NOT EVEN PAST: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. By Thomas J. Sugrue. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2010.
For some observers, the meteoric rise of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency has confirmed the emergence of a postracial hybridity, rendering obsolete the politics of racial grievance and identity. In the more conservative iterations of this viewpoint, his election vindicates laissez-faire color blindness, refuting the need for race-specific remedies to historic discrimination. For others, however, the racially coded and explicit denunciations of Obama since his candidacy prove the structurally persistent power of race and racism in the United States, particularly for people of African descent. In his brief but compelling collection of thematic essays, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, Thomas J. Sugrue argues that understanding the conflicting perspectives on the Obama phenomenon necessitates a critical reading of the past several decades of U.S. social, cultural, intellectual and political history. Specifically, this requires engaging the ongoing debates around “civil rights, black power, race consciousness, and inequality” in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that shaped Obama’s personal and intellectual identity, and his public persona as a politician and policymaker (6).
Although the forty-fourth president often has been “coy and indirect” on the subject of race, the author contends that it is “a topic that has animated Obama’s entire adult life, from his explorations of black power in college, to his work as a community organizer in Chicago, to his career as a politician representing a mostly black district in the Illinois State Senate” (3). Schooled by his encounters with the “culture wars” at Harvard Law School, his sojourn through the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics and community organizing, and the exigencies of appealing to grassroots constituents, middle-class professionals and wealthy downtown developers, Obama developed an adherence to interracial coalition building. He did this, moreover, while pragmatically connecting his long-term ambitions to centrist, pro-growth Democratic policies. Gravitating toward a sanitized history of the Civil Rights Movement that reduced it to a southern-oriented narrative of national redemption, unity, and American exceptionalism, Obama also disingenuously “positioned himself as the heir to [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], but also as part of a vanguard of black politicians who jettisoned” racial appeals (15). From this standpoint, Obama is a potent illustration of how “[t]he past can be used—and reinterpreted—for purposes of image creation, political mobilization, coalition building, and policymaking (54).
Along these lines, Obama’s formative experiences in Chicago also “laid the groundwork for a racial and economic politics that fused community empowerment, Chicago School sociology, Clintonite social policy, and a religiously inflected ideal of racial uplift” (59). This foundation enabled him to speak simultaneously to “the Democratic Party’s intellectual Left; a bipartisan center that was completely overhauling welfare policy; and a rising black middle class” whose members regarded the black poor through the lens of respectability, paternalism and “tough love” (59). This bundle of ideas had its most eloquent expression in Obama’s pivotal “A More Perfect Union” speech. Addressed in response to the controversy surrounding Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the future president’s comments not only saved his campaign but also offered “the fullest glimpse into Obama’s framework for thinking about the paradox of race in our time” (118). While boldly acknowledging discrimination against African Americans, he framed racism mainly in the past tense and gave moral equivalence to white Americans’ resentment of black racial grievances. In a similarly paradoxical manner, Obama’s speech celebrated hybridity while also countenancing the salience of racial difference. What these contradictory sets of beliefs augur for his presidential legacy remains largely open-ended, Sugrue concludes; yet, meaningful policy changes directed toward racial and economic inequality will depend on a creative “synergy between grassroots activism and political leadership” (136). For grassroots activists, this synergy includes assailing the idea of inevitable change—a quality that Obama has self-consciously sought to embody.
Skillfully argued and engagingly written, Not Even Past does a careful job of neither romanticizing its subject nor painting the president as a callow opportunist. The author’s writing style, coupled with his synthesis of a broad array of scholarship, make the book suitable for survey-level African American Studies and American Studies courses, and general audiences. Sugrue, who has written on post-World War II black freedom struggles in the North, is clearly sympathetic to the demands for “Black Power” articulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Still, at times he conflates the stridency of Black Power advocates with a lack of political patience, skill, or ability to build complex coalitions and mobilize diverse onstituencies. The text might have benefited from a greater unpacking of Black Power, whose simultaneous strength and weakness were the multiple voices of its proponents. And while the author is mindful of the demographic and social transformations produced by post-1965 immigration, he has surprisingly little to say about the growing impact of African and Caribbean immigrants on the evolving character of “black” identity in the United States in the early twenty-first century. This intra-racial reality is as much a part of Obama’s enigmatic appeal as is his personification of the destabilization of categories among racial groups. Nonetheless, Sugrue has contributed a timely rumination on history for contemporary readers, and an important rough draft of the history yet to be written.
Clarence Lang, University of Kansas