FOR much of his public life, Barack Obama has been navigating
between people who think he is too black and people who think he is not black
The former group speaks mostly in dog-whistle innuendo and focuses on proxy
issues to emphasize Obama’s ostensible otherness: his birth certificate, his
supposed adherence to “black liberation theology” (presumably before he
converted to Islam), his “Kenyan, anticolonial” worldview. Jonathan Alter’s
recent book on Obama’s presidency sums up these notions as symptoms of “Obama
Derangement Syndrome” — a disorder whose subtext is more often than not: he’s
On the other side are African-Americans and liberals who are disappointed that
Obama has not made it his special mission to call out the racism that still
festers in American society and rectify the racial imbalance in our economy, in
our schools, in our justice system.
“It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated,
cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” the
radio and TV host Tavis Smiley told The Times’s Jodi Kantor last year. That was
one of the gentler rebukes from the not-black-enough camp.
Obama believes he best serves the country, and ultimately the interests of black
Americans, by being the president of America, not the president of black
America. Even when he speaks eloquently on the subject, as he did in his 2008
speech in Philadelphia, he presents himself as a bridge between white and black
rather than the civil rights leader-in-chief. And even when his administration
has undertaken reforms that address racial injustice — reinvigorating the
moribund civil rights division of the Justice Department, for example — he does
not call a news conference and make a big deal of it. This is certainly
calibrated and cautious. But callous?
Obama’s remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin — “could have been me 35 years
ago” — reanimated the old divide. From the he’s-too-black sideline the president
was predictably accused of indulging in “racial victimology” and “race baiting.”
On the other side, some of those who had yearned for Obama to be more outspoken
seized on his riff as a turning point; the president, a Detroit radio host
exulted, “showed his brother card.” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor
who has known Obama for 25 years, told NPR he felt like “turning cartwheels”
when he heard the remarks, and he declared he would now have to rethink a
book-in-the-works, in which he had planned to criticize the president’s timidity
“It seems to me he threw caution to the wind,” Ogletree told me. “It opens up a
whole new chapter of Barack Obama.”
Does it? I, too, found Obama’s words moving in their emotional warmth and
empathy. But if you go back and read them, now that the heat of the moment has
cooled, you will see they are carefully measured and completely consistent with
what he has said in his writing and speaking since he entered public life. The
warrior against racism that critics on the right deplore and critics on the left
demand is nowhere to be found. His comments on the pain and humiliation of
racial profiling, which got the most attention, reprise a theme that goes back
at least to his days as a state senator. His respectful treatment of the court
that acquitted Martin’s killer and his nod to the pathologies of the black
underclass got less notice.
“He basically says, try to understand this issue from the perspective of people
different from yourself,” said Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania
historian who has written a book-length study of Obama and race. “And he says it
to black folks and white folks.” But somehow listeners on both sides hear what
they expect to hear, Sugrue said, on one side “a prophetic Martin Luther King
Jr.,” on the other side “a pent-up Black Panther waiting to explode.”
There’s a name for that: racial profiling. People may no longer give Obama
suspicious glares in department stores or clutch their purses when he enters an
elevator, but they have typecast him according to their own fears and
expectations of a black man in the White House. They are still profiling Barack
Those who hope his Trayvon talk signaled a new presidential activism on race
will be watching two litmus tests. The first is whether Obama’s Justice
Department will file a civil rights suit against George Zimmerman, the
neighborhood watch enthusiast who shot Martin dead. The N.A.A.C.P. says more
than a million people have signed petitions calling for Justice to prosecute
Zimmerman for a hate crime. The second is whether the president will offer a
cabinet post to Ray Kelly, the New York police commissioner who has presided
over the aggressive stop-and-frisk policing of mostly black and Latino men.
Obama’s public praise of Kelly as a possible secretary of homeland security
prompted anger and amazement, some of it on this page. Was the president
indifferent to Kelly’s role as, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, “the proprietor of
the largest local racial profiling operation in the country,” or simply
My guess is that the president will navigate those straits as he always has when
race looms, carefully and without fanfare. If he is true to form, he will
quietly pass over Kelly, because it’s now clear the appointment would become a
major distraction from his agenda, because racial profiling is a lifelong
personal sore spot for Obama, and because he has other, less polarizing options.
He will leave George Zimmerman’s fate to Attorney General Eric Holder, who seems
likely to conclude that a hate-crimes case would not stick and would be seen as
putting politics over law. (The federal statute says it’s not enough to prove
Zimmerman pursued Martin because of his race; the government would have to prove
that racial prejudice was his motive for killing the teenager.) In his remarks
on the case, Obama seemed to hint that the feds would not step in where the
state has already ruled.
So if Obama’s Trayvon moment was not the debut of a new, more activist
president, was it at least the beginning of a national conversation about race?
If so, I doubt it will be a conversation led by the president. When race came up
in an interview published in Sunday’s Times, he promptly segued into a
discussion of economic strains on the social fabric.
And that’s O.K. President Obama has an economy to heal, a foreign policy to run,
a daunting agenda blockaded by an intransigent opposition. Randall Kennedy,
another Harvard law professor who has studied Obama and criticized him for a
lack of audacity, says frustration should be tempered by realism. “My view of
Obama is as a Jackie Robinson figure,” Kennedy told me. “Jackie Robinson breaks
the color barrier and encounters all sorts of denigration, people spitting on
him, and because he was a pioneer he had to be above it all. ... People expect
Obama now to all of a sudden jump into this totally messy issue of race and the
administration of criminal justice? It’s completely implausible. To do it would
require a major investment of political capital.”
And, come to think of it, why is that his special responsibility anyway?
“There’s sort of a persistent misperception that talking about race is black
folk’s burden,” said Benjamin Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P., when I asked
him about Obama’s obligation. “Ultimately, only men can end sexism, and only
white people can end racism.”
Wouldn’t you like to hear John Boehner or Mitch McConnell or Chris Christie or
Rick Perry own up as candidly as the president has to the corrosive vestiges of
racism in our society? Now that might be an occasion to turn cartwheels.
(AP) -- Barack Obama swept to victory as the nation's first black president
Tuesday night in an electoral college landslide that overcame racial barriers as
old as America itself. ''Change has come,'' he told a jubilant hometown Chicago
crowd estimated at nearly a quarter-million people.
The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, the
Democratic senator from Illinois sealed his historic triumph by defeating
Republican Sen. John McCain in a string of wins in hard-fought battleground
states -- Ohio, Florida, Iowa and more. He captured Virginia and Indiana, too,
the first candidate of his party in 44 years to win either.
Obama's election capped a meteoric rise -- from mere state senator to
president-elect in four years.
Spontaneous celebrations erupted from Atlanta to New York and Philadelphia as
word of Obama's victory spread. A big crowd filled Pennsylvania Avenue in front
of the White House.
In his first speech as victor, to an enormous throng at Grant Park in Chicago,
Obama catalogued the challenges ahead. ''The greatest of a lifetime,'' he said,
''two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.''
He added, ''There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make
as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will
always be honest with you about the challenges we face.''
McCain called his former rival to concede defeat -- and the end of his own
10-year quest for the White House. ''The American people have spoken, and spoken
clearly,'' McCain told disappointed supporters in Arizona.
President Bush added his congratulations from the White House, where his tenure
runs out on Jan. 20. ''May God bless whoever wins tonight,'' he had told dinner
Obama, in his speech, invoked the words of Lincoln, recalled Martin Luther King
Jr., and seemed to echo John F. Kennedy.
''So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility
where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder,'' he said.
He and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, will take their oaths of
office as president and vice president on Jan. 20, 2009. McCain remains in the
Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, returns to Alaska as governor after a
tumultuous debut on the national stage.
He will move into the Oval Office as leader of a country that is almost
certainly in recession, and fighting two long wars, one in Iraq, the other in
The popular vote was close -- 51.7 percent to 47 percent with 84 percent of all
U.S. precincts tallied -- but not the count in the Electoral College, where it
There, Obama's audacious decision to contest McCain in states that hadn't gone
Democratic in years paid rich dividends.
Shortly after 2 a.m. the East, The Associated Press count showed Obama with 349
electoral votes, well over the 270 needed for victory. McCain had 144 after
winning states that comprised the normal Republican base, including Texas and
most of the South.
Interviews with voters suggested that almost six in 10 women were backing Obama
nationwide, while men leaned his way by a narrow margin. Just over half of
whites supported McCain, giving him a slim advantage in a group that Bush
carried overwhelmingly in 2004.
The results of the AP survey were based on a preliminary partial sample of
nearly 10,000 voters in Election Day polls and in telephone interviews over the
past week for early voters. Obama has said his first order of presidential
business will be to tackle the economy. He has also pledged to withdraw most
U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.
In Washington, the Democratic leaders of Congress celebrated.
''It is not a mandate for a party or ideology but a mandate for change,'' said
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California: ''Tonight the American people have
called for a new direction. They have called for change in America.''
Democrats also acclaimed Senate successes by former Gov. Mark Warner in
Virginia, Rep. Tom Udall in New Mexico and Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado. All won
seats left open by Republican retirements.
In New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen defeated Republican Sen. John
Sununu in a rematch of their 2002 race, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole fell to Democrat
Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Biden won a new term in Delaware, a seat he will resign before he is sworn in as
The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, survived a scare in Kentucky,
and in Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss hoped to avoid a December runoff.
The Democrats piled up gains in the House, as well.
They defeated seven Republican incumbents, including 22-year veteran Chris Shays
in Connecticut, and picked up nine more seats where GOP lawmakers had retired.
At least three Democrats lost their seats, including Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney,
turned out of office after admitting to two extramarital affairs while serving
his first term in Florida. In Louisiana, Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux lost the
seat he had won in a special election six months ago.
The resurgent Democrats also elected a governor in one of the nation's
traditional bellwether states when Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon won his
An estimated 187 million voters were registered, and in an indication of
interest in the battle for the White House, 40 million or so had already voted
as Election Day dawned.
Obama sought election as one of the youngest presidents, and one of the least
experienced in national political affairs.
That wasn't what set the Illinois senator apart, though -- neither from his
rivals nor from the other men who had served as president since the nation's
founding more than two centuries ago. A black man, he confronted a previously
unbreakable barrier as he campaigned on twin themes of change and hope in
McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, a generation older than his rival at
72, was making his second try for the White House, following his defeat in the
battle for the GOP nomination in 2000.
A conservative, he stressed his maverick's streak. And although a Republican, he
did what he could to separate himself from an unpopular president.
For the most part, the two presidential candidates and their running mates,
Biden and Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, spent weeks campaigning in
states that went for Bush four years ago.
McCain and Obama each won contested nominations -- the Democrat outdistancing
former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and promptly set out to claim the
mantle of change.
Obama won California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia,
Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York,
Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and
McCain had Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky,
Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South
Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
He also won at least four of Nebraska's five electoral votes, with the other one