Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Obama and Race

Sheryl Gay Stolberg has written this article for the NY Times making the point that Obama's nuance on race is increasingly frustrating black leaders and black scholars. The question raised by the article (and a question that has been asked since President Obama was a candidate) is a normative one: what should be the relationship between the Mr. Obama and African-Americans.

After spending some time thinking about this question, my answer is the relationship should be viewed as one between a representative and his electorate. President Obama is right to constantly remind us that he is the President of the United States not simply of African Americans. his is good politics on the part of the President. But I also think that he is right.

African Americans are right to ask President Obama how his policies will benefit them, not because President Obama is black, but because he is the President. This is the same question that should be asked of every President, but more particularly, of those who owe their office in part to the support of the black community. Thus, the black community has no special race claim on the President.

Note however, that there are two sides to this coin. Black people were excited to vote for President Obama in part because he is one of them. Though most black people have more affinity for the Democratic Party, they did not turn out simply to vote for a Democrat. They were obviously excited to vote a black Democrat for President. Now that the President has clarified that the electoral connection, as opposed to the racial connection, is the lens through which he views his relationship with the black community, I wonder to what extent this will change the way the black community views the President.

Will black voters be excited to vote from President Obama again in 2012 because he's a black Democrat or will it be a case of "what have you done for me lately"? If black voters will turnout in strong numbers no matter what, then the President's current posture is brilliant. If however black voters are going to hold him to account, then he has to walk a fine line.

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