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The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

A post-racial America? Not yet, says Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy.

By Kelly Nuxoll / August 26, 2011

The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, by Randall Kennedy, Pantheon, 336 pp.

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In 2007 and 2008, most Americans probably learned about the presidential campaign through the media. A little TV, some Internet, maybe newspapers and magazines. There was certainly plenty of coverage – not to mention plenty to say. As readers remember, the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama provoked a nationwide conversation about gender and race.

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But a very, very small segment of the population was at Harvard Law School during 2007 and 2008, taking Randall Kennedy’s class on the campaign. Kennedy is not only a legal scholar but the author of several books on race and racism, including “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” and “Race, Crime, and the Law.” As such, Kennedy’s students had the additional benefit of their professor’s scholarly and historical perspective – and now you can, too.

In The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Kennedy helpfully compiles and interprets the public conversation around Obama’s 2008 election and his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. He references New York Times’ op-eds, blog posts, blog comments, song lyrics, Congressional outbursts, court cases, radio talk show hosts, poems, political ads, Gallup polls, sermons, books, articles, speeches, off-the-record remarks, and lots and lots of history. (Indeed, on some pages the footnotes are almost as long as the text.) Kennedy uses these cultural artifacts to consider whether President Obama’s election means that the United States is post-racial.

Kennedy’s answer – which he articulates in the first sentence of the book – is no. Kennedy writes, “The terms under which Barack Obama won the presidency, the conditions under which he governs, and the circumstances under which he seeks reelection all display the haunting persistence of the color line.” Guided by this thesis, subsequent chapters consider how race (and sometimes gender) factored into blacks’ response to Obama, whites’ response to Obama, and the president’s own rhetoric.

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