Blog post

Prying open racial politics in America

Molly Osberg25 October 2012

Tonight at the Brooklyn Museum, Racecraft authors Karen Fields and Barbara Fields converse with Adolph Reed about inequality, class, and the distorted racial paradigms of American political life. The celebrated Fields sisters' new book, published this month, asks whether racism has bewitched Americans into misunderstanding inequality in our country. Their argument is a complex one, involving years of assiduous research and close collaboration, so we're pleased to have Mr. Reed present to tease the nuances from their perspective.

Of course, their book comes at a particularly important moment as we careen towards election day and, inevitably, the conversations about Obama lean not towards drone warfare, Libya, or Wall Street bailouts but continue to idle on the meaning of the president's race.

Fortunately both of Racecraft's authors and Adolph Reed have garnered reputations as cogent political analysts, each focusing in their way on the implications of a post-Obama, though certainly not post-racial, America. As the news cycle spins its wheels today a quick survey confirms what we've known all along: that whether they are claims of colorblindness, accusations of playing the race card, or questions of "how black" or "not black enough" the democratic nominee appeared during the recent debates, the discussion of the president's racial identity is never more than an arm's length from the political media machine.

The Fields sisters, we imagine, may have some occasion to look more closely at these conversations. Racecraft, though written before this election season, makes issue of the implicit, policy-blind prejudice at work in Obama's presidency:

As President of the United States, President Obama does not, in fact, belong to Afro-Americans more than any other group of Americans. Arguably, he belongs to them less. Having kept his distance while campaigning for the presidency, he has continued to do so in office. President Obama, a columnist observed, 'would rather walk through fire' than mention racism. Though prepared to brace public censure for a multi-billion-dollar payout to the bankers who wrecked the national economy, he shied away from intervention to hasten modest and long-delayed compensation payments for Afro-American farmers, approaching the end of their lives, to whom the USDA denied loans freely available to white farmers. And he kowtowed with unbecoming haste before a false charge of racism leveled at an Afro-American official by a white blog-bully well known for mendacity and dirty tricks. Wariness of appearing to favor Afro-Americans sometimes drives Obama to cultivate the appearance, and a times the substance, of aloofness from their aspirations.

Reed, too, comes to the panel with a wealth of expertise on Barack Obama's presidency—indeed, he knows him personally—as well as with wider issues concerning both black and progressive politics in the United States. Reed is currently working on a book that analyzes the trajectory of the US Left and the manic-progressive delusions he describes as "Obamamania." In 2008, Reed wrote a scathing piece for The Progressive in which he called the then-presidential hopeful a "vacuous opportunist ... a good performer with an ear how to make white liberals like him:"

His Philadelphia compromise speech—a string of well-crafted and coordinated platitudes and hollow images worthy of an SUV commercial, grounded with the reassuring 'acknowledgment' of blacks' behavioral inadequacies—has gained him breathing room by holding out a vague promise of racial 'reconciliation' that has appealed to centrist liberals ever since Booker T. Washington's comparably eloquent 1895 accommodation to Southern white supremacy. Obama gets credit for 'opening a conversation' on race, for 'taking the matter on squarely.' But he doesn't really speak to what we ought to be doing to address the injustices, past and present, that he mentions. Despite all the babble about Obama's transcendence, Obama persists in portraying black Americans as a stereotypical monolith: blacks feel x; whites feel y. And the trope of black 'anger' is a tired chestnut that neither explains nor characterizes political grievances or aspirations.

We're hoping that tonight, these three panelists will allow us a clear-eyed look at the Presidential campaign and Obama's legacy—the complicated, the progressive, and the purely tone-deaf—after four years in office. We highly recommend it, particularly if you find yourself gorged on the media's simplistic vantage point, annoyed at the self-congratulatory air of the liberal class, or simply furious with the state of political discussion in America.