'Color Line' Still A Potent Force In The U.S. While many hoped Barack Obama's presidency would usher in a post-racial period in America, Randall Kennedy says the reality hasn't lived up to that expectation. In The Persistence of the Color Line, Kennedy explores the racial issues still at play in the presidency and throughout the country.
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'Color Line' Still A Potent Force In The U.S.

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'Color Line' Still A Potent Force In The U.S.

'Color Line' Still A Potent Force In The U.S.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away. We are continuing to monitor news of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the Virginia area earlier today, and we will have more on that later this hour.

But first, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many hoped his victory heralded the dawn of a new, post-racial America. Prominent black leaders from Colin Powell to Oprah Winfrey remarked on the significance of the moment.

COLIN POWELL: We're very, very proud to have a new American president who also happens to be an African-American, and that very fact moves us so far along the continuum that African-Americans have been traveling for the last 230 years of our nation.

(Soundbite of archived broadcasts)

OPRAH WINFREY: It feels like hope won. It feels like America did the right thing. It feels like there's a shift in consciousness. It feels like something really big and bold has happened here. The best is yet to come.

ROBERTS: Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy says that the reality never lived up to those expectations. In his new book, Kennedy argues that while Barack Obama's presidency is a remarkable milestone, it does not mean that racial prejudice is no longer a potent force in American politics.

Looking back over the past two years, tell us about a time when you experienced the color line, or when you were surprised by its absence. Our number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an economist's argument to end the tax deduction homeowners get on their mortgage interest payments. But first, Randall Kennedy joins us from a studio at Harvard University. His new book is called "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RANDALL KENNEDY: (Professor, Harvard Law) Thanks so much for having me on.

ROBERTS: So you describe in the book the pride and the emotion that you felt standing in the crowd on President Obama's inauguration day. Do you still feel that?

KENNEDY: Sure. I think that something big and bold did happen when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. I mean, against the backdrop of American history, it was a remarkable event. I mean, after all, in the mid-20th century in many parts - at least in some parts of the United States - I'm thinking of the Deep South - black people were excluded from electoral politics either legally or extra-legally, sometimes by just din of sheer terrorism. So for him to be elected was a big deal, of course.

ROBERTS: So do you think that the expectations that the election of our first black president would mean that the U.S. had moved into some sort of post-racial state - that those expectations were too high? Or is it that the forces that led to that election have not continued the momentum in order to achieve the promise of it?

KENNEDY: I think that there were some people who had, you know, a sort of an unrealistic view - a millenarian view, as if everything was going to be different. But racial conflict is deeply embedded in American history. And so it was unrealistic to think that one election - or frankly, even two or three or four - will erase something that is so deep and that is so pervasive in American life; namely, the race line.

ROBERTS: Politically, the president has been criticized for - in the words of, say, Representative Maxine Waters, she says the president's going to have to fight; he's going to have to fight hard. She's frustrated that he has not done enough in minority communities about unemployment and foreclosure rates and the wealth gap. What do you think about criticisms that the president has neglected the needs of the black community?

KENNEDY: Well, I don't think that anybody can reasonably say that he's neglected the needs of the black community. You know, the president's an important person, a powerful person, and he is certainly not above criticism. And sometimes - at least, in my view - I do not think that he has pushed hard enough a progressive agenda that would be helpful to those further down on the American, you know, socioeconomic ladder.

At the same time, those who criticize the president from that vantage have to recognize that the president is in a dilemma. He's caught in a dilemma, and he faces very powerful opposition. And so it's not that he's been neglectful. He's - I think he's been trying, but he's up against powerful opposition.

And, you know, the president operates on a landscape that is, you know, that's an all-too-conservative landscape, from my perspective. If that landscape changes, if progressives help change it, I think that the president will be able to move a couple steps, you know, over to the left.

If that landscape is pushed further to the right, the president's power will be limited and he will be forced, you know, because of electoral calculation, to steer a more centrist or even, you know, rightwards course.

ROBERTS: Do you think that equation would be different for a white Democratic president?

KENNEDY: No. I mean, I think electoral politics imposes its own discipline, and if you're a politician, you know, politicians are politicians. You know, but I do think that the - that Barack Obama faces impediments that a white president would not have to shoulder. For one thing - just one thing - Barack Obama will always be looked at as a person who - you know, his detractors will always be looking for racial favoritism. They'll always be looking to accuse him of showing favoritism to, quote, his people - namely, black people. You know, a white politician wouldn't have to face that.

ROBERTS: And in terms of examining the sort of racial aspects of this presidency in your book, it's not simply about politics, it's a lot about identity: his identity, first lady Michelle Obama's identity. You write that he's had to overcome detractors who complain he's not black enough as well of those who have complained that he or his wife are too black.

KENNEDY: Absolutely. I mean, remember early in the campaign, you know, most politically active blacks were not with Barack Obama. I mean, most black elected officials seemed to have been with Hillary Clinton. It was only after he was able to show that he had a realistic possibility of winning, you know, that there was the great change.

Ever since then, the great mass of black Americans have been enthusiastic backers of Barack Obama, and that continues to this day.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Catherine(ph) in Fresno, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Catherine.

CATHERINE: Thank you. My comment was maybe a little off your topic, but I think it's worth noting. I teach high school, and Fresno, California, is a very diverse community. My classroom, in my high school - have mostly Asian, largely Hmong, students and mostly Mexican students, with a few Caucasian kids mixed in here and there. And I make up, typically, one of maybe four white people in the classroom at a given time. What we have talked through the history, the kids often ask why on earth did they care that someone was black or that someone was Jewish, or that someone was this or that? Young people of today literally don't take account of it. It doesn't occur to them that that's part of the measure of what's going on.

I think that's a real contrast to President Barack Obama's generation, which is mine - we're almost exactly the same age. It's interesting how different those things are.

ROBERTS: Catherine, thanks for your call. Randall Kennedy, do you see that - that as generations start to change over, that some of these issues just are kind of aging themselves out?

KENNEDY: Absolutely. I mean, social scientists have taken a look at racial attitudes, and racial attitudes have changed dramatically, and they have a generational component to them. On the other hand, I don't think that we should fall prey to naivete. The fact of the matter is even amongst younger people, you know, there is racial prejudice. And that's going to, unfortunately, hang on for a good long while.

As for young people not understanding why race is such a big thing, on the one hand, I suppose there's a good side to that story. If they are not, you know, unduly concerned about race, that's a good thing. On the other hand, sometimes that attitude arises from just mere ignorance.

It seems to me that any person should have a good recognition of why it is that the election of the first black president was such a big deal. It was such a big deal because black people have been so harshly excluded and marginalized, particularly in electoral politics. That's why so many black people were crying the night that Barack Obama was elected.

ROBERTS: Although we did, certainly, see a lot of this generational conflict play itself out during the campaign - and, you know, this is the week that the Martin Luther King memorial is being dedicated here in Washington, D.C. - that, you know, the veterans of the civil rights movement were saying, you've got to remember what we went through to make this possible. And younger people were saying we do remember, but it can't still all be about those battles, and can't we just move on? So is some of this conversation about the racial color line also generational in the person of the president, that he was a child in the '60s.

KENNEDY: Absolutely, and he talks about that, you know, very candidly. His view is, you know, his perspective is very different from those who are a bit older than him. He did not have to face some of the obstacles that, let's say, a Representative John Lewis faced. He did not have to go to the back of the bus. Nobody told him that no, you're not going to be able to vote, or if you try to vote, you're going to be hit over the head with a billy club.

So, you know, he has a somewhat different perspective, and part of that is generational.

ROBERTS: We're talking with Randall Kennedy. His new book is called "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency." And we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time in the last couple of years, since President Obama was elected, where you came up against the color line - or a situation where you expected to and were surprised by its absence; 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on the website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And a reminder, we are continuing to monitor the situation with the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that struck in Virginia a couple of hours ago. We will bring you details on that later this hour. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. In the hours and days after Barack Obama's election, many hoped that things would be different, that Americans would move beyond the racial lines of the past. For the most part, that didn't happen. Randall Kennedy writes in his new book: Everything about Obama is widely, insistently, almost unavoidably interpreted through the prism of race.

Looking back over the past two years, tell us about a time when you experienced the color line, or when you were surprised that you didn't. Tell us your story. The number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org.

My guest is Randall Kennedy, who joins us from Harvard University. And you have a chapter in the book that's called "Addressing Race the Obama Way," that talks about the way the president himself talks about race. You examine his reaction to, for instance, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. And it seems to be sort of a voice of compromise. How would you characterize the way the president talks about race?

KENNEDY: Well, first of all, the president doesn't want to talk about race. Now, some people say that, and they say it, you know, in a condemning way. I don't. The race question is - you know, it's not a good issue for him. And recognizing that it's not a good issue, he tries to distance himself from it. Sometimes he discusses race, you know, if he really has to. But by and large, he keeps away from it. And in fact, if there was one, single thing that I think is the best evidence of the centrality of the color line, it's the fact that the most powerful person in the United States, indeed the most powerful single person in the world, has to tippy-toe around the race question. And it's volatile. It's not a good issue for him. He stays away from it as much as he can.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Dan(ph) in Tulsa, who says: There's a very sinister idea floating around and voiced, particularly, by many of the current Republican candidates, that America gave Obama this chance. It's an age-old attempt to undermine the hard work he did, and the achievement he accomplished as America's first African-American president. To be clear, he earned his place in the Oval Office. Race is most definitely not passed away in today's politics. I believe it will be at least another two African-American presidents before we can say America is post-racial.

Do you see - I mean, without necessarily naming the number of candidates that have to win in order to achieve it, is a post-racial America even something that might happen?

KENNEDY: Well, you know, that phrase post-racial, I'm not - I don't think it's a particularly useful phrase. To grapple with the caller's comment, though, you know, obviously a black president is an important development in American life. I think things are differently - are different. They're irrevocably different given that we've now had a black first family occupying the White House. But as important as the presidency is, that's not the only thing to take a look at in determining the, you know, the racial health of the United States. If one takes a look at levels of impoverishment, if one takes a look at levels of incarceration, if one takes a look at the gap in life expectancy, in morbidity, you know, at each - at many levels, it is still the case that people of color are, you know, beneath others, particularly white people, in our society.

The fact of the matter is we still, even with Barack Obama in the White House, we still live in a pigmentocracy(ph), and it's going to take more than having, you know, a black first family to change that state of affairs.

ROBERTS: This is a call from Anna(ph) in Clarkesville, Tennessee. Anna, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANNA: Hi, I just had a comment that I agree with your speaker, and I have to say that I really disagree with your first caller. In Clarkesville, Tennessee, I, as a student, was recently working part time in a high-end jewelry store here. And we had, one evening, after - late, after 5 o'clock, a pair of younger white men came in who were obviously well off. And they had the free rein to write a check over $5,000 with no verification. And the next business day, about a 45-year-old black gentleman came into our store, and we were, as the sales staff, instructed to write down his license plate number, just in case he was there to steal something. When I talked to my 21-year-old co-worker about it, she said: Well, I guess it's better safe than sorry, right?

ROBERTS: And so you were given different instructions on how to handle a customer from your supervisor, based on their race.

ANNA: Absolutely, and it's not a single occurrence, and it's not the only place that I've worked where I've had these things happen. I've had black co-workers at other businesses not being trusted with the same - like, to take home a laptop from work, where it's never been a problem for me to take home a laptop - you know, things like that.

It is rampant, and yes, I do live in the South, but I don't think it's only here. But it cannot be ignored. What I've told my black friends is, if you ever think you're in a situation where you are being discriminated against, you're probably right.

ROBERTS: Anna, thanks for your call. What do you make of the regional differences? Anna says it's not just because she's in Tennessee.

KENNEDY: Well, she's absolutely correct. You know, the fact of the matter is that racial discrimination is a national phenomenon. I live here in, you know, Massachusetts - the Boston area - and there's certainly racial discrimination here. There's racial discrimination all across the United States.

Now, having said that, I want to make it, again, clear: First of all, there has been change in America. And that's a wonderful thing. It says a lot about our democracy, that there has been change. And I think that we will continue to see change. But we also have to recognize that stories like the caller just relayed are part of our reality as well.

ROBERTS: Ruth(ph) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, joins us now. Ruth, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RUTH: Hi. My comment was simply OK, raised in Wisconsin; you can probably guess I'm of - I'm white. I'm a little bit older than Barack Obama, but I saw myself completely appalled in his first State of the Union Address, when a congressman had the audacity to yell out "liar" while he was speaking. And I'm not sure if it's a loss of civility, or it's just because they feel they can do this because the president is black. But nobody in the upper echelon of the congressional Republican Party took him out to the woodshed, shall we say. And it just surprised me.

KENNEDY: I remember that episode. It was when President Obama gave a speech during the summer about his, you know, health-care reform legislation. And Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina - my home state - shouted, you know, you lie. It was appalling. It was reprehensible. I - it is the case, though, that figures within the Republican Party disowned that, and did reprimand the congressman for having shown such rudeness. There was a debate at the time as to whether race played a role in it. President Obama said, you know, no, I don't view this as a racial insult.

You know, that's his way of dealing with this issue. Again, he wants to stay far clear of the race question. In my own view, yes, race did have something to do with this representative feeling that he could say that to the president of the United States. But it was an interesting episode, and it was an episode that in my view, shows the persistence of the color line.

ROBERTS: We have email from Don(ph) in San Antonio, who says: Our president is not an American black. He's not a descendent of former slaves. This fact, along with a white mother, make him acceptable as a serious candidate. Take away those two factors, and the presidency becomes unattainable in white America.

KENNEDY: There are some people who take that position. And, you know, it's arguable. Even his name - I mean, you know, during the campaign, there were some people who said well, you know, a guy with such a - you know, at least in the American context - such an odd name, that's going to be a real impediment. It's arguable that actually, his name distanced himself from a more stereotypically black name.

I've heard people say he would have had a more difficulty getting white votes if his name was, let's say, Jamal(ph), you know, Jamal Washington as opposed to Barack Obama. Unfortunately, there's something to that point.

ROBERTS: Well, you also write in the book that this notion that he did not share the story of being descended from enslaved Africans, and that he is the son of an African father and a white mother, was - to some degree helped - if people found that a strike against him - by the fact that he did marry someone, choose to marry someone who is part of the descendant of slaves, American black experience.

KENNEDY: Yes, I think that Michelle Obama was - at least in the eyes of many black people - a great validator. So there were some blacks who, you know, were a little bit skeptical about Barack Obama, given his upbringing. But then, you know, he has on his arm Michelle Obama, and I think that assuaged a lot of anxiety felt by some black people.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Travis in Shasta, California. Travis, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Travis, you're on the air. Welcome to the show.

TRAVIS: I'm sorry. I spent the last 10 years married to a black woman, and I'm a white man. And just the whole thing I go through at work is - I work with a lot of men that are, say, 50 or so to 25, and the way the N-word is tossed around, I just - and then I have to go through and tell them that my wife is black and I'd like not to, you know, hear that. So I've been through that a lot. And just - the other point is just, I think - I wish America would get over that Barack's black. And judging him on what he's done, and not that he is a black president, would be nice.

ROBERTS: And Travis, do you think if you said to your co-workers, I don't like that language, without backing it up of, my wife is black, that it would have the same impact?

TRAVIS: You know, it's hard for them to even understand, even though she was. She - I lost my wife in January to an aneurism, so it's really hard then. But I just don't see it. I think - I don't know. I just see America, you know, and I live in a real rural area, kind of. I guess, I don't know if it has something to do with it. I guess, you know, people just need to get over it, and we're just people.

ROBERTS: Travis, thank you for your call. And sorry about the loss of your wife. Travis, I think, is talking to some degree about what people say when they don't think anyone's listening.

KENNEDY: Yeah, and what people say when they think no one is listening can sometimes be quite appalling. You know, political scientists gauge American political opinion, you know, all the time through questionnaires, through polling. And it's true that racial attitudes have changed quite dramatically over the past 50 years. But it is still the case that there are millions of Americans who will tell a pollster straight out, without apology, that they would never consider, you know, voting for a black person, for instance, as president of United States.

That attitude is still, you know, still here, even in the age of Obama. Obama had to overcome his blackness in order to become president of the United States. He is having to overcome his blackness in order to govern. He will have to overcome his blackness again in order to be re-elected.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And we go to a call from Alicia in Rochester, New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Alicia, you're on the air. Oh, I think she might have gotten tired of holding. You mentioned that there are still people who will tell a pollster straight out they wouldn't vote for an African-American candidate. There are, of course, also people who will tell a pollster they'd be happy to vote for an African-American candidate and don't when they get into the polling booth - the so-called Bradley effect, when Deukmejian won the governor's race in California. Do you think that is still a factor in terms of electoral politics?

KENNEDY: You know, the whole - that whole effect, sometimes it's called the Bradley effect, sometimes called the Wilder effect. Among political scientists, there's a lot of debate as to whether that actually was a true phenomenon or whether that was something, you know, just sort of a figment of people's imagination. My own sense is that there is some of that. After all, one of the great things that's happened over the past half-century or more is that racism, racial discrimination has been ostracized. It's not a good thing. It's not a cool thing. It's an ugly thing, and people know that.

And even when people, you know, have biased views, they keep it to themselves or they'll cover it up. So one of the things that Barack Obama has faced is detractors, opponents, enemies who - they're opposing him, at least in part, because of his blackness, but they would never say so. So they seize upon something else. Oh, he's a Muslim. Oh, he wasn't born in this country. Those are covers, sometimes, for racial discrimination. And then, of course, sometimes it's the case that we hide our views from ourselves. We know that we're not supposed to be racially biased, and we don't want to think of ourselves as racially biased, so we tell ourselves a different story.

So we're sincere. We really believe that the way we're acting has nothing to do with bias. We really believe that. If you gave - you know, if we - if you put us under truth serum, we would say no, this doesn't have anything to do with bias. But in fact, it does. So the whole problem of, you know, where the race line is, what is animating people to act as they're acting, is itself a very complicated story.

ROBERTS: Randall Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard University. His latest book is "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency." Thanks so much for joining us today.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

ROBERTS: We do have an email from Richard in Michigan, who says: I feel compelled to tell you that the quake was felt in Ann Arbor. I happened to be on the seventh floor of a medical building. A few minutes later, I asked someone else about it, and was told she and her office mates were freaked out by the rattling of boxes and cabinets.

The quake that Richard is referring to is a 5.9 magnitude quake that was centered in Virginia, about 90 miles south of here in Washington, D.C. - struck a little bit before 2 o'clock Eastern Time today. We will have an update on the earthquake with NPR's science correspondent Christopher Joyce. We're also hoping to speak with a reporter who was near the epicenter in Mineral, Virginia.

And coming up, an argument that it's time to end the coveted tax deduction for homeowners' mortgage interest. Stay with us. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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