Paint the White House Black
Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America
Michael P. Jeffries
Stanford: University Press, 2013
Softcover. 224p. ISBN 978-0804780964. $22.95
Reviewed by George Katito
Université Paris IV Sorbonne
From the onset, Jeffries is keen to assert that ‘Paint the White House Black’ is not a reflection on the Obama presidency as the dawn of a post racial future. President Obama, in Jeffries work, is at best, a possible ‘gathering place’, a site upon which to uncover the processes that feed and sustain ‘race’ in America. As such, Jeffries’ intent in this work is to discuss ‘the meaning of race in America’ drawing upon Barack Obama as a discursive aid.
Jeffries begins by acknowledging the ambition of his endeavor given that ‘race’ functions as an elusive ‘metalanguage’ that is often inscrutable. ’Race’, he recognizes, escapes easy definition precisely because it discretely structures and infuses discourse while constructing the very subjects who would seek to define it. This is not, however, insurmountable in Jeffries’ view. Intersectionality holds the key to deconstructing a concept that appears ‘public’ yet it often tends towards being ‘secret, firm, and volatile at the same time.’ By approaching race through an intersectional lens, by assuming that it functions as an interaction of any number of variables, the codes, signs, and semiotics that constitute ‘race’ are decipherable.
Barack Obama is employed as a case ripe for such an intersectional analysis of race in the United States given that his biography poignantly illustrates how the meaning of ‘race’ is simultaneously sustained, and reconfigured as it intersects with gender, sexual orientation, class, and religion among other variables. Barack Obama’s rise and the attendant reactions to his ascent are argued by Jeffries to have laid bare the ‘tragic dependence’ of definitions of American nationhood upon race. In this regard, Jeffries construes a ‘distinct and troubling relationship’ between racism and nationalism: Jeffries observes manifestations of a persistent ‘politics of inheritance’ accompanying Obama’s rise that he argues to endure from a colonial past dominated by Anglo-Saxon religion, language, and culture. Indeed, Jeffries argues that efforts to undermine Obama’s rise (birther theorists, et al.) underscored how ‘Anglo-Saxon’ heritage is frequently marshaled to construct ‘nonwhite’ subjects as deviant and to define their bodies as ‘a repudiation of American values.’
Jeffries retrieves an alternative means to approach nationhood beyond race from Obama’s memoirs, Dreams from my Father : A Story of Race and Inheritance. The memoirs are argued to posit an Americanism that emerges from personal experience and reflexivity, rather than from stable conceptions of racial inheritance. Indeed, it is in Obama’s experiences as the child of a worldly, well-traveled mother that he forms a complex understanding of Americanism that, among other things, appreciates the decisive role that privilege plays in defining American identity and nationhood. Out of similar reflections on privilege, Jeffries construes the promise of not only destabilizing relations between race and nationhood but of also laying the foundations for a ‘new American nationalism’ grounded in collective action aimed at redressing social injustice.
Obama is also deployed as a ‘gathering place’ to discuss bi- and multiracial Americans as ‘futuristic and post-racial’ portents. To this end, Jeffries canvasses a cohort of young, multiracial university students on their perceptions of Obama, the implications of his rise on their internal processes of individuation and more broadly, his significance upon the construction of race in America. Jeffries admits that the sample drawn from universities on the East Coast is not representative yet responses drawn from his interviews and discussions are instructive. He gathers that Obama is not considered a savior figure that has improved the lot and image of persons of color. Rather, the students contend that well-worn stereotypes and concepts that uphold white supremacy continue to structure their life experiences and inform their self-understanding. Obama’s presidency is seen to mirror their experiences. The students perceive the endurance of veiled and overt racist rhetoric targeted toward Obama from the media and in political discourse leading to their consensus that multiracialism cannot be perceived as evidence of a transformation in the meaning of race in the United States.
Jeffries then proceeds to observe the demise of traditional forms of black politics in the shadow of Obama’s ascent. As he reconsiders the notion of a post racial America having arrived, Jeffries contends that Obama’s rise, fueled by internet-based mobilization, had the inadvertent effect of consolidating class cleavages, as the digital divide offered more voice to those with resources to profit from the use of technology. More importantly, reliance on technology had the effect of exposing – and therefore compromising – the safe spaces in which traditional black politics have traditionally germinated. The Jeremiah Wright incident is offered as a case in point. Where Wright’s controversial reflections on race would have been consumed in their full context in the safe space of church, the ubiquity of cameras and social media at once exposed, misinterpreted, and compromised sites in which black politics has often flourished. In effect, Jeffries dismisses the notion of a post-racial America fueled by Obama’s rise by bringing it into dialogue with class and the technological divide.
Jeffries proceeds to invoke black feminist scholarship that has long drawn upon intersectionality to discuss the interaction of race with gender and class to structure the particular experiences of black women. In Jeffries’ opinion, media representations of Michelle Obama’s expose the fluid ways in which race is redefined and sustained as her class and gender are used to ‘recast and transform… traditional racist notions and stereotypes of black womanhood.’ The perception of her being an ‘uppity,’ professional superwoman for instance is argued to descend from historic mythologies of black women endowed with endless strength rooted in de-feminized narratives of strong, African American women emerging out of slavery.
In deploying an intersectional approach, Jeffries ultimately contends that ‘race’ as an autonomous concept holds little explanatory power. It is only in bringing it into tension with class, gender – and sexuality and religion he adds, without going into detail – that a more precise understanding of the place of racial identity in America can emerge. An intersectional approach would not only ‘disrupt race and gender binaries’ but potentially inform more complex policy approaches to addressing ‘institutionalized practice’ that tend toward exclusion and social injustice. The value of Obama’s rise is therefore presented as potentially productive and relevant to race to the extent that it provides a ‘place’ upon which to deconstruct these intersections and inform future practice.
Jeffries remains true to his task and consistently argues through his chosen intersectional lens. In his concluding chapter, he posits suggestions that give a clear sense that there is further room to exploit Obama as a ‘place’ to deconstruct ‘race’ in America. Indeed, one tantalizing proposal that Jeffries offers in passing is that of bringing the rise of Obama into dialogue with capitalism as a whole. Yet, this is not the work that he is seeking to produce. Still, his suggestion to take on capitalism and bring it into conversation with race, using the Obama presidency as a discursive tool, sounds pertinent particularly given that the Obama presidency has been significantly defined by a broader crisis in capitalism. Jeffries, therefore, does not only offer an intersectional analysis of race but suggests that there may yet be opportunity to further explore race in America as it is brought into dialogue with other variables, capitalism being one such intriguing frontier.
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