What the Obama Candidacy Means for Scholars of Race

20081093661 Jonathan Tilove in The Seattle Times:

For scholars of race, Barack Obama presents a new American dilemma.

On one hand, his election as president would be a breathtaking symbol of racial progress. On the other, an Obama victory could prove illusory, doing little to dismantle racism while crippling their ability to call attention to it.

“Then what will we do as race scholars?” wondered University of Virginia political scientist Lynn Sanders.

Some of the nation’s leading students of race were asked about the predicament.

“At this point, any conflict I might have is more than eased by the knowledge that Barack Obama, if elected, could be the salvation of a country in free-flight failure,” Derrick Bell, a professor of law at New York University, who taught Obama when he was a student at Harvard Law School, replied via e-mail.

In books such as “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism,” Bell, who is black, offers a bleak view of the possibility of racial progress in America, a view much at odds with the hopeful promise of Obama.

“If he sounded as I might wish him to sound, he could not be elected,” Bell wrote in his e-mail. “And he may not be elected even as his intellect and savvy put him worlds ahead of his Republican counterpart. And that is all I wish to say on the matter.”

Another renowned pessimist, University of Pennsylvania political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., did not respond to an interview request. But in a blistering recent post on blackagendareport.com, Reed, who is black, argued that while Obama might be better than John McCain in the short run, in the long run he might be worse. This, Reed reasoned, is because, having co-opted so much of the left, Obama may move the boundary of acceptable discourse on race and class well to the right.

“I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to vote for Obama, though I do say it’s wrongheaded to vote for him with any lofty expectations,” wrote Reed, indicating his intention “to abstain from this charade.”