On Jan. 20, 2009, barely 40 years after the dismantling of the racial caste system that followed slavery, a black man became the 44th president of the United States. The moment resonated across the country and around the world.
But what did it mean?
As Barack Obama completes his first term, Fredrick C. Harris counters the powerful symbolism of Obama’s election with a critique of how African Americans have fared over the past four years. Harris, a professor of political science and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, argues that as a consequence of Obama’s historic presidency, issues of racial inequality and injustice have been pushed further to the margins of national politics.
“The Price of the Ticket” considers the evolution of black politics “during the transition of the civil rights and black power movements to the practices of mainstream American politics.” The fundamental question since the 1970s, Harris writes, was: “What is the best strategy for black communities to pursue their political interests?” But a different if related question emerged once formal barriers had fallen, and it became a controlling factor in electoral politics, which is the focus of this book. Namely, what was the best strategy for securing power within the Democratic Party, the political home of black Americans, and electing black candidates to office?
The book carves a narrow path through the history of the past four decades, highlighting pivotal campaigns — such as the presidential runs of Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson; Harold Washington’s mayoral victories in Chicago; and the 1989 successes of black candidates in largely white districts, from David Dinkins in New York City to Douglas Wilder’s historic gubernatorial win in Virginia — and tracking the development of the race-neutral style of politics that prepared the way for Obama’s ascendancy to the White House.
Harris devotes two chapters to trends that might help explain why important segments of the black electorate were receptive to a political agenda that played down the structural causes of racial inequality and its consequences. He discusses the appeal of the “prosperity gospel,” with its emphasis on individualism and material success, and the “politics of respectability,” a strain in African American thought that emphasizes personal responsibility as key to the uplift of the black poor.
But Harris gives little attention to the forces that produced an increasingly racialized political climate, such as the racial codification of welfare,busing, quotas, poverty and crime, developments that helped forge the new Republican majority that elevated Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Black activists aligned with the Democratic Party were not at the forefront of the strong progressive coalition that activist Bayard Rustin imagined in his seminal 1965 essay, “From Protest to Politics”; instead, strategists seeking to elect black candidates outside black-majority communities had to develop ways to neutralize white bias.
Harris notes that the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank, convened a major conference to address this issue in 1983. He also cites a 1990 study that underscored the challenges black candidates faced, including a 1987 survey in which most white respondents agreed that the only policy area where a black politician would perform better was helping the poor — not a winning trait in the political climate in the ’80s and beyond.
By the time Obama ran for president, race-neutral campaigning techniques, Harris writes, “had become highly sophisticated.” Such an approach aimed to counter the “race-infused apprehensions” of white voters and distance black candidates from “issues and policies targeted at eradicating racial inequality.” Drawing mostly on comments and speeches, he offers a thin analysis of how Obama navigated potential racial minefields in the 2008 campaign. For example, Obama’s comments after the 1995 Million Man March, where he focused on society’s responsibility for the dire circumstances facing young black men, are juxtaposed with his 2008 Father’s Day speech, which, Harris writes, “focused mostly on black men’s failings as fathers [with] hardly any explanation of the social barriers those men faced.” Harris presents this as evidence that the sentiments expressed in 1995 “evaporated once Obama decided to run for president.” This is not a convincing interpretation, especially given the book’s broader argument suggesting that a shift in tone and emphasis was in order if Obama was to be a competitive presidential candidate.
Harris points to several administration policies that have benefited African Americans, but he observes that Obama’s “race neutral campaign strategy has spilled over to his approach to governing . . . [and] exacted a heavy cost to a politics once dominated by strategies that overtly challenged racist practices and institutions.” Here the book conflates multiple arenas and eras of black politics. Political leaders and activists engaged in protests and community-based organizing efforts have largely functioned outside formal structures of government; historically this has been essential to securing policies that redress racial inequities. Harris attempts to link Obama with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (the book jacket features images of Malcolm X and Obama). Yet nearly a half-century and vast differences in their relationships to politics, power and the media separate the president from those two figures, who never attempted to run for electoral office.
The author concludes that African Americans’ overwhelming and largely uncritical support of the president is a high price to pay for the continuing marginalization of race-specific issues on the national political agenda. But he does not suggest how black voters might more effectively spend their political capital in the constricted world of presidential politics.
Curiously, there is no reference to Obama’s 2008 speech on race and the circumstances leading up to it. In a rare moment, a presidential candidate called attention to the racial history of the United States and acknowledged the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.” Such a stalemate is written in the wide racial gaps that define all measures of social and economic well-being and in a chronic ignorance of the nation’s racial past and how it shapes the present.
In 1961, James Baldwin mused on Robert F. Kennedy’s prediction that a black American would become president one day. “What really exercises my mind,” Baldwin said, “is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro president. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.”
Any consideration of the Obama presidency and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States should begin there. That is the question that hovers over this interesting book.
THE PRICE OF THE TICKET
Barack Obama and the Rise
and Decline of Black Politics
By Fredrick C. Harris
Oxford Univ. 210 pp. $24.95