In his new book, "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency," Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy offers up the most sober (and sobering) assessment of Barack Obama's grappling with race to date. The book looks at the big media events such as the controversy around Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod. But it is arguably at its most trenchant where it is most humble.
An example of this occurs early in the book, where Kennedy seeks to understand why Obama enjoys near-unanimous adulation in the black community. Some 96 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama, and he has a 91 percent approval rating in the black community. Obama has enjoyed these numbers despite taking an extraordinarily cautious hand around anything racial and eschewing any sense of rabble-rousing rooted in the black protest tradition. Kennedy lists a number of reasons why Obama enjoys such support before offering the following: "Blacks love Obama for relieving them of the burden of making excuses for him."
Rihanna wasn't simply an occasion to push forward the discussion on domestic violence, but to do so specifically in the black community. And, as in all things, the most controversial entertainers and athletes attract the most attention. Among any group, there is a strong desire to be well represented. I can't think of anyone less fit for such responsibilities than athletes and entertainers, a group comprised of people who often find themselves millionaires in their early 20s.
In Barack Obama and his family, African-Americans have been treated to the exact opposite. A young, active and attractive African-American couple who embody all of the middle-class values we so rarely are able to display. More importantly, as Kennedy says, a couple who relieve us of excuse-making. There has been no need to explain away a love child or claims of sexual harassment. It is highly unlikely that there will be any murder trials. Joe Biden, in his own unnuanced way, was on to something when he called the president "clean."
There is also the element of choice with Obama -- the sense that his biracialism gave him an out which he declined. There's a stereotype of successful black men that holds that they prefer white women, white society and white people overall, and decline to identify with the black community. When you're discussing biracial black men, or Ivy League black men, that stereotype is only intensified. The old saying among black women held that "all the good ones are taken, married to white women, or gay."
Obama is surely "taken," but he is taken by a black woman. Obama has not "opted out." I don't doubt his sincerity in checking "black" on his census forms. Moreover, I think people who urge him to do otherwise often do so while having the luxury of roots, of a home, of being "from somewhere," or of having traditions which are not regarded with some hostility in broad swaths of the country. Still, I would have to believe that Obama understands the message he's sending to that place where he says he is rooted. It is too much to imply some grand master plan that ends in the presidency.
That Obama accrues electoral benefit from merely being a responsible citizen is indeed a low standard, and itself a reflection of racism. Our need to "represent" is deeply tied to a history of stereotypical imagery. Furthermore, it is equally tempting to dismiss symbolism as unimportant when measured against tangible policy. Obama's symbolism often shields him from actual critique. But I don't think symbolism should be easily dismissed. Perhaps having your president croon an Al Green song at the Apollo really does make your day easier.
(Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.)