tv Tavis Smiley PBS September 2, 2011 12:00am-12:30am PDT
from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. to my conversation with the noted harvard law professor, author, and former law clerk for justice berger and marshall, randall kennedy. the relationship between the first african-american president and his black constituency. the book is "the persistence of the color line". a candid conversation with randall kennedy coming up right now. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where wal-mart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer,
help tavis improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: randel cannady is a distinguished professor at harvard law school. his latest is "the persistence of the color line, racial politics and the obama presidency." i will have you -- i am honored to have you back on this program. let me start with asking why you
were drawn to the subject matter. >> i steady race relations and american law and american culture. the election of the first black president was a natural for any one drawn to the subject. tavis: for those who have not yet read the text, as ed koch used to say, how am i doing? how was the president doing along the color line? >> well, listen. the biggest accomplishment in racial terms for barack obama was being elected. he had to overcome his blackness to be elected. he climbed the mount everest of amount -- american politics, becoming an historic first. in other policy areas, he has surly not pushed -- certainly
not pushed a racial agenda. he stayed away from the race question. and so, i do not think he will be a transformative president when it comes to racial policies. how he your sense of scale that mountain of race to get to the top. ss to me his strategy, his methodology. me how he did it. >> it was a complicated dance. he had to integrate his base. his black base. early on in the election campaign, most politically active, vocal, black elected officials were not in his camp.
it was only when he showed he had a realistic chance of winning the nomination. it was only then that black people really broke for him. he had to do various things in order to solidify in his black base. there were blacks from the outset who were low bit skeptical of him. they knew that he had been raised in a predominantly white setting. and so there was a little bit of skepticism. he had to l.a. those anxieties and he and laid them in various ways. he always spoke very movingly of his feelings of gratitude. for the greats of the civil rights revolution.
he displayed on knowledge and a comfort with black history, black culture, black rhythms. black colloquialisms. he had his wife, a very distinguished black woman. michele robinson obama at his side. in various ways he spoke to black people and allied what anxiety some blacks had. at the same time, he spoke to whites in a very particular way. he convinced them that he was on non-angry black man. he harbored no racial resentments. he was not seeking any saw -- sort reparations or anything like that. he emphasized various points that he had been raised by a
white mother, that he knew white people very intimately. so he went to various constituencies and adelaide of various racial anxieties and he did that very successfully. successfully enough to capture the white house. tavis: you said a lot there and there are two things i want to go back and get. one, when you suggested earlier it was not until and i am paraphrasing, you suggested earlier it was not until he had shown that he could run the race. there was a chance he could get the nomination. it was not until then that black folks started to use your term. blacks did not start to break for barack obama, you said this. the truth is with specificity they did not break for him until after the white folk voted for him in iowa. hillary is -- was ahead of him. the overwhelming number of white
voters gave him the victory and said it is ok. i raise that with specificity to ask. this is my word, nine years. give them permission. >> i put it differently. billick to be on the side of the winner. they had been a republican -- there had been an -- a republican occupying the white house. there was a real hunger. there had been blacks who had run for the white house largely as symbolic can it's. black people really were not so much interested in that anymore. they had supported to some
extent symbolic candidate and they wanted someone who was going to take the white house. i do not think it was that black folks were waiting for white folks to give them permission. black folks wanted somebody -- 1 barack obama -- when barack obama triumphed among the predominantly white electorate in iowa, then that was the signal, this guy could win. the electorate in the u.s. is mainly a white electorate. tavis: what does it say that about black folk, what does it say about black folks along that color line that you so easily say they wanted somebody who could win, as opposed to somebody who stood by their issues and on their principles and number two, there was no suggestion at that time, just because she had won iowa, hillary clinton could not win.
choosing a person who could win over somebody who is standing on your issues on your principles and they had not figured that out prior to ira. how do they figure that out post-ironwood? >> black people, did they the policies of barack obama and hillary clinton side- by-side and said this one is better on this one? i think the both figured -- and they figured clinton and obama were liberal leaning democrats. there was a difference. the difference is, barack obama is black. i think many black people thought, this would be a wonderful, an extraordinary thing for the black family to occupy the white house. not only black people, lot of white people thought that but
particularly black people. tavis: what does randall kennedy say to people who were siding with him out of black solidarity? what do you say to persons on the right who for different reasons offered the same critique that you only that it obama because he is black. it is about symbolism that about substance. your response to this constituencies? >> a couple of things. with respect to symbolism against substance, a lot of black people realistically understand that symbolism can be substantive. you think about american history. you think about people who sat in for that hamburg. people who were willing to go to jail to sit in a particular
place on a bus. it might say that is symbolic. there's a lot mixed up in that symbolism. with respect to tribalism, in part. the most interesting thing with respect to tribalism or the actions of black conservatives. i know of conservative number who were voted for barack obama, even though they had to cross party lines to do so. even though they had to cross ideological lines to do so. they felt pulled by troubled ties. i think with other black people, it was different. with other black people, barack obama was a liberal. some people said he was the most liberal member in the senate. i think putting race aside, many black people on ideological
grounds would have been drawn to obama anyway. they were particularly drawn to him because he was black. for some people it was trouble. four other people, the position was, it would be a great statement to america. it would be a great statement to the world if american democracy was able to push through this great barrier and elevate to the white house of black person. not for tribal reasons but for reasons that everyone could rally around. that reason being this would be a wonderful, vivid way of repudiating our white supremacist past. tavis: the worries you expressed openly in this book about this inflated sense of accomplishment we might have in regard to racial progress.
what are your worries along the color line in that regard? >> i have many. first of all, though i think it was a singular moment in american history, the election of barack obama, we are to self congratulatory about that. after all, people cried on the evening it was announced he won the election. blacks had been so tremendously excluded soberly. the reason why people were saying to themselves, am i dreaming is because we're used to white supremacy in america that it was extraordinary, this idea of a black person actually being elected to the presidency. in a way it is quite sad that it was such an extraordinary thing for black person to be elected.
you have to remember that only twice in american history have blacks been popularly elected as governors. only three times have blacks been popularly elected as senators. we have this egregious history of racial marginal is asian, exclusion what comes to black folks in electoral politics. this was a triumph but it was a triumph against the backdrop of a sordid history. we need to remember that barack obama did not win the majority of the white vote. if it had been white folks voting, senator mccain and sarah palin would be occupying the white house right now. so it is true that barack obama won decisively in the electoral college but the election was closer than many people suggest. tavis: with that backdrop, that
sort of history that you referenced a moment ago, what does it say about the color line in america, to your earlier point, for obama to win the presidency he had to have one way of talking to white folks and black folk. what does that say about the line in this country? >> it is still here. a're still wrestling with color line that penetrates every aspect of american life. i do not care if we're talking about the movie theater. i do not care if we're talking about marriage or friendship or sports, about electoral politics. the race line is there. barack obama had to do a very careful dance. one part of the dance was to stay away from race. he was trying to stay away from it during the election campaign. he has tried to steer away from that during his presidency. tavis: is that something you
celebrate? is that wise on his part? >> no. i do not celebrate it. in my view, it is a sad aspect of our politics that the president of the united states has to tiptoe around the race question. do i condemn him? i do not condemn him. he has to face the discipline of electoral politics. he has to get enough votes to win and in order to get enough votes to win, yes, he has to distance himself. tavis: here is the part that troubles me. when people says he has to come he does not. abraham lincoln when one way, lbj went one way. there's a price to pay but stop saying he has to do it. he does not. he has chosen to do it and number two, what does it matter if the person wins? to celebrate the symbolism of
it. where the substance is concerned, where jobs is concerned, economic opportunity, what you celebrate substantively, where you celebrate symbolically does not give you what you need. who cares that you won? >> a couple of things. you are right on the question of choice. you are right. it seems the import question has to be asked here. what is the presidency worth? if you think that the presidency is not worth the compromises that barack obama has made in order to win it, when the white house, i understand your point. on the other hand, the presidency is a very powerful, influential positions in which people -- the president is making all sorts of decisions that nobody ever hears about. hundreds of appointments that do
not make it to the front pages. there will make it to any paper. if now, if you think having a person who is closer to your politics than the alternative, compared to what? compared to john mccain, sarah palin? if you think that having somebody in the white house is worse the compromises that he has had to make, then it will take the position i take. recognizing those compromises, not pay bring them over. let's recognize them. that recognize the dilemma obama faces. frankly, i feel for him. i empathize with him. i am sympathetic to him. given the pinch of the dilemma he faces.
tavis: here is the new challenge. you say if obama is given a free pass by progressives, it is almost inevitable he will fail to be as progressive as my -- as might otherwise be possible. not just possible but necessary or needed, given the held people of color eye-catching in this country right now. that is my commentary added to your text. if you feel for him because in a pinch and you understand and you are sympathetic, but you realize he might not be as progressive as he might be, is demanded to be, how do progressives do that dance with him? lovingly to push him? >> progressives need to be local and criticize him when he warned criticism. i think the landscape has to be changed by progressives. if progressives push things to the left more, obama will
follow and move left. he is an electoral politician who will do the calculus that other electoral politicians do. if we push it to the left, he will come behind it. will he be a pioneer? no. will he beat out in front? no. he will become behind -- we have to block an open territory, he will run behind that. tavis: i would like to believe that. i do believe that. the evidence does not bear that out. which is why labor -- others in the labor movement have been relatively quiet. if he he's compromising and capitulating, even the progressives are saying something else to him and sang a more loudly and locally than
ever, the evidence runs counter to your argument that he will run behind blockers even though they are there. >> i think -- take a look at other areas. for instance, gay activists were doing the right thing by voicing loudly their discomfort with obama's policy, their demand that he push harder on the a liberation front. i think there was a good thing. i think he acted accordingly. he is an electoral politician who acts like other electro politicians act. tavis: i agree with you. why would he do it for gays and lesbians, why would he do it for the jewish lobby, why would he do it for wall street, the cbc
and other black progressives who are pushing him, black folk are catching hell, he did not talk to a single negro. i am being somewhat funny. he did not going to black neighborhoods. if he doesn't for gays and lesbians and>> for more why did he not do it for black people? >> i think it is a big speech in detroit. i think the timing and placement has something to do with the criticism that has been lodged by representative warders, by theself, professor leftwest,
black left. you have to make noise, but you have to make noise again, being keenly attentive to the discipline of electoral politics. it would be a tremendous error for progressives to prompt or demand this president to act in ways that would cripple his ability to be reelected. on the one hand you have to push him. you have to change the electoral landscape, but you have to do it in a way that enables him to get the votes that he needs in order to be reelected. tavis: i agree. i am all for that. i am behind that 100%, so long
as enabling him ultimately leads to an enabling of the persons who have been politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised and i have not seen evidence of that just yet. i am all for enabling him so long as it leads to a nibbling other people that are catching the most held. i do not see that. >> a couple things. again, there are lots of decisions made underneath the radar screen. and we need to do our research on that. we also have to recognize the tremendous force, reactionary force that barack obama and his administration faces. you have to be attentive. tavis: cornell west is right. we must protect the president from those kinds of missions, boulder attacks, but we must correct him when he is wrong.
we will leave it on that. his name is randall kennedy. always honored to have him on this program. a provocative new book, "the persistence of the color line, racial politics and the obama presidency." a delight to have you on this program. >> thanks for having me. tavis: see you back next time. until then, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with dave stewart on his new cd. that is next time. see you then. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where wal-mart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer,
help tavis improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] >> be momre.