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Racial Paradox and Eclipse: Obama as a Balm for What Ails Us

Camille Nelson

Suffolk University Law School


Denver University Law Review, Vol. 86, p. 743, 2009

This essay focuses upon the historic 2008 campaign and instances that reveal racial paradox and division. In a race that promised to deliver the first female President, first female Vice President, or the first black President, both crude and subtle identity politics were revealed that challenged the claim made by much of the media punditry that the American citizenry had moved into a "post-racial" epoch of cultural color blindness.

Hence Barack Obama’s success does not represent the transcendence of identity politics, but rather his skillful navigation of our chaotic collective racial consciousness. In "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," Obama chronicled his racial journey and described the ways in which he was forced to manage his identity to put white relatives and acquaintances at their ease. However, despite his choice and construction of his identity as a black man, during the 2008 campaign Obama often became the blank slate onto which racial and other identity based hopes and phobias were transferred.

His biography as "the son of a black man from Kenya and white woman from Kansas" placed him at many identity intersections. As a result, Obama was often asked to authenticate or distance himself from his identity in a way not required of other candidates. Obama was simultaneously urged to address concerns that he was "too black" or "not black enough." Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Sarah Palin faced no such scrutiny. This obsession with racial identity is more revealing of disorder than transcendence.

This essay explores Barack Obama’s ability to successfully navigate these hopes and phobias. While Obama’s ability to negotiate an intersectional identity may have been his most impressive achievement of the 2008 campaign, it has not dislodged our deep discomfort in openly and honestly discussing matters of race.

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Date posted: January 29, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Camille, Racial Paradox and Eclipse: Obama as a Balm for What Ails Us (2009). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 86, p. 743, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1750294

Contact Information

Camille Nelson (Contact Author)
Suffolk University Law School ( email )
120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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