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President Barack Obama and the Contemporary Politics of Race in the United States American Studies Today Online

Lorraine Evans Orr writes about the impact of the election of America’s first African-American President on people’s perceptions of racial identity.

Read the full abstract of the article here

By Lorraine Evans Orr Liverpool John Moores University, American Studies

Posted 16th March 2011


Not black enough?
Black authenticity
How African Americans view Obama
How does Barack Obama see himself?
Transcending the racial divide
Maintaining a centrist approach

Not black enough?

Barack Obama official portrait  © US Embassy, LondonThroughout his political career President Barack Obama has often been perceived as being ‘not black enough’ to represent the African American community.  In order to understand this point of view, it is first necessary to examine what is actually meant when someone is dismissed as being ‘not black enough.’  E. Patrick Johnson has highlighted the main, though by no means definitive, ways in which a black person can attract such a judgement.  The first relates to skin tone – whether it is too light or not.  The others are behavioural, relating to the way in which African Americans choose to conduct themselves, for example to speak in accordance with grammatically correct standards of English rather than in the vernacular is often deemed to be ‘talking white.’  To be dedicated to study and educational success is similarly thought of as ‘acting white.’  Johnson further argues that ‘individuals or groups appropriate [blackness] in order to circumscribe its boundaries or to exclude other individuals or groups.’ (Johnson, 2003, p.3)  Neither talking nor acting white is desirable within this context and these criticisms are therefore a means of attacking the blackness of other African Americans.  These attacks betray a certain sense of insecurity in relation to black identity.

In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, which was first published in 1995 before Obama became a politician, Obama recalls suggesting that a young black student ‘should change his name from Tim to Tom’ on the basis that he ‘was not a conscious brother... [he] wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and... planned to major in business’ (Obama, 2008, p.102).  The older Obama acknowledges that his sneering ‘Uncle Tom’ insult stemmed from a need to conceal his own racial confusion and insecurity by deflecting attention towards someone else, in this case, Tim.  Asserting that another is somehow not black enough is simultaneously an implicit assertion of one’s own blackness and sense of secure racial identity, whether it is really secure or not.  Gary Younge has observed that the insult ‘Uncle Tom’ was appropriated by the black community ‘to represent the lackey, the moderate, the conciliator and the sell-out’ (2002), in order to influence notions of black authenticity.  It is therefore probable that this same confusion and insecurity accounts for some of the criticism directed towards Obama.  Furthermore, the inclusion of this particular incident highlights Obama’s own awareness of these racial politics, and possibly signals an anticipation of the same accusations in relation to himself

Black authenticity

I would also argue that a further definition of black authenticity exists in relation to black politicians.  The perception that a black politician displays a disinterest or a lack of advocacy with regard to so-called ‘black issues’ can also attract much of the same criticism.  Throughout his political career Barack Obama has repeatedly had his blackness called into question, usually, as Gwen Ifill has observed, by rival black politicians, black journalists and from within the more general black community itself (2009, p.161).  For many African Americans across a broad spectrum of society then, this is clearly an important issue, and blackness as an identity can, within this context, be further defined as synonymous with a group-centric outlook, and the as yet unrealised group struggle for real equality in the United States.

The most notorious instance of disapproval of Obama and his racial policies came from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who, during an appearance on CNN, publicly (though unwittingly) accused Obama of ‘talking down to black people’ (Los Angeles Times, 2008) because of the conservative emphasis upon personal responsibility and family values at African American community rallies.  Jackson, a civil rights activist and politician who had strenuously promoted ‘black’ issues, such as reparations for the descendants of slaves, during his own presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, felt angered and betrayed by Obama’s emphasis upon ‘self-help’, a concept which pays credence to the notion that African Americans affected by poverty and the social problems which stem from it are somehow lazy or to be held personally responsible for their own condition.

Jackson additionally perceived inaction on the part of Obama in responding to the events in Jena, Louisiana, in which a group of six black teenagers were perceived to be treated disproportionately after five of the six were charged with attempted murder following a group assault against a white teenager.  This development was viewed by many as confirmation that ‘the use of the prison system [is] a means of controlling young black men’ (The New York Times, 2007), an outraged reference to the comparatively high numbers of black offenders held in the American prison system.  In response to Obama’s failure to participate in the large civil rights demonstrations which followed the incident, Jackson allegedly stated that Obama was ‘acting like he’s white’ (The Huffington Post, 2007).

Obama, however, did make press releases in support of the black teenagers, asserting in one that ‘Outrage over an injustice like the Jena 6 isn't a matter of black and white. It's a matter of right and wrong’ (Fox News, 2007), a restrained and astute sentiment guaranteed not to excite any controversy and to avoid being dragged into a debate in which the issue of race would predominate.  It would seem then, that what Jackson actually wanted from Obama was a more assertive approach, akin to that of a previous generation of black politicians and activists whose struggle and rhetoric were based upon racial inequality.  These examples allow a clear insight into and provide evidence of what is expected of Obama as a political representative of the black community.

How African Americans view Obama

The matter is further complicated, however, by the mixed responses towards Obama from individual African Americans.  Jackson’s CNN faux pas and his subsequent climb-down illustrate another significant point in relation to black politics.  In March 2007, Jackson emerged as one of the first to endorse the then-Senator Obama in his presidential bid, an endorsement which was not retracted after his derisive comments were broadcast.  Indeed, Jackson issued the following statement after the incident: ‘I immediately called the senator's campaign to send my statement of apology to repair the harm or hurt that this may have caused his campaign, because I support it unequivocally’ (Los Angeles Times, 2008).  There is an ambiguity here which suggests that despite the fact that Jackson believes that Obama is not fulfilling his obligations to the African American electorate, he is willing to publicly support him anyway.  That is not to say in any way that Obama was the beneficiary of Jackson’s endorsement solely because he was black – Jackson himself is a Democrat with a similar partisan ideology.  Rather, Jackson’s ambiguity is probably indicative of the conflicting feelings produced by the knowledge that if Obama were to restrict himself as a single-issue candidate, viewed as black rather than American, or was seen to be antagonising those with a conservative view of political intervention into the problems of race, he would, in all probability, have cost himself votes and seriously jeopardised his viability.  As Gwen Ifill has succinctly pointed out, ‘Obama was not here to prove he could lead or speak only to black people.  The goal here was to romance the entire country’ (Ifill, 2009, p. 57).

Indeed, one of the major objectives of the Obama campaign was to convince the electorate that he was American enough to be President.  To this end, Obama repeatedly invoked the melting pot analogy with regards to his mixed racial heritage.  The Keynote Speech he delivered at the Democratic Convention in 2004, which catapulted him to national fame, typifies Obama’s rhetoric:

There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America (USA Today, 2004).

Obama, likening his political ascendancy to the ultimate realisation of the American Dream, romances the American public with feel-good factor, self-congratulatory inducements such as, ‘In no other country on earth is my story even possible’ (USA Today, 2004).  In drawing upon the tenets of American Exceptionalism, Obama promotes a sense of American unity from which he is able to profit in terms of positive voter perception.

This sense of unity facilitated by patriotism has been underscored by Obama’s mixed racial heritage.  It is particularly interesting that, despite the fact that Obama has made no secret of his strong sense of self-identification as a black man, a plurality of white voters have emphasised the point that he is ‘half-white’ or a ‘mixed race’ politician rather than a black one (, 2008).  This stands in stark contrast with the assertion that race was not a factor in a decision to vote for Obama.  To assert that Obama is either half-white or simply mixed race seems to evidence a need on the part of white voters to identify with him as something other than black, to ‘claim’ him for themselves in favour of casting a vote for the racial ‘other.’  Indeed, this is a tendency which Obama has consciously embraced during the presidential campaign in order to garner maximum popularity.  His frequent emphasis upon the ‘values [he had learned] straight from the Kansas heartland’ was designed to remind voters of his white familial connections.

How does Barack Obama see himself?

In Dreams from My Father, however, Obama informs the reader that he had ‘ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites’ (Obama, 2008, p.xv).  This admission reveals that Obama felt that white people made certain assumptions about him based upon the colour of his skin and were not willing to interact with him as an equal or an individual until they realised that he was ‘half-white’, an insinuation which is supported by his recollections of ‘the split-second adjustments they have to make’ (Obama, 2008, p.xv) when communicating with him.  In an assertion of his blackness and equality, Obama simply began to keep the fact that his family was white to himself.  This might seem inconsistent if it were not for the fact that Obama was speaking of himself as a young adult whose racial identity was precarious, a problem the adult Obama does not have to contend with, at least on a personal level.   Obama’s inclusion of this information speaks to and encourages black voters to identify more closely with him.

In The Audacity of Hope, his political manifesto, Obama claims that ‘I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views’ (Obama, 2007, p.11).  This claim can, in light of this discussion of Obama’s rhetorical exploitation of his white heredity and measured, centrist approach to racial politics, be extended to race and the way in which white voters have appropriated him as their own.  Self-identifying as a black man and having a broad, racially inclusive political agenda, do not, therefore, necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

In a passage from the memoir which has caused particular controversy, Obama recalls an incident which happened in the United States Embassy in Jakarta as the moment of revelation which commenced his journey to find a secure black identity.  Obama informs the reader that ‘I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin.  I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation.’ Obama, 2008, p.51)  In light of evidence produced by journalists whose intention was to discredit Obama that no such photograph has ever appeared in Life, this extract obviously cannot be taken literally.  Rather, it must instead be read as metaphorical; symbolic of the realisation of the discrimination and suffering which so often accompanies black skin.  It is a significant point that Obama, raised in Jakarta and Hawaii, areas which were less obviously affected by ideologies of white supremacy, should display such a deep personal awareness of the racial divide.  This racial awareness evidences the extent to which the United States mainland exports its own peculiar racial divisions and issues.  This is not to say that other parts of the world are unaffected by the legacy of colonialism or white supremacy independently, although it does emphasise the political nature of Obama’s racial awareness which was undoubtedly fuelled by an immersion in African American political texts which were provided to him by his mother, such as the Autobiography of Malcolm X.   In such a scenario, Life magazine can be seen as symbolic of white American intrusion into and influence upon other cultures which would not necessarily have felt the racial divide quite so keenly without it.  It is conceivable then, that Barack Obama is able to identify and feel racial solidarity with African Americans who could not ‘cross the boundaries of a particular neighbourhood... hav[e] hair like Barbie’ or who suffered ‘humiliation at the hands of an employer or cop’ (Obama, 2008, p.51), without ever having personally lived through such experiences.  This in itself serves an important function in respect of Obama’s campaign, in that, whereas the allusions to Kansas are a reminder of the white family who originated there, this episode not only evidences the fact that Obama is able to identify closely with African Americans, it invites other African Americans to similarly identify with him.  Obama thus becomes an active participant in the American black community rather than a mere observing outsider.

Obama’s stance on race in the political manifesto The Audacity of Hope is, however, noticeably more restrained and tempered than Dreams from my Father.  Published after he delivered the Democratic Convention Keynote Speech as a United States Senator in 2004, Obama was already a politician who was generating much excitement and high expectations.  Many already tipped him to one day become President of the United States.  Within this context it is clear that The Audacity of Hope was written with this aspiration in mind and in this sense it can be evaluated within the context of a protracted invisible primary in which Obama’s viability as a candidate for president was actively being tested.  Here, the policies which are proposed by Obama are fairly centrist, and he uses the book as a clever tool, firstly to set his agenda and secondly as a forum which allows him to smoothly diffuse potential political ammunition, such as the inclusion of his explanation as to why his website once labelled pro-life advocates as ‘right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose’ (Obama, 2007, p.195).  Obama is also able to use the book effectively to style himself as a common-sense thinker, someone who is able to transcend frustrating partisan ideologies in order to do the best for America.   In this sense, The Audacity of Hope was the first astute step of a political campaign which culminated in Obama’s election to the White House in 2008.

The centrist approach adopted by Obama also extends to the issue of race.  Within the opening pages of the book’s section on race, Obama immediately clarifies his political standpoint.  He reassures readers that he is not an ‘archetypal angry black man’ through his response to Hurricane Katrina.  He asserts that the abysmal failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of the storm was based upon ‘color-blind’ (Obama, 2007, p.229) ineptitude rather than racist antipathy, an assertion that FEMA was fundamentally ill-equipped to cope with a social and natural disaster on the scale of Katrina, regardless of whether it affected blacks or whites.  In framing the issue in this way, Obama deftly avoids the controversy which was generated by Kanye West when he suggested that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ (The Washington Post, 2005), the rapper’s response to the lack of aid which was received by the predominantly black victims of Katrina.  In doing so, Obama immediately asserts that the real issue is ‘inner-city poverty’ (Obama, 2007, p.229), thus ensuring that his rhetoric is inoffensively general rather than alienating and racial, choosing to focus upon class rather than race inequalities.  This is an example of the racial political savvy pioneered by President Bill Clinton and adopted by Obama, based upon the fact that inner-city poverty is more or less synonymous with poor blacks, but with the caveat that one needn’t go so far as to draw attention to it.  Obama thus assures white voters that, despite being a black candidate, he will not allow the colour of his skin to dictate an affinitive political stance.  This is a prudent tactic, and necessary so as not to excite any resentment.

Transcending the racial divide

Nevertheless, throughout the presidential campaign, Obama has been heralded by blacks and whites alike as the candidate who could transcend the racial animosity which has so long been a burden to the United States.  This sentiment can readily be likened to the concept of ‘colour-blindness’, in which it is advocated that all people, regardless of their race, should be treated equally and without prejudice as a solution to racial disparity, which would simply cease to exist under such circumstances.  This ‘colour-blind’ point of view in relation to the Obama ascendancy has proved to be extremely popular and the assertion that the election of a black man to the White House is a signal that the last remaining racial hurdle has been cleared is obviously an attractive one for a United States scarred by the legacy of slavery.

This assertion is, however, idealistic at best and actually flies in the face of Obama’s own acknowledgement of ongoing racial issues in his celebrated ‘A More Perfect Union’ (The Huffington Post, 2008) speech, or the ‘Speech on Race’, as it has been dubbed, in Philadelphia, and also in other instances throughout the campaign.  Although his election to office is indeed an indication of immense progress, of which Americans can be justifiably be proud, it is nonetheless impossible to deny that racism and racial inequality remain very real issues of political and social importance in the United States.  Either way, the statistics evidencing overwhelming disparities in income, access to adequate medical care, adequate schools, infant mortality rates, and countless other indicators of privilege and wealth between blacks and whites, alongside evidence of racial profiling in stores and law enforcement, is unavoidable.  My emphasis upon race is not intended to downplay the other factors which undoubtedly contributed to Obama’s success, which included his superb oratory skills and an astutely managed campaign, instead it is an acknowledgement that race, however much it may be claimed otherwise by the proponents of Obama’s ‘transcendence’, also played an integral role.

This is particularly interesting, given the extent to which the opposing Republican and Democrat candidates attempted to avoid the subject at all costs.  After the controversial Wright sermons entered the public forum, Senator John McCain, Obama’s opponent, was heavily criticised for his initial refusal to address race during his campaign (2008, Fox  This seemed to make no sense to some conservatives, given the fact that McCain considered Obama’s links with the terrorist William Ayers fair game.  Wright offered McCain the opportunity to attack Obama’s patriotism, always a popular and potentially effective target during an election.  McCain’s unpopular position was defended by his Chief Advisor, Charlie Black, who asserted that ‘There's a big difference between an unrepentant terrorist who blew up the Pentagon and the Capitol and somebody's pastor, even if we might not agree with the views of the pastor’ (2008,  It is evident, however, that by taking up the issue of Wright, McCain would be opening up a racial can of worms rather than merely disagreeing with Wright’s opinions; any discussion of the Wright sermons would inevitably alienate some proportion of the electorate, something which candidates at election time are particularly unwilling to do.

Maintaining a centrist approach

Obama, however, was left with virtually no choice but to address the issue.  In the ‘Speech on Race’, Obama cast Wright as an eccentric relic of a past time, the inevitable product of another generation’s injustices.  Furthermore, in order not to alienate black voters, Obama compared Wright to his white grandmother, ‘a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe’ (2008, The Huffington Post)  In this speech, Obama is also empathetic towards both black and white anger, affirming that both ‘sides’ have cause for complaint, whilst expertly directing the blame for these grievances towards a race-neutral and faceless ‘corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many’ (2008, The Huffington Post).  This strategy won widespread acclaim for Obama.  The truly magnificent aspect of this speech was the manner in which Obama effectively took a bitterly divisive issue and repackaged it as a continuing struggle which binds black and white Americans together.

The campaign and subsequent election of President Barack Obama brought into sharp focus the discourse around race, all the more because of the insistence, on the part of Obama, as well as members of the press and public, that the election was not affected or characterised by the issue of race.  Obama himself has faced accusations from the African American community that he is ‘not black enough’ to represent them, an assertion that his failure to concentrate upon or promote specifically black political issues or interests undermines his blackness and ability to stand as a viable black candidate.  It can be reasoned that these accusations emerge as a result of insecurity on the part of African Americans who have not yet achieved a stable sense of their own racial identity, or who see themselves as marginalised by politicians who brush the very real and present inequalities to the side in order to further their careers by not antagonising or alienating white or conservative voters.  In maintaining a race-neutral, centrist approach, Obama has negotiated precarious racial issues, such as the case of the Jena 6 or the disgraceful treatment of the predominantly black victims of Hurricane Katrina, without sustaining significant damage to either his reputation or viability.  He has framed the issues in a way that most Americans, whether black or white, can identify with, such as basic moral values or governmental incompetence.

Furthermore, in his ‘Speech on Race’, Obama demonstrated why he was being hailed as a politician who could transcend race.  Not only is Obama biologically of mixed-race – a metaphorical symbol of the fusion of black and white America – he spoke of race in terms which were designed to be offensive to no-one, which accommodated all sides of the argument and channelled the residual sense of resentment on the part of both blacks and whites away from the racial ‘other’, directing it instead towards a more neutral and abstract object of blame – ‘the bureaucracy.’  It is no surprise then, that Obama appeared to offer hope of redemption, despite not explicitly framing himself as such.  That is not to say that Obama and his team did not actively manipulate perceptions in order to capitalise upon this sense of hope; in avoiding the issue of race, Obama actually encouraged discourse around it and, in doing so, also allowed the electorate to negotiate the related controversies without getting too deeply involved himself.

Additionally, this strategy resulted in a certain ambiguity which the public resolved by imposing their own expectations upon Obama.  The 2008 United States Presidential campaign highlighted not that race no longer played a factor in politics or success, but the extent to which Americans must still contend with the issue.  Whether it be the explicit denial that the decision to vote for Obama - or not - was based either wholly or partially upon race, whether it be the assertion that Obama is ‘too black’, ‘not black enough’, ‘mixed-race’ or ‘half-white’, or whether it be an avoidance of the issue altogether (thus signalling that there is an issue to be avoided), the intricacies and contradictory claims which informed Obama’s campaign clearly demonstrate, despite emphatic denials and aspirations to the contrary, that race still matters greatly when it comes to politics, as in other areas of American life.  The strength of the Obama campaign came in part from its willingness and ability to exploit this fact without ever appearing to have done so.


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