Posted on August 13, 2008

For America’s Scholars of Race, an Obama Dilemma

Jonathan Tilove, Real Clear Politics, August 13, 2008

For scholars of race, Barack Obama presents a new American dilemma.

On the one hand, his election as president would be a breathtaking symbol of racial progress. On the other, an Obama victory could prove illusory, doing little to dismantle racism while crippling their ability to call attention to it.

“Then what will we do as race scholars?” wondered University of Virginia political scientist Lynn Sanders.

Newhouse News Service asked some of the nation’s leading students of race about the predicament.

“At this point, any conflict I might have is more than eased by the knowledge that Barack Obama, if elected, could be the salvation of a country in free flight failure,” Derrick Bell [who is black], a professor of law at New York University, who taught Obama when he was a student at Harvard Law School, replied via e-mail.


But in a blistering recent post on, Reed, who is black, argued that while Obama might be better than John McCain in the short run, in the long run he might be worse. This, Reed reasoned, is because, having co-opted so much of the left, Obama may move the boundary of acceptable discourse on race and class well to the right.

“I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to vote for Obama, though I do say it’s wrong-headed to vote for him with any lofty expectations,” wrote Reed, indicating his intention “to abstain from this charade.”


But, as [David Roediger] notes in the conclusion of his book—”How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon,” due out this fall—”Obama does not represent the triumph of an advancing anti-racist movement but rather the necessity, at the highly refracted level of electoral politics, of abandoning old agendas, largely by not mentioning them.”


What bothers Brown University economist Glenn Loury is that Obama’s election would fundamentally change the rules of race in America, yet that victory would come with the overwhelming assent of black people who have no idea that is what they are agreeing to.

“They’re voting for the end of affirmative action and they don’t even know it,” said Loury, who is black. “They’re voting for the end of race and they don’t even know it.”


Obama’s election, Anglin [Roland Anglin, executive director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers University] explained, won’t by itself change the objective condition of black people, the crisis of black males, the education gap or the prison gap. It will be up to the black community to keep the pressure on him to address their needs.

Still, Anglin said, there is no gainsaying the stunning power of the moment.

At 13, Anglin was bused into hostile Italian and Irish territory in Brooklyn, where he was physically and verbally attacked. “From that to seeing Barack Obama and the enthusiasm he’s generated, it’s almost full circle to me, that America could grow to the point where it could see someone like Barack Obama in a different light,” he said.


“You remarked that Reverend Jeremiah Wright ‘expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic,’” [a group of left social scientists] wrote Obama. “We believe that Wright is exactly right, that racism is not only endemic but is at the core of American society as reflected in a large and well established body of social scientific research.”

One signer of that letter was Texas A&M’s Joe Feagin, who said that, considering the obvious need for Obama to trim and “pander” to maintain white support, “It was the best speech on race ever given by a major presidential candidate.”

Feagin, who is white, is writing a book on Obama and race with Georgia State University sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield. He doubts Obama’s chances. Based on his extensive field interviews over the years with blacks and whites, Feagin said those forecasting an Obama victory don’t understand the degree to which whites remain racist “backstage.”

But for John McWhorter, a black linguist affiliated with the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York, Obama’s success forever discredits such worldviews.

“I think it really is going to change the way responsible people talk about racism,” McWhorter said. “Their basic idea, that racism is at the heart of how Americans feel, simply has been shown not to be true in the way that they said it.”

His Manhattan Institute colleague, Abigail Thernstrom, put it more caustically: “Are they still going to whine endlessly about racism in America?”

Yes, says Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman. Whether Obama wins or loses, Sniderman predicts, “There is going to be a furious effort to use evidence to show that racism is still this deep scar in the American experience.”