During the 2008 presidential race, countless political observers argued that Obama’s ascent proved that the U.S. had become a “colorblind” nation. Voters did not “see” Obama’s color, we were told, they saw only Obama the man. But, as I found in doing research for my recent book this was hardly the case. Obama did not run a “raceless” campaign, he did not “transcend” race, and he was elected not in spite of his race, but in significant measure because of it.
In 2007/2008 the public sphere was literally saturated with “race talk” – as the pundits furiously debated the nature of Obama’s blackness, if he was “black enough,”, what kind of black man he was, if he would make whites feel guilty about racism, and just how great a nation the U.S. would be if we succeeded in electing a black man as president.
Obama was roundly praised for the degree to which he was not a “traditional” black public figure, like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other blacks with whom the wider white public had grown increasingly impatient. The candidate also won major points among his supporters for his willingness to repudiate the supposed lifestyles and choices of the black poor. Consider his repeated calls for “Cousin Ray Ray,” “Uncle Pookie,”and other mythical poor black men to “get up off the couch,” “pull up their pants,” and take “personal responsibility” for their own lives.
As a post-racial black candidate, —i.e. through his “magical” blackness, Obama could reconcile Americans of all colors and creeds, grant whites absolution for the racial sins of the past, and redeem the nation, by demonstrating the U.S. to be again a place of open opportunity and tolerance. Thus, we heard again and again, in 2007-2008, his ascent heralded the dawn of a “new politics race.”
But while Obama played the new politics of race to win, he certainly did not establish the rules of the game himself. In the few instances in which Obama has been seen as crossing over into “old” race politics– by speaking too openly about racism, or evidencing too much color consciousness– he has been rebuked by the mainstream media and the general public.
On the other hand, President Obama has also recently been strongly criticized by high-profile African Americans (most notably Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Representative Maxine Waters for refusing to directly address the needs of the black community. Thus while the “new politics of race” elevated Obama to the White House in 2008, they may cause many black voters—whose overwhelming support was key to his victory—sit out the race entirely in 2012.
Department of Sociology
University of Minnesota