Paint the White House black: Barack Obama and the meaning of race in America [Haltinner Review]
Ethnic and Racial Studies
Volume 37, Issue 10, 2014
Special Issue: Ethnic and Racial Studies Review
Kristin Haltinner, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Idaho
Paint the White House black: Barack Obama and the meaning of race in America, by Michael P. Jeffries, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2013, 210 pp., $22.95 (soft cover), ISBN 978-08-047-8096-4
In his song ‘Paint the White House Black’ (1993), after which Jeffries’ book is named, George Clinton raps:
Colors don’t clash, people just do
Color me happy next to you
Aww, just like it should, there goes the Neighborhood
That is what they’d have us believe
Paint the White House black, brown
Paint the White House…
Paint the White House black, brown
Paint the White House, black…
Like Clinton, Jeffries calls on all people to interrogate the ‘metalanguage’ of race (15). In his song, George Clinton highlights the hypocrisy of Bill Clinton’s presidency, expresses the need for race- and class-critical politics and calls for black or brown representation in the White House. In contrast, Jeffries’ book argues that having a president of colour does little to challenge institutional racism or the ‘language’ of race and that Americans must explore how race functions as a dynamic and powerful force in society.
Jeffries’ book begins with the paradox of Obama’s presidency: the question of whether race relations have improved or disintegrated since 2008. Rather than falling into the tempting trap of simply providing resolution to this dichotomy, Jeffries implores readers to investigate the underlying processes that contribute to current racial discourse and the birth of the question itself.
To do this, Jeffries expands previous understandings of race and racial formation by calling on scholars and citizens to explore ‘race in action’ (3), that is, to use the case study of Obama to examine the creation of racial meanings and knowledge. Jeffries builds on the work of Hall and Higginbotham to launch his analysis, arguing first that ‘race operates as a language’ in that it creates and hides deeper implications and significance while concurrently holding distinct, context-dependent meanings (7) and, second, that race defines and produces other socially constructed categories such as class or gender. Jeffries argues that the best way to examine current racial knowledge and its operation is through engaging with theories of intersectionality to ‘search for and highlight all the social forces that give cultural events racial meaning’ (14).
The book consists of four substantive chapters that provide evidence and analysis for Jeffries’ claims. Chapter two engages with intersectionality to examine how current racial knowledge is simultaneously constructed by and produces the concept of nation. Jeffries successfully argues that much of the vitriol targeted at Obama is due to the continued connection between Americanism, whiteness and the ‘politics of inheritance’ (15). Obama struggles with this in his memoir where he describes both wanting to be, like his father, an honourable black man – one who chases the American dream, but also witness to and halted by broader social inequality and black marginalization. Jeffries uses Obama’s experiences to argue for a novel construction of national identity built on a new collective culture that challenges supremacy in all forms and encourages connections between ‘ethnoracial communities’ (45).
Chapter three explores the politics of multiracial identity and the social objectification of multiracial bodies as symbols of a post-racial society. Jeffries uses the experience of multiracial young adults to demonstrate how race operates as a ‘metalanguage’ by either hiding its relation to other social forces or racializing phenomena that may not be racially based. Through these interviews, the malleable nature of race and multiraciality is identified and white supremacy accurately cited as the lynchpin of racism. Multiracial identity is, in turn, presented as one possible weapon in the war to fight racial oppression. Continuing his critique of post-racial ideology, in chapter four Jeffries more deeply discusses the ways in which multiracial people are falsely used as evidence of a post-racial America or ‘the end of black politics’ (16). Through an intersectional analysis, Jeffries demonstrates how class informs and defeats this assumption: recognizing the persistent operation of a ‘black counterpublic’ and the ways in which black political institutions have been undermined (93). He ultimately calls on citizens to demand change to the institutions that create inadequate leadership and host political power, rather than solely critiquing leaders of colour…
Read the entire review here.