Color Blindness and Racial Politics in the Era of Obama
Books & Ideas
Andrew J. Diamond, Professor of American History and Civilization
Université Paris-Sorbonne, France
At a time when a supposedly “post-racial” America is becoming increasingly polarized over its first black president, historian Thomas Sugrue proposes a badly needed perspective on Obama’s attempts to negotiate between color blindness and race consciousness. Despite the depth of his historical perspective, he understates how destructive Obama’s religious moralism is for the cause of racial progress.
Reviewed: Thomas J. Sugrue, Not Even Past. Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, Princeton University Press, 2010, 178p., $24.95
Thomas J. Sugrue’s Not Even Past is one of the latest contributions to the exploding field of Obama studies. Sugrue discloses in the opening pages that he voted for Barack Obama, made a small financial contribution to his campaign, and even worked on the candidate’s urban advisory committee, but his objective in his own rendering of Obama’s breathtaking rise to the White House is “balance”. In a moment when the United States is becoming increasingly polarized over its first black president, with a rising crescendo of criticism on both the right and left of the American political spectrum, this is an ambitious project to say the least. But Sugrue, an eminent Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the new urban historiography of race and power in the postwar American metropolis, is just the guy for the job, even if, in the final analysis, Obama’s detractors will no doubt have more complaints with the book than his supporters. And yet, if one gets the sense that Sugrue is at times pulling punches, he ultimately manages to produce an even-handed and illuminating analysis of the Obama story.
Not Even Past, which consists of three essays adapted from a series of lectures the author presented at Princeton University in 2009, stands out among the recent works on what Barack Obama means to the United States, in part, because Sugrue remains true to his métier. Joining a field crowded with works of a somewhat polemical and journalistic bent, Sugrue delivers a rich, lucid, and badly needed account of the historical events, political movements, and ideological currents that shaped the ground upon which Obama negotiated his racial identity, developed his political views, and positioned himself for an improbable run for the presidency. Yet, this is as much a story about the world that made the man than it is about the man himself. “It is the story”, Sugrue writes, “of a journey through one of the most contentious periods of America’s racial history, through America’s post-1960s multicultural turn, into the syncretic black urban politics of the late twentieth century, onto the contested intellectual and cultural terrain of race and ‘identity politics’ in the late 1980s and 1990s, and finally to a moment in the early twenty-first century when America still lived in the shadow of the unfinished civil rights struggles of the previous century while influential journalists, politicians, and scholars hailed the emergence of a post-racial order” (p. 16). These were treacherous waters indeed for black politicians and white liberals alike, both of whom had to navigate a course through the ideological cross-currents of color blindness and race consciousness. These conditions had the Democratic Party lost at sea for the good part of three decades. Obama’s journey to political and racial self-discovery is also the story of how the Democrats rediscovered their bearings in a country drifting ineluctably rightward…
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