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Obama, Race and Our Segregated Power Structure

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

People are talking about Barack Obama making history tonight.

Yet in America's long struggle for racial equality, 2007 was a paradoxical year. Just as our political system seriously contemplated a black President for the very first time, the Supreme Court declared the end of racial integration policy, halting voluntary local remedies to desegregate public schools under Brown vs. Board of Education. Presented with the rise of Barack Obama and the fall of Brown, most people have focused on the good news.

Many Americans were captivated by the self-proclaimed "audacity" of Obama's January announcement that he was running for President. Obama made it clear he was not running to send a message or to register voters but literally to get elected. His campaign initially worked because the political elites accepted this unprecedented proposition. Reporters took Obama's candidacy seriously from its inception, and the donors did, too. Obama has already secured more than a footnote in history, shattering records for individual contributors to his campaign. Win or lose, he is arguably the first black American to be treated by the political and media establishment as a fully viable presidential contender. It is an achievement that cannot be claimed by any other racial minorities. (Jesse Jackson's campaigns did not attain such standing with the political establishment, despite their significance for many voters.) We should not gloss over this development. It is a meaningful step towards addressing a resilient, uncomfortable American fact: our national power structure has always been, and stubbornly remains, overwhelmingly white, from all forty-three Presidents across history to ninety-five of the one hundred senators serving today.

That segregated power structure was reinforced by the Supreme Court's sharply divided June decision to ban integration programs in public schools. Most educational policies that consider a student's race for the purposes of integration are now illegal. Like the original Brown opinion, this year's decision is not neatly confined to K-12 schools, either. Brown consecrated a new national ambition for racial equality in the public sphere, delegitimizing both explicit and implicit racism in government, and laying a foundation for remedial measures to equalize many other facets of our society. Many critics contend that this case, Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, augurs a disturbing slide backwards. It bans integration programs, sharply restricts race-based government remedies and sets the stage for future bans on other remedial programs, such as affirmative action, as Justice Stephen Breyer warned.

But will the public really stand for this sweeping attack on Brown's legacy?

Yes. In most of the country, public opposition towards measures to remedy America's history of racial discrimination, from academic recruitment to professional affirmative action, has actually outpaced the conservative court. Even putting aside the South, generally liberal electorates--including California, Washington and Michigan--have passed state referenda completely banning affirmative action. Hostility towards affirmative action runs so deep, in fact, it is a staple of attacks against black political candidates. Senator Jesse Helms perfected coded campaign racism in 1990, with an infamous attack ad darkly juxtaposing his black opponent's face with the text "For RACIAL QUOTAS." Which brings us back to Barack Obama.

Some commentators have latched onto Obama's success as proof for the flawed claim that the United States has completely achieved equal opportunity for all, obviating remedial programs like affirmative action. "Obama embodies and preaches the true and vital message that in today's America, the opportunities available to black people are unlimited if they work hard, play by the rules, and get a good education," writes Stuart Taylor Jr., a columnist for The National Journal (emphasis added). Taylor presents one man's unusual political arc as a universal lesson for all "black children": "Obama's soaring success should tell black children everywhere that they, too, can succeed, and they do not need handouts or reparations." Obama's success is definitely inspirational, but is that because it is an average example or a remarkable exception?

As a politician, Obama is an accomplished black man who knows that some voters still see him, before all else, as "the black candidate." It seems as if commentators either fixate on how his blackness makes his candidacy historic--as I just did--or debate whether he is "black enough." Obama dutifully protests these lines of inquiry, assuring audiences that his qualifications, vision and personal experiences transcend race. This is not only true, it is a political necessity. Obama knows that he is unlikely to win as the "black candidate," let alone the "affirmative-action candidate."

Few other campaigns in recent memory have pressed meritocratic credentials as forcefully as Obama's aides. Today's candidates tend to downplay their Ivy League educations in favor of more humble qualifications. Yet it is rare to hear Obama's history discussed without a reference to Harvard, or his prestigious stint as editor-in-chief of its Law Review. Even when his campaign is not emphasizing it, reporters highlight Obama's education far more than any other candidate's. Take, for example, articles from the major newspapers about the leading Democratic candidates in the first ten months of this year's campaign. Obama's Harvard Law credentials turn up a whopping 178 times--six times the thirty Yale references for Hillary Clinton. John Edwards's law school was only mentioned once, in an article about how he met his wife.

This emphasis is vital to Obama's candidacy. He earned his past success and current prominence, in this narrative, as evidenced by his academic achievement and intelligence. The story line aims to banish the racist thought, lurking beneath our public discourse, that perhaps this candidate succeeded only because of his race. Sometimes it seeps out anyway. During a January appearance on Fox News, columnist John McWhorter offered the baseless claim that "the reason that [Obama is] considered such a big deal is simply because he's black." McWhorter implausibly continued, "If you took away the color of his skin, nobody right now would be paying him any attention."

Such baseless attacks obviously predate Barack Obama. Even the most extraordinarily successful minorities are either attacked for their achievements, or the meaning of their educational and professional advancement is contested. Like other talented, smart and successful black Americans who have broken barriers (including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), Obama excelled in an institution that used affirmative action to propel qualified minority applicants. Having proven their mettle as leaders, it is clear each of these figures would excel without affirmative action. And no one knows how their careers would have developed in a society without remedial measures for discrimination. Yet their paths show how the United States has benefited from applying affirmative action in public institutions.

I try to tell more of that story in the rest of this essay for The Nation. (This post is an excerpt of Part I.)

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