Obama's election will not end America's racial divisions. But it will change them, say black intellectuals
In 1963, the African-American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin took issue with Bobby Kennedy’s prediction that a black man would be president within 40 years. Kennedy assumed, he said, that blacks would be ready to “accept and adopt white standards.” Whites, Baldwin argued, thought of themselves as possessing some intrinsic value that black people wanted or needed.
There was a reminder of this on the morning after Obama’s election victory, when conservative black intellectual Shelby Steele argued in the LA Times that Obama’s success lay in his ability to tell white Americans what they want to hear: that racism is no longer a barrier to black advancement. By presenting himself as a screen onto which whites could project their anxieties, Obama offers redemption for America’s original sin of slavery.
Steele is not alone among African-American intellectuals in mistrusting much of the “post-racial kitsch” that surrounded Obama’s campaign. Many share Steele’s misgivings at the way the historical significance of the election is already being used to declare an end to identity politics, and to announce a glorious post-racial future.
The Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby, author of We Who Are Dark told Prospect: “Many whites are weary of black claims of grievance. They think that black political solidarity is no longer necessary. For some whites, this is the significance of Obama’s victory—it puts the last nail in the coffin of black identity politics.”
Such declarations are clearly premature. Obama can only promise racial reconciliation because he is black, self-identifies as black and was backed by almost all blacks who voted. According to Princeton’s Kwame Anthony Appiah, also a philosopher and theorist of identity: “Obama is an instance of the politics of recognition, not a move beyond it.” Appiah thinks it is a mistake to suppose that the solution to “bad” identity politics—the kind conservatives think has had a debilitating effect on black American aspirations since the 1960s—is to abandon identity altogether. “Identities are necessary, inevitable and, often, useful,” he says. “What they mostly need is reform, not rejection.”
John McWhorter, a linguist best known for his attacks on what he calls African-American “victimology,” agrees. If you tell a black kid in a struggling black neighbourhood to “broaden his identity,” you’ll get nowhere, McWhorter says. “But have [the kid] 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 neighbourhood, a basketball court or a rap concert stage.”
In Appiah’s view, the best one could say about the possibility of a post-racial future is that “putting a black man in the White House achieves a symbolic break with our racist history.” This, he argues, partly explains the “astonishing” parade of Republican political figures and conservative intellectuals who lined up to endorse Obama.
In a way this concedes the point Baldwin was making in 1963. Appiah’s outlook, however, is more optimistic. In any case, it is not simply a matter of Obama “acting white” or adopting “white” standards—even if, as Appiah acknowledges, Obama has had some difficulty in convincing many black people that he is “black enough.” But if he acts in such a way as to reassure whites (principally by not being Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson), he is, at the same time, writing new scripts for African-American identity.
And Obama writes those scripts in an American idiom. For an earlier generation of black radicals, that idiom was corrupted. But when Obama denounces racial injustice, as he did in his famous speech in Philadelphia in March 2008, he does so in the name of American values. “The answer to the slavery question,” he said that night, “was already embedded within our constitution.”
Some black intellectuals have argued that, in speaking this way, Obama risks the moral legacy of the struggle for black freedom. But what if, on the contrary, he is reconnecting with the struggle’s best traditions? Reconnecting with Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, or with James Baldwin himself, who declared that only when the “racial nightmare” ended would Americans be able to “achieve [their] country.”
Read Jonathan Derbyshire’s interviews with Kwame Anthony Appiah, John McWhorter and Tommie Shelby in full here
Michael Lind’s post-election cover story on what Obama means for American liberalism, plus the Prospect symposium on the future of America with contributions from Martin Walker, Thomas Wright, and James Crabtree.
Also, exclusively online, ABC’s foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto argues that Obama will struggle to make friends in the middle east, Erik Tarloff dissects the Republican’s Palin problem, and Stephen Boyle explains why the Democrats might turn out to be Obama’s worst enemy.
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