are most American Muslims, even though the idea of a Muslim state, a caliphate, has deep roots in Islamic thought.

Protestants in England and in Scandinavia live with an established church without protest, but in the US, even the evangelical Protestants who have a strong focus on the state and trying to make it anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage, are overwhelmingly committed to the idea that, as the first amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" Similarly, though many of us thought the Supreme Court's intervention in Bush v. Gore was an outrage, we didn't think it was a reason for abandoning our constitutional traditions. So the deepest thing we share, I think, is to the thought that we are participating together, as Americans, in this system of government. A lot of America's slightly peculiar patriotism is about that. Which is why, when Mr Obama spoke to us about the issues raised by his association with the Reverend Wright, he spoke to us as Americans, white and non-white, black and non-black, and he was able to draw on our shared history and the ways in which we have dealt with one another—as well as to use it as an occasion to teach all the different groups about how the world looks from each position…something that was made possible, in part, by his own mixed background.

JD: In this speech, Obama spoke precisely as an American. And he said he was looking for a way out of what he called "racial stalemate," by which I take it he meant a clash of resentments between African-Americans and those he describes as "middle-class white Americans." It's often said that Obama is looking beyond that stalemate to some kind of "post-racial" future. I wonder whether you're able to make any sense, conceptually, of what a "post-racial future" would be?

KAA: I think that one way of understanding the idea of a post-racial future rests on a fundamental error about identity. People often think that the solution to bad identity politics—to things like those racial resentments, among blacks, whites and others, that plague discussions about race here in America—is to abandon identity altogether, to relate as a citizen without identities, to move "beyond race," or "beyond gender." I don't think that makes much sense as a general strategy. Identities are necessary, inevitable and, often, very useful. What they mostly need—as I argued in my book on the ethics of identity—is reform, not total rejection. Of course, I have no idea how skin colour and ancestry will figure in American identities a century from now. But if they don't, other things will. Nevertheless, race doesn't need to disappear from our vocabulary of identity for us to move away from racism. So Senator Obama's election won't move us any nearer the abandonment of racial identities, and it doesn't need to.

But there is one way of taking the talk of a post-racial future that does make sense to me. That's the idea of finally putting symbolically behind us the centuries of racial exclusion of people of African descent. To put a black man in the White House—someone who can stand for, represent, our citizens of African descent—would achieve that symbolic break with our racist history quite decisively. I know a number of older Republicans myself who have told me (in one case long before he was chosen as the Democratic flag-bearer) that they were excited by Barack Obama. And in trying to understand this, I came to the view that, for them, as for many Democrats, this was a central point about him. Surely part of what explains the astonishing parade of Republican political figures and conservative intellectuals who have lined up to endorse Barack Obama is just that desire for a symbolic repudiation of our racist past. They've been waiting for a black man who is a serious contender for office who can also play that role. And here he is. Fareed Zakaria, Anne Applebaum, Lawrence Eagleburger, Colin Powell: very different people, but all conservatives who believe that Barack Obama can transform America. So there will be some Americans voting against Senator Obama because he's black but more, I believe, voting for him for that reason.

JD: Let's grant your point that much "post-racial" talk is based on a conceptual error about identity. What about the claim, which we also hear a lot, that an Obama victory will herald the end of identity politics, or the "politics of recognition"?

KAA: Well, as I say, I just don't think we can move beyond a politics in which identity matters. Look, Senator Obama can only serve the function of moving us along in our racial politics because he counts as black. If we were moving beyond race altogether, he couldn't serve that function. He's an instance of the politics of recognition, not a move beyond it.

JD: Is there, then, something important about the way Obama performs his blackness in public?

KAA: Absolutely. And I think this is part of why some people find him strange, foreign, un-American. (Of course, others who think this are just Islamophobic nutters who think he's a Muslim!) Here is a black man who doesn't conform to the normal scripts for African-American identity. This is also part of what reassures many white Americans about him, however. If—perhaps out of a sense of white guilt—you're worried that black Americans, however superficially polite, are actually really anti-white, and you worry that a black politician might secretly be plotting against "the white man," there's real reassurance in someone much of whose private life has been spent with his white mother and grandparents. If he had deep racial resentments, he'd have had to have developed them in conversation with white people (or with his Korean-American brother-in-law!) And part of the reason he can perform his blackness in this reassuring way is, of course, that his background means he just doesn't have such resentments. He's not hiding them. They're not there. One index of this issue is the way in which his wife, who is a "normal" African-American—a descendant of American slaves— has been a lightening rod for accusations of this sort. Right-wing bloggers have kept promising that a tape was going to show up in which she "cursed whitey." And when she was supposed to have said early on that her husband's selection had made her feel proud of her country for the first time, that was all about people suspecting her of conforming to the script of the angry black radical…the Jesse-Jackson script, as it were.

JD: In your contribution to Color Conscious, you worried about what happens when identity "goes imperial"; that is, what happens racial identity is too tightly "scripted." And it does seem that Obama embodies some of the things you were talking about 12 years ago. For instance, you make a distinction between the identities that are ascribed to us on the basis of, for instance, inherited characteristics (like skin colour) and the way we identify with the identities so ascribed. Clearly, Obama has a publicly ascribed racial identity which he has no choice but to assume. However, what's so fascinating about him is the extent to which he has chosen to make that ascribed identity more or less central. Would you say he is exemplary in that sense?

KAA: Yes. He's had some difficulty, in fact, in persuading some black people that he's "black enough"—that he's deeply identified with an African-American identity and so in real solidarity with black people. Part of the reason he got into trouble with Reverend Wright was that he needed to be seen to be committed to an African-American institution, like the black church, in order to succeed as a black politician in Chicago. And, as he tried to explain to white America in that extraordinary speech, if you'd lived as a black man in the old, more racist America, there were American sins you had to learn to forgive. Part of what he was trying to show is that he understood those resentments though he didn't share them.

JD. Would you say that Obama's ability to construe his blackness outside the "scripts" available to many African-American men is partly a function of his unusual upbringing? I was reminded of this when I read your remarks in your 1992 book In My Father's House, about your own upbringing, which, you say, enabled you to see the world as a "network of points of affinity."

KAA: Well his life has taught him the same lesson as mine; though he has the advantage over me of having grown up with an American identity, which I have had to work out as an adult! And so he can perform his own individual version of an African-American identity fairly easily, as you say, in part because his biography is atypical. It would be hard to let a black identity go imperial, take over your life, trump your other identities, and lead you to be antagonistic to people of other racial identities, granted that your mother—not just the woman who bore you, but the woman who raised you—is white, and you grew up partly in Hawaii.

JD: I wanted to ask, finally, about the critical reaction to Obama of some African-American intellectuals. I was thinking of something the academic Glen Loury wrote after Obama gave his "A More Perfect Union" speech. Loury complained that Obama was presuming to negotiate "with the American public on behalf of MY people" and to instruct a "generation of angry black men as to how they ought to construe their lives." Is Lowry stuck with a choice you've said African-Americans needn't feel they have to make—between, say, Uncle Tom and black power? On the other hand, is he right to worry that in trying to think their way beyond "racial stalemate," African-Americans run the risk of losing something valuable, namely the "moral legacy" of the struggle for black freedom?

KAA: Glen is a very smart and distinctive figure in our nation's intellectual life. A black conservative—nominated to public service by Ronald Reagan—who was nevertheless always what we call in America a "race man": committed in a particular way to advancing the cause of black people, a racial nationalist, if you like, like Du Bois. Glen was denying that Senator Obama was authentically black precisely because he was performing the original script that we've been discussing. I think he was wrong to reject Obama's right to speak as an African-American and wrong, too, to say that, in speaking as he did, he was, in effect, abandoning then possibility of making claims for racial justice.

But many black intellectuals felt that Obama conceded too much to white people in that speech, just as some white people felt he wasn't firm enough in his repudiation of Wright. I, on the other hand, thought it was a brilliant piece of public teaching, and that he identified precisely how much he could communicate on a single occasion, and I thought that they were asking him to do too much.

I do believe that this election has been extraordinary in one quite specific respect: it has pitted two men against each other who are more—and more deeply—committed than most American politicians to a cosmopolitan engagement with some or all of the rest of the world. The only time I have ever met John McCain was in Brussels, at a meeting with many European journalists and politicians. He is deeply committed to dialogue with and understanding of European political leaders, and to a partnership with them rather than the sort of peremptory contempt for Europeans who don't agree with him that Dick Cheney and his circle have displayed regularly. Obama seems to want a cosmopolitan conversation with the political leaders of every nation too. And it's one point of sadness for me about our politics that both of them have had to underplay this attitude they share, because so many of my fellow citizens are not just parochial, but actively xenophobic. I hope that a President Obama will try to lead in this area as well, since, after all, what Jefferson called in the Declaration of Independence, a "decent regard for the opinions of mankind" is also an American tradition.

4th November 2008
Conversation between Jonathan Derbyshire and John McWhorter

John McWhorter is a linguist and political commentator. Formerly a senior fellow at the conservative thinktank the Manhattan Institute, he is now a professor ofEnglish at Columbia University, and regularly contributes to the New York Sun and NPR

JD: In a piece you wrote for the New Republic on 16th October, you suggested that an Obama victory would help to "hustle into obsolescence" the "utopianist canard" that the problems of black Americans would evaporate with the establishment of a "level playing field." What is it about Obama's candidacy and campaign that leads you to this conclusion?

JM: Obama becoming president is a useful lesson when it comes to the idea that black America's main problem is racism. It's been so clear that racism exists in how diligently the media has been smoking out white people unable to vote for Obama because of his race, and yet Obama is on his way to winning anyway. People miss that beyond a certain point, racism becomes background noise, a sad wrinkle in what humanity is and always will be, not important enough to think of as an urgent topic of discussion. An Obama victory illustrates this more vividly than any amount of panel discussion or bookchat ever could.

JD: Is this is what commentators mean when they announce, slightly feverishly, that Obama is pointing the way to a "post-racial" future?

JM: No. I think there is a mythical notion that his biracial and international heritage will somehow "bring the country together." This is a myth when it comes to people adult now—but to children who grow up watching him in the White House it will be not a myth at all. Tell someone who watched a black man run the world for eight years that America is "all about racism," or that being black is always and forever a problem even for the successful ones, and it just won't register—which it shouldn't, because it simply hasn't been true for decades now.

JD: But, presumably, Obama can only serve the function of moving America along in its racial politics because he counts as black?

JM: Of course his colour matters. Proponents of affirmative action are fond of saying "To get past race, first you have to take it into account." Well, that's true in Obama's case as well. It was telling that early on, a strategy used by some who were wary of his potential to distract people from race was to question his being "really black" at all. They knew that his status as black was poised to change the national conversation.

JD: Your article in New York Magazine in August suggests you think the notion of a "post-racial future" is more than "mere magazine-cover rhetoric." But doesn't it rest on the assumption that racial identity is always restricting? Isn't that to accept the errors of bad identity politics? What, for instance, do you make of Anthony Appiah's suggestion in The Ethics of Identity that our concept of identity needs to be reformed rather than rejected?

JM: Appiah is a brilliant man, but he is writing for intellectually experienced cosmopolitans in a position to "negotiate" their "identities" through long-term and wide-ranging experience with people of all walks of lide, and close relationships with the printed page. The larger issue is the "identity" of, say, a black kid in a struggling black neighborhood. Just tell him to broaden his identity and you'll get nowhere. Have him watch someone who looks, and sometimes talks, like him being president and watch him develop a native sense that his world could be larger than his neighborhood, a basketball court or a rap concert stage.

JD: Must race—or racial identity (they are not obviously the same)—disappear from the vocabulary of American politics in order for the country to move away from racism?

JM: The brute fact is that the only way there would be no racism in America would be if there were only one race. There are no countries on earth without some degree of what we would call racism. So, the day we all look like Mariah Carey will be the day when there is no racism. Otherwise, we can pride ourselves on the eclipse of legalised racism and the condemnation of racism in the social sphere. Always, however, there will be some people who are behind the curve.

JD: Does an Obama victory herald the end of identity politics?

JM: Of course not. People already set in that vein will continue what they do. What will change is their reception, especially among younger people. A certain kind of person will preach that "America is a racist country," and a certain personality type will jump out of their seat as always. But Obama's sheer existence will always exert a downward pull on that sort of thing, and it will attract fewer amd fewer converts. It will rather quickly start to be associated with older people and the past.

JD: In the New Republic piece, you discuss the likely reaction of black Americans to an Obama defeat...A victory, I take you to be arguing, would deprive black Americans of the "crutch" of victimhood. How do you suppose they will react to the inevitable disappointments that the realities of office will bring? Is there anywhere else for the political enthusiasms among black Americans generated by this election campaign to go?

JM: Well, the new thing will be a web of standard assertions as to why Obama's victory isn't as big a deal as we might think. I will be interested to see how much traction that web gets, as it will certainy interfere with the genuine jubilation so many blacks will feel. I'd like to see Obama's appeal lead to a new kind of activism among blacks. I hope Obama is committed enough to something like that to help it happen.

5th November 2008
Conversation between Jonathan Derbyshire and Tommie Shelby

Tommie Shelby is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, author ofWe Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarityand co-author ofHip-Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason

JD: In your book, We Who Are Dark, you try to articulate a non-essentialist conception of black racial identity as the
basis for political solidarity. Is it plausible to try to understand Barack Obama's campaign in these terms?

TS: In my book, I claim that we should think of black political solidarity as resting not on a common black identity, but on the common experience of racism and the joint commitment to work together to combat it. Despite the diversity within the black population in the US, Obama received overwhelming black support, not just in the general election, where as a Democrat he could expect to get at least 88 per cent of the black vote, but also in the primary against Clinton, where
a number of blacks thought he was unfairly criticised because of his race. I think this black support, especially in the south, reflects in part the historical commitment of blacks, despite their many internal differences, to stand together in the fight for racial justice. Obama is seen by many blacks as a symbol of the successes of our collective historical struggle, and he gives us hope that further progress lies ahead. Moreover, Obama received overwhelming black support despite the fact that his mother is white and his father is not a descendent of black American slaves. Because he is generally
regarded as black (given the one-drop rule) and strongly identifies as black, he is accepted as an equal member in the black community and can lay claim to the legacy of the historic African-American fight for justice. The fact that he attended a black church, is married to an African-American woman, and has mastered elements of traditional black oratory also helped to solidify his black support.

JD: Does an Obama victory also herald the end of a particular way of doing politics? Specifically, identity politics or
the "politics of recognition"?

TS: Many whites are weary, and have long been weary, of black claims of grievance. Most whites are impatient with black claims about the continuing significance of racism. They don't think there is a? serious race problem anymore, and they will point to Obama's election? as proof that racism does not affect black life chances, at least not in any serious way. They think that black political solidarity is no longer necessary and that blacks should stop suggesting that America is a racist society and reconcile with their fellow white citizens, dropping all talk of "black America." For some whites, this is the
significance of Obama's victory—it undermines black claims of grievance and puts the last nail in the coffin of black identity politics. The fact that Obama ran on a platform of racial reconciliation, did not specify any concrete proposals for how to combat racial discrimination in employment and housing or segregation in public schools, and did not make any overt racial appeals to black voters only seems to buttress the legitimacy of this "post-racial" stance. As this stance becomes more entrenched, and I expect it will, blacks will find it even more difficult to put problems of racial injustice on the public agenda.

JD: Do you, as some African-American intellectuals have argued, think that substantial political costs are incurred when black politicians try to reinvent the political language of race as Obama has? Glen Loury, for instance, argued that Obama's presuming to "renegotiate the implicit American racial contract" threatens to throw away something valuable; it threatens to obliterate the moral legacy of the black struggle for freedom.

TS: Insofar as Obama has communicated to whites, whether intentionally or not, that what we most need now is interracial unity and racial reconciliation, rather than a concerted effort on the part of government to ensure that no one's basic rights and opportunities are attenuated because of racism (past and present), then he has made a bad bargain. I don't think that this was his intention, but some may interpret him this way.

Of course, what I am hoping is that his racial rhetoric was simply pragmatic. He needed to gain significant white support— I think he got about 45 percent nationally—to win, and knowing that most whites are tired of hearing about racism and the black plight, maybe he avoided talking about such things and instead emphasised interracial unity. But he may govern in a way that takes problems of race seriously—for instance, with respect to appointments to the judiciary, to the Depertment of Education, the Department of Justice, and to Housing and Urban Development.

JD: Finally, what do you think will happen when, as is almost unavoidable, disappointment with a President Obama sets in Is there anywhere for the black political enthusiasm that this campaign has awakened to go?

TS: I don't think that blacks are expecting Obama to do all that much to help their cause for racial justice. Many of us just liked the idea of having a black Democratic president, recognising that we're electing a pragmatic left-of-centre politician who will likely govern in much the same way that Bill Clinton did, as a moderate. So while blacks may be disappointed by this or that decision, I don't think they will be deeply disillusioned by the way he governs.

To discuss this article visit First Drafts, Prospect's blog


Michael Lind's post-electioncover storyon what Obama means for American liberalism, plus a Prospectsymposiumon the future of America with contributions from Martin Walker, Thomas Wright, Jonathan Derbyshire and James Crabtree.

Also, exclusively online, ABC's foreign correspondentJim Sciuttoargues that Obama will struggle to make friends in the middle east andErik Tarloffdissects the Republican's Palin problem, andStephen Boyleexplains why the Democrats might turn out to be Obama's worst enemy.