Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Obama's Racial Politics Examined in New Book

For a provocative, textured analysis of Obama's racial politics, take a look at Thomas Sugrue's new book, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race

The stuff on Hawaii is caricature and confection; it would seriously detract from the whole were it more than a few sentences here and there. At the same time, Sugrue's analysis of Obama's ethnographic odyssey would benefit significantly from a more informed, critical understanding of racial politics in Hawaii during the 1960s and 1970s. For example, a more knowledgeable writer would notice that the intermarriage Sugrue assumes is the norm in Hawaii ca 1961 (when Obama was born) was actually more problematic; he would also notice that the intermarriers, in Obama's case, were not from Hawaii, moved within the cocoon of a university, and included a member of the socially and economically dominant and elitist race.

Similarly, some of Sugrue's efforts to think beyond the black-white binary in expositing shifting boundaries of racial politics could be based on more rigorous invocation of social science data on the relative position of different non-white groups in contemporary America.  For example, Sugrue offers outmarriage rates as one piece of evidence of Asian Americans' allegedly better integration into mainstream (white) America.  He points to high outmarriage rates among Japanese Americans -- a) without distinguishing between Japanese American populations that enjoy a critical mass (ie, in Hawaii) and those that are tiny and often dispersed minorities (ie, on the US mainland); b) without differentiating outmarriage to whites (arguably a form of integration) from outmarriage to members of other Asian American groups; and c) without acknowledging the uniqueness of Japanese American US demographics given a long history of immigration exclusion and low contemporary rates of in-migration.  Sugrue also uses evidence from housing patterns -- stronger evidence, for sure, but still untested by variables such as population density, economic investment, duration of residence, or disaggregation of the census classification of Hispanic racial identities. I read this part too quickly, perhaps, so my reactions might not be fair:  but from reading Sugrue's discussion of comparative inequality, one would not know that Latinas earn the lowest, most unequal wages of all women in the US and that Latina single mothers have the highest recorded US poverty rates.

Despite my reservations regarding aspects of Sugrue's analysis, his main project does successfully show how Obama explored and engaged the intellectual, political, social, and strategic dimensions of U.S. race politics from the 1970s to 2008. Sugrue distills the legacies of Martin, Malcolm, and the rights revolution -- both for us, generally, and for Obama, in particular.  He shows how Obama the participant-observer experimented with different modes of thinking about race, and he illuminates the seminal influence of certain academic interventions -- ie, William Julius Wilson's various works, especially The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged -- in providing grist for both liberal and conservative versions of "getting beyond race."  By his silence about gender, especially the intersectional gender inequality of the whipping girls of "postracial" politics, Sugrue leads us to question the place of poor, Black women in Obama's philosophical and strategic calculus. Ultimately, Sugrue gives readers tools to consider how Obama the ambitious political actor came to deploy, simultaneously, race-consciousness (among Blacks), color-blindness (among Whites), and middle class gender values (for all) in a Clintonian strategic synthesis.  As Sugrue explains:

"By 2008, Obama had developed a patchwork quilt of social politics, one that combined left-leaning calls for cross-class alliance building, Clintonite advocacy for the end of welfare as we knew it, and a Christian moralism that allowed him to build an unlikely bridge between black churchgoers and culturally conservative whites. It was -- as with so many of Obama's key positions -- a synthesis of deep currents in American political and intellectual life in the last third of the twentieth century.... [T]hat synthesis...allowed him to fashion an appeal, at once, to left, center, and right; to blacks who called for a combination of social justice and personal responsibility, to whites who believed that the roots of black poverty lay in individual behavioral and moral failings, to Democrats who had worked to create a new liberalism that combined a jobs-oriented economic populism with cultural conservatism, to those right and center who supported bipartisan efforts to reform welfare, and to those on the left who were uncomfortable with it."

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