08 Jun 2009

A Disappointing Post-Racial Presidency

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Shelby Steele, in the Wall Street Journal, finds further differences between the dream and the reality of Barack Obama.

Obama first Supreme Court appointment is not post-racial in the least.

What is most notable about the Sotomayor nomination is its almost perfect predictability. Somehow we all simply know — like it or not — that Hispanics are now overdue for the gravitas of high office. And our new post-racialist president is especially attuned to this chance to have a “first” under his belt, not to mention the chance to further secure the Hispanic vote. And yet it was precisely the American longing for post-racialism — relief from this sort of racial calculating — that lifted Mr. Obama into office.

The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics: It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America’s first black president, and a man promising the “new,” we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed.

This contradiction has always been at the heart of the Obama story. On the one hand there was the 2004 Democratic Convention speech proclaiming “only one America.” And on the other hand there was the race-baiting of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. …

(O)f course “post-racialism” is not a real idea. It is an impression, a chimera that grows out of a very specific racial manipulation that I have called “bargaining.” Here the minority makes a bargain with white society: I will not “guilt” you with America’s centuries of racism if you will not hold my minority status against me. Whites love this bargain because it allows them to feel above America’s racist past and, therefore, immune to charges of racism. By embracing the bargainer they embrace the impression of a world beyond racial division, a world in which whites are innocent and minorities carry no anger. This is the impression that animates bargainers like Mr. Obama or Oprah Winfrey with an irresistible charisma. Even if post-racialism is an obvious illusion — a bargainer’s trick as it were — whites are flattered by believing in it.

But the Sotomayor nomination shows that Mr. Obama has no idea what a post-racial society would look like. In selling himself as a candidate to the American public he is a gifted bargainer beautifully turned out in post-racial impressionism. But in the real world of Supreme Court nominations, where there is a chance to actually bring some of that idealism down to earth, he chooses a hardened, divisive and race-focused veteran of the culture wars he claims to transcend.

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