IN the year since his election, as he has since he first appeared on the national stage, Barack Obama has embodied the fundamental paradoxes of race in America: that we live in a still racially fragmented society; that we share a public culture with an outsized black presence, but that in the privacy of homes and neighborhoods we are more segregated than in the Jim Crow era; that we worship more fervently than any other advanced nation, in churches and synagogues that define our separate ethnic identities and differences, to gods proclaiming the unity of mankind. Why are we this strange way? Is President Obama the ultimate expression of our peculiarities? Has he made a difference? Can he? Will he?
We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.
Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it. The nightmare of the Jim Crow era then extended and reinforced the public slavery of black Americans right up through the middle of the 20th century.
At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.
The great achievement of the civil rights movement was to finally abolish the lingering public culture of slavery and to create the opportunities that fostered the black middle class and black political leadership. This was a sea change. But Mr. Obama, by virtue of his unusual background as a biracial child reared by loving, though not unprejudiced, white caregivers, is acutely aware that the crude, dominating racism of the past simply morphed into a subtler cultural racism of the private sphere—significantly altered though hardly less damaging.
Seeing blacks as culturally different—a perception legitimized by the nation’s celebration of diversity and identity—permits all kinds of complicated attitudes and misjudgments. Their differences can be celebrated on playing fields, dance floors and television, in theaters, hip-hop and cinema, and not least of all in that most public and ambivalently regarded arena of mass engagement: politics. But in the disciplined cultural spaces of marriages, homes, neighborhoods, schools and churches, these same differences become the source of Apollonian dread.
What then can we expect of Mr. Obama? One thing we can be sure of is that he will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate. During the campaign last year he spoke eloquently on the subject, but only when he was forced to do so by the uproar over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And since he took office, his one foray into racial politics—his reaction to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.—was a near political disaster that must have reinforced his reluctance.
Mr. Obama’s writings, politics and personal relations suggest instead that he prefers a three-pronged strategy. First, he is committed to the universalist position that the best way to help the black and Latino poor is to help all disadvantaged people, Appalachian whites included. The outrage of black over-incarceration will be remedied by quietly reforming the justice system.
Second, Mr. Obama appears convinced that residential segregation lies at the heart of both black problems and cultural racism. He is a committed integrationist and seems to favor policies intended to move people out of the inner cities.
Third, he clearly considers education to be the major solution and has tried to lavishly finance our schools, despite the fiscal crisis. More broadly, he will quietly promote policies that celebrate the common culture of America, emphasizing the extraordinary role of blacks and other minorities in this continuing creation.
At the same time, Mr. Obama seems to believe that the problems of black Americans are in part attributable to certain behaviors among them—most notably absentee fathers, dropping out of school and violence—which not only constrain their choices but rationalize the disfiguring processes of white cultural racism that extend the pathologies of the few to all black Americans. As a deeply committed family man, Mr. Obama has already made clear that he will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to encourage internal cultural reformation.
All of these approaches are likely to alienate the identity-seeped segment of black leadership, and they will not prevent the extreme cultural right from accusing him of overplaying race, whatever he does.
The uniqueness of Mr. Obama provides both obstacles and opportunities. My students have found that many young inner city blacks, while they admire him, find him too remote from their lives to be a role model. His policies, if properly carried out, might very well improve their chances in life, but in the end he is more likely to influence the racial attitudes of middle-class blacks and younger white Americans. This is all we can reasonably expect. It will take far more than a single presidency to fully end America’s long struggle with race.