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NOT EVEN PAST
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Lawrence Stone Lectures Sponsored by The Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies and Princeton University Press 2009

Previous Lawrence Stone Lectures Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations

NOT EVEN PAST
6 Barack Obama and the Burden of Race

Thomas J. sugRue

P r i n c e to n U n i v e r si t y P r e s s P r i n c e to n a n d ox f o r d

Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540 In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 6 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TW press.princeton.edu All Rights Reserved C o n g r e s s C ata L o g i n g - i n - P u b L i C at i o n D ataSugrue, Thomas J., 1962– Not even past : Barack Obama and the burden of race / Thomas J. Sugrue. p. cm. — (Lawrence Stone lectures) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-0-691-13730-8 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Obama, Barack. 2. Obama, Barack—Political and social views. 3. African Americans—Race identity. 4. Presidents—United States— Biography. 5. African Americans—Biography. 6. AfricanAmericans—Civil rights. 7. United States— Race relations—Political aspects. 8. Racism—Political aspects— United States. 9. Social classes—Political aspects—United States. 10. Political culture—United States. I. Title. E908.3.S84 2010 973.932092—dc22 2010000240
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L i b r a ry

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available This book has been composed in Sabon Printed on acid-freepaper. Printed in the United States of America 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

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the past is not dead. in fact, it’s not even past. —William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

as William faulkner once wrote, “the past isn’t dead and buried. in fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we doneed to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the african-american community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim crow. —Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” Philadelphia, March 18, 2008

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Contents
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introduction

1

I“this is My story”:

obama, civil rights, and Memory

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II obama and the truly disadvantaged:
the Politics of race and class

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III

“a More Perfect Union”? the Burden of race in obama’s america

92

Acknowledgments Notes

139 141

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NOT EVEN PAST
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Introduction
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It is now a commonplace that the election of Barack Obama marksthe opening of a new period in America’s long racial history. The unlikely rise of a black man to the nation’s highest office—someone who was a mostly unknown state senator only five years before he was inaugurated president—confirms the view of many, especially whites, that the United States is a postracial society. At last, the shackles of discrimination have been broken and individual merit isrewarded, regardless of skin color. In this view, blackness—once the clearest marker of difference in American society—has lost some or all of its stigma. Barack Obama, in the most common formulation, transcends race; his ancestry fuses African and European into a new hybrid; his political vision of unity discredits those who cling bitterly to notions of racial superiority and, at the same time,rebukes those who harbor a divisive identity politics fueled by an exaggerated sense of racial grievance. As with all interpretations of the relationship between the past and the present, the notion that Obama’s election marks an epochal change in racial dynamics is not without its critics. Obama himself offers a tempered view, suggesting that even if America has advanced considerably over the...
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