On the night he lost the presidential election to Barack Obama, Senator John McCain said what millions of Americans, of a once-marginalized community, felt in their hearts: “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” The president-elect followed, with a stirring speech of his own: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he declared, “who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Though it had been a long time coming, “because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
A short time later, however, the limitations of such boundless optimism became apparent. Just six months into the new administration, Henry Louis Gates, a prominent African-American academic (and a friend of the president), was mistaken for a burglar in his own home and subsequently arrested by a white police officer. Though charges were quickly dropped, President Obama, asked to comment on the incident, said the police “acted stupidly.” The remark caused a national uproar, raising suspicions of racial profiling, on the one hand, and anti-police bias, on the other. Embroiled in yet another racial controversy, America, it seemed, had not really changed after all.
Race has always been a neuralgic point in American society and, as such, is very difficult to write about. One scholar who has done so, with distinction, is Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard. While staunchly liberal, Kennedy is not afraid to buck the liberal establishment, and indeed has occasionally been attacked by it. In Race, Crime and the Law, he offered a remarkably fair account of an incendiary topic; and in Sellout: the Politics of Racial Betrayal, he defended the right-of-independent black thinkers (including conservatives he strongly disagrees with) against charges of disloyalty.
In his new book, The Persistence of the Color Line, Kennedy explores the history of racial politics in America, focusing on the historic 2008 campaign and the first few years of the Obama presidency. The result is a provocative but uneven work that alternates between insightful commentary and tenuous liberal polemics.
Kennedy’s opening words set the theme of his book: “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.” As proof, he cites the long and sad history of racism in America—against not just blacks, but also other minorities—and highlights events that reflect that up to the present day. To his credit, Kennedy doesn’t simply assail obvious racists, but also criticizes their (often overlooked) enablers, including prominent liberal icons such as Franklin Roosevelt. For all his achievements, FDR “played a major role in the moral disaster of Japanese-American internment during World War II, tolerated Jim Crow segregation, and declined to push hard for federal anti-lynching legislation.” Many of FDR’s opponents were scarcely better, and African-Americans suffered terrible degradation and abuse as a result. Reading Kennedy’s summary of the struggles of African-Americans at that time, including a moving account of his father’s own travails, one can well understand (if not agree with) Malcolm X’s bitter lament: “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
Although American race relations have dramatically improved, thanks to the positive vision of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, the cultural legacy of American racism remains, and it was into this socio-political vortex that Barack Obama stepped. In analyzing Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency and the challenges his campaign faced, Kennedy makes a persuasive case that Obama carried a burden—and still does—that no white candidate ever would. From his early bouts with the Clintons, to the crisis created by his long-time former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, to his “More Perfect Union” speech, Obama was forced to deal with race relations at an almost unrelenting pace. While his determination to be a “post-racial” politician may have been overoptimistic, Kennedy, who can be a harsh critic, gives Obama considerable credit for succeeding as well as he has.
Where Kennedy’s analysis goes wrong, however, is in his explanation (or lack thereof) of President Obama’s recent decline in the polls and the daunting task he now faces to win re-election. So focused is Kennedy on racial perceptions about the Obama presidency that he barely considers whether Obama’s policies—on everything from economics and healthcare to social policy and Middle East diplomacy—may be contributing to his waning popularity. To the extent that Kennedy does address policies, and their failures, he blames Obama’s “right-wing enemies” and the president’s supposed timidity in fighting them. But Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the conservative blogosphere were not able to prevent Barack Obama from becoming president in 2008, and neither will they be the decisive factor in the 2012 election: the independents who helped elect Obama but have now grown sour on his presidency will play that role. The 2010 mid-term elections were not an example of reactionary and racially tinged backlash against Obama; they were a legitimate center-right response to a coercive and unproductive liberalism.
Indeed, liberal excess and overreach have revived American conservatism in ways unimaginable after the 2006 and 2008 elections. The GOP’s recent electoral gains have even reached into the minority community, as witnessed by the gubernatorial wins of Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Susana Martinez; of Senator Marco Rubio and freshman Representatives Allen West and Tim Scott. Alarmed by this trend, Kennedy, revealing his partisanship, refuses to give any credit to the Republicans, and instead asks us to question their motives: “What does this outburst of Republican ‘diversification’ signify? It shows that under certain circumstances among Republicans ideology does trump race….Voters were not indifferent to the race of the candidate; it’s just that the weight of race was overmatched by other considerations.”
In other words, conservative Republicans are still, at some basic level, racially motivated, though they are willing to suppress their racism for the sake of conservative ideology. Kennedy admits that he cannot prove this theory, and so he instead bases it on his “impression” and suspicions about the hearts of GOP voters. But given the gravity of the charge, hunches and feelings are simply not enough. More importantly, Kennedy ignores an alternative explanation: that today’s mainstream Republican voters—particularly those who are religious and embrace the Christian vision of Reverend King—believe that racism is immoral, and indeed sinful, and so would never consider race as a voting factor. Kennedy cannot bring himself to imagine this, so hostile is he to the GOP and so attached is he to the idea of “racial conservatives,” as he calls them.
In fairness, the Right has left itself vulnerable to such suspicions because of its own missteps, some serious. Many leading conservatives originally opposed the Civil Rights Act; when the notorious book The Bell Curve came out, too many flirted with its offensive and discredited ideas; and even to this day, some self-described “conservatives” have a strange affection for the confederate flag and the antebellum south. Moreover, as Kennedy showed in Race, Crime and the Law, conservatives have not given sufficient attention to racial disparities and abuses in our justice system.
But modern conservatism has gotten plenty right, and one of its principal insights is the danger of contemporary liberalism’s lack of constraint. Even when contemporary liberalism gets something right, it doesn’t know when or how to stop. Increasingly, it has become morally reckless, as we have seen in the current debate over abortion and marriage. Since its triumphant support for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, American liberalism has been misled by an “unconstrained” vision of humanity and its favoring of “rights talk” over personal responsibility. Kennedy’s book is blind to this.
Kennedy also loses his focus in a bout of political activism. In a work that is supposed to be about the dimensions of race in American politics, Kennedy awkwardly introduces the idea of “gay liberation,” and condemns what he calls “the heterosexist orthodoxy of this era.” Like many on the Left, he conflates race with sex, and equates today’s gay rights movement with the original civil rights movement. Of course, by doing so, he implicitly rebukes Reverend King, who never made this erroneous analogy, and in fact counseled against homosexuality, out of charity and love. Gay marriage is not in his “I Have a Dream” speech, or any of his other great addresses. Moreover, many African-Americans continue to uphold traditional morals and marriage, despite efforts to demonize them in the media (a prejudice Kennedy is utterly silent about).
Bad on sex, Professor Kennedy is even worse on abortion. Given his legal expertise and sensitivity to racial matters, one would think that Kennedy would squarely address the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, as abortion disproportionately affects minorities, in ways many believe to be racist. Astonishingly, however, Kennedy virtually ignores the subject, and makes no mention of Obama’s extreme views favoring abortion. Nor does Kennedy say anything about those unsavory figures, who, as pro-life congressman Bob Dornan once told the House, enthusiastically approve of “reproductive choice” for minorities as a means of keeping their population down. It is tragic irony that many liberals who claim to champion civil rights have become the ideological bedfellows of their most ardent opponents, at least on the matter of “choice.”
Having given a pass to Obama on abortion, Kennedy nonetheless assails a host of black conservatives for their views on a wide range of issues, particularly affirmative action. This marks a regression. In his previous work, Kennedy tried to find areas of common ground with conservatives, but here he is explicitly partisan, denouncing distinguished thinkers such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell (“an ultraconservative academic turned propagandist”). It is unclear why Kennedy goes down this path (especially since Sowell has praised Kennedy’s work), but by resorting to name-calling and invective, Kennedy sounds like the over-the-top broadcasters he properly rebukes elsewhere in his book.
Brilliant as he is, Kennedy does not really understand American conservatism or the Judeo-Christian beliefs that inspired it. Instead, he rails against “retrograde religiosity,” warning that such beliefs “have caused or been deployed to justify all sorts of horrible practices”; while true, this is quite disingenuous. As Leszek Kolakowski and Richard John Neuhaus have reminded us, secularist ideologies have brought about infinitely worse evils. Reverend King, in response to just this line of attack on Christianity, agreed that Christians have frequently sinned, but affirmed that the church still has a noble purpose: “This [sin], however, is not the whole church. The church at its best has always stood as the conscience of society.”
Although Kennedy takes passionate liberal stands throughout his book, nowhere does he explain where he gets them, or why they should have any hold on us. Having rejected revelation as a basis for morality, and indifferent to natural law arguments, Kennedy simply draws on his own subjective progressivism, which is a frightening prospect for anyone seeking a coherent public philosophy. As Professor Robert George writes, contrasting today’s relativism with Rev. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
The eclipse of Natural Law thinking among those who speak for the civil rights movement makes it difficult to say anything very compelling about the problems of irresponsibility, drug abuse, promiscuity, crime, and collapsing family structures in many impoverished communities. In the absence of a Natural Law philosophy of civil rights, the politics of victimhood becomes understandable and perhaps inevitable. But it is an altogether inadequate philosophy to guide those who would complete the task Reverend King so notably advanced.
Race has been called “the American crucible,” and it will be with us, on some level, for our nation’s duration. Given human nature, it is unlikely that we will ever “overcome” race in every respect. We can, however, delegitimize it to the point that it no longer harms, obsesses, intimidates, or offends. If America is to reach that point, it will have to acknowledge and amend not only the sins of the Right, but also the “progressive” untruths espoused in this book. Our republic is owed nothing less.