Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation

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Whenever Barack Obama has been seen as speaking too directly about issues of race and racism, or as evidencing too much race consciousness, he has been sharply rebuked by the press and the wider white electorate on the grounds that he is in violation of the racial pact. A majority of whites surveyed in a Ras- mussen poll concluded that in this episode, Obama had tried to invoke white guilt about racism for political advantage—a clear violation of the new race politics Gandelman For the most part, Obama as president has very carefully moderated his comments about racial injustice, seeming often to avoid addressing the topic of race at all.

And he has further reigned in, or disavowed, race-related statements put forth by his support- ers. On rare occasions, Obama has chosen to speak in a fairly clear manner about the dynamics of contemporary racism. One such example was his July response to the not-guilty verdict in the murder trial of Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Lewis As president, Barack Obama has underscored the view that the black poor are a deeply flawed and troublesome people, a people who cannot be helped by government or by any other entity, but must learn to help themselves.

Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has received high marks for such speech from commen- tators across the political spectrum. Only as of late has a sustained critique of this discourse become audible, as a number of mostly young black political commentators have suggested that Obama has now taken the rhetoric too far. And the conservative blog Townhall. No excuses! In May , Obama gave the commencement address at the all-male histori- cally black Morehouse College. During an August address given to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama delivered a similar message Williams Legiti- mate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.

The transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.

Barack Obama

And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity. All of that history is how progress stalled. Responsibility and Respectability Strains of this discourse have long been found in black public speech. Then, as now, the discourse aimed to reform the culture of the poor in order to gain white approval of blacks. Similarly, during the Great Migration of to , northern blacks preached respectability to the mass of uncultured migrants arriving daily from the south.

Victoria Wolcott writes that their message of sexual restraint, cleanliness, correct speech, and appropriate dress was aimed both at the black newcomers and at the whites they sought to impress. The politics of respectability have undergone a resurgence in the modern era, as the socioeconomic and experiential splits in the black community have widened T.

Harris ; Clutch ; Dolberry ; Polite ; Smith In one now-infamous speech delivered before the NAACP in , Cosby lambasted low-income blacks for a host of unpardonable deeds Cosby But there is a difference now in both tone and intent. In the past century, black moral reformers sought to uplift and improve the poor, perceiving that their own fate was tied to that of the community as a whole Knupfer ; Wolcott Yet the new socioeconomic divides discussed earlier in this article—the increasing movement of higher-income blacks into integrated spaces, contrasted with the clustering together of lower-middle-income blacks and the black poor—mean that African Americans divided by class and by space are less likely to see their fates as linked Dawson Additionally, the proliferation of multiracial identities and the influx of black immigrants from Africa and Caribbean have further diluted a sense of black unity Waters In the 21st century, the personal responsibility rhetoric aims not to uplift, but to achieve and maintain a clear separation, and to signal to whites both difference from the poor and disgust.

The discourse concedes readily that poor blacks, and those who flock with them, are pathological, unfit, and inassimilable. Yet the continuing utility of this rhetoric for President Obama is clear. Klein ; Romney In a political climate characterized by strong and enduring negative sentiment toward the black poor, Obama has thus sought to reassure white America that he, too, is intolerant of the culture of black complacency and complaint. There has, however, been some push back as of late. Harris ; Miloy ; Prince ; Williams Critics argue that while this speech may be uncomfortable and objectionable when coming from the mouths of other blacks, it is simply unacceptable when it comes from the sitting president of the United States.

An alternative response to the demands of the new race politics might have been to address the issue of inequality with more nuance and intellectual rigor. Rather than placing continual emphasis upon the failings of lower-income blacks, the president might have sought to bring a more critical perspective to the fore.

Such a perspective might acknowledge white frustrations with race relations, but also validate the life experiences of those laboring under the weight of centuries of racial oppression. Instead, Barack Obama has legitimized the reiteration of the worst cultural stereotypes about blacks, even among those on the political left. As the discourse of black personal responsibility has had political utility for Obama as president, so may it have limited strategic usefulness for the broader members of the black professional class.

The new race politics asks the black professional class to distin- guish itself clearly from residents of the ghettos. It offers incorporation and access to white spaces on the condition that the poor be rejected, along with collective black organization and race-specific demands on the state. You may come in to the neigh- borhood, to the corporation, to this school, to the White House it says, but do not expect to bring Cousin Pookie along with you. Adoption of the discourse of personal responsibility allows the members of the black professional class to show agreement with the terms.

There are downsides to this class politics of course. If the black professional class is seen as increasingly different, distinct, and in many ways better than the poor, the political will to effectively address the structural problems impacting black lower and lower-middle-income communities will weaken further still.

Additionally, this strategy of selective uplift leaves underlying assumptions about black cultural dysfunction firmly in place.

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This is not just a problem for the poor, but for the black upper middle classes as well. Karyn Lacy and Cherise Harris write that upper-income blacks often take pains to try to signal their class status in interactions with whites in order to minimize the likelihood of discrimination. This, however, is an exhausting and never-ending enterprise.

Upper-middle-class black boys unable to quickly and effectively signal their class status in confrontations with the police or with white strangers remain at high risk of being arrested or shot. Harris , are likely to be overlooked or defended as natural. Thus, for the members of the black professional class, the promise of the new politics of race, in its current articulation, is not likely to outweigh the peril. Elaborated in the first instance as a set of racial guidelines for candidate Barack Obama in his pursuit of the White House, I claim, the new race politics was articulated in a larger sense as a blueprint for all upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class blacks seeking access to white spaces and institutions.

I have discussed as well the ties between the new politics of race and the ideology of racial color blindness. The discourse, I argue, also goes beyond classic color blindness in two key respects: first, in that it is formulated as a set of expectations or imperatives of blacks in exchange for incorporation and access; and second, in that it is a class-specific discourse of race, drawing moral and normative distinctions between the black poor and the members of the upper middle class. Obama-like blacks, I find, are triangulated in the discourse against the black poor.

They are figured in 21st-century racial discourse as a kind of model minority, whose success verifies the goodness and fairness of America, and of whites themselves. By the same token, an important corollary, which demonstrates the enabling features of the new politics of race, is that black politicians and professionals may be able to strategi- cally exploit these rules to gain political access and social rank. Without of course downplaying the constraints imposed by contemporary race politics, the presence of new opportunities for agency and access are, I argue, a lesson of the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama.

A central contribution of this article has been to emphasize the relevance of social class to white assessments of blacks. This ideological differentiation is a key component of the class-based divergence in black racialization. It both reflects the increasingly distinct paths of black racial experience and contributes to their solidification. The arguments presented here suggest several areas for further research.

What, we might ask, would a new politics of race look like when formulated with reference to other racial groups? If, as is likely, the presidential race includes Latino candidates from either party, what kinds of racialized discourses will emerge, and how will the expectations of Latinos compare with those laid out for blacks?

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Also of interest are the broader processes of racialization for black professionals outside of the realm of electoral politics. How far beyond politics do the dictates of the new politics of race in fact extend? What kinds of racial ideas or ideals do whites apply to upper-income blacks in other settings? Are they seen also there as model minorities, fundamentally different from and superior to other nonwhites and to the black poor?

How well is Obama handling the racial divide?

Or are they viewed often as racially problematic? I have commented above upon the relationship between the upper-half of the black middle class and the black poor. But what are the dynamics of race and class between the black upper middle class and its lower-middle-class counterpart? Just how solid are the material and experiential divides that separate them?

Are the lines between these groups relatively permeable, or, as I have suggested, are they becoming more fixed and well defined? In all, the political, economic, cultural, and social consequences of the class splits highlighted in this article cannot be underestimated. They have crucial implications for the formation of black racial identity, for divergent white perceptions of blacks, and for the varied dynamics of contemporary racism.

These issues deserve much further research and debate. The above discussion of Barack Obama and the politics of black- ness, race, and class constitutes one important foray into this area. The study of the dis- course of the new politics of race makes clear the vital role of the Obama era in shaping contemporary racial formation. She estimates that the upper group comprises 35 percent of the black middle class and 9 percent of blacks overall, based upon figures from the census. My estimate of the current size of the upper portion of the black middle class is based on inflation-adjusted figures from the Current Population Survey of the U.

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They are what the political scientist Stephen Skowronek calls practitioners of Third Way politics Tony Blair was another , who undermine the opposition by borrowing policies from it in an effort to seize the middle and with it to achieve political dominance.

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Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation
Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation Barack Obama, Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation

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