Despite the best efforts of Rush Limbaugh to take credit for spoiling the Obama political honeymoon by convincing all Republican members of the House of Representatives to reject the President’s economic stimulus package, public approval rates for the President remain at record highs; leading some to conclude that we have entered a post racial America. Indeed, there is much to celebrate in electing and inaugurating a black President in a Southern city where, as Obama remarked in his inaugural address, he would not have been served a cup of coffee 40 years earlier. Staunch historical supporters of segregation such as President Woodrow Wilson and Senators James Eastland and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi must be rolling in their graves. But in a society characterized by economic inequality where race and class intertwine, we have a way to go before reaching the promised land envisioned by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
The problem with reading Obama as heralding a post racial America may be gleaned through an examination of filmmaker Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). As Frank Rich noted in the New York Times, Obama bears some resemblance to the film’s black protagonist, Dr. John Prentice as portrayed by Sidney Poitier. Obama and Prentice are intelligent, capable professionals who retain their cool when confronted by prejudice and emotional outbursts.
The basic plot line of the film is simple. Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) has a surprise for her parents. While on vacation in Hawaii, she has met a young doctor whom she wants to marry before he leaves for Switzerland and a position with the United Nations. The twist is that Joanna is white and her fiancée, black. Joanna assumes that her liberal parents will have little problem with the proposed nuptials. After expressing some trepidation, Christina Drayton (Katharine Hepburn) endorses her daughter’s wedding plans, but Joanna’s father, San Francisco newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) plans to announce his opposition to the union at a family dinner. And Joanna has further complicated matters for her father by inviting Dr. Prentice’s parents to dinner.
While Joanna is naïve, Prentice recognizes that even white liberals may have problems with such a union, and he is prepared to abandon his matrimonial plans if Mr. Drayton objects. After all, before the 1967 Supreme Court Case of Loving v. Virginia, interracial marriage was still considered illegal in sixteen states, mostly in the South. Drayton considers Prentice a fine man, but he is concerned about the societal prejudice the interracial couple will encounter.
At the evening dinner, Mr. Drayton is supported by John’s father (Ray Glenn), a postal worker, who is afraid that his sacrifices for his son’s career will be in vain due to the discrimination that marriage to a white woman will unleash. John’s mother (Beah Richards), however, saves the day by her proclamation that the older generation must bow to the power of love, and youth must be served. The film concludes to the refrain, “What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love.”
The film was a box office hit, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Critics, nevertheless, were divided over the merits of the well-intended film, suggesting that what white family would not accept the distinguished Dr. Prentice as portrayed by the noble Sydney Poitier—an accomplished professional with an international reputation and considerable earning potential. The real test of tolerance might be whether the Drayton family would embrace a less promising African-American suitor or for that matter a working class white from the wrong side of the tracks. But producer/director Stanley Kramer insisted that creating Prentice as such an idealized character would prove that any rejection of the Doctor would have to be based simply on racial prejudice.
Kramer’s conclusion that love could erase the intersection between race and class with the acceptance of such an exceptional “Negro” was naïve to say the least. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., increasingly earned the ire of white liberals as he emphasized economic inequality and how the Vietnam War contributed to the racial problems of the nation. He was assassinated in April 1968 while leading a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s murder fueled widespread urban unrest, and troops were required to quell the disturbances in many cities. Two months later, Robert Kennedy, to whom many blacks and Latinos had turned to pick up the mantle of King’s crusade against poverty, was also assassinated.
The Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of domestic unrest, concluded that the United States would continue to be plagued by racial discontent unless the racial, economic and class divide was addressed. While many black professionals are able to rise economically, the racial economic gap persists with approximately one-quarter of black Americans and one-fifth of Hispanic Americans living below the poverty line in contrast to ten percent of the white population.
The election of Barack Obama is an important milestone in American history, but it does not erase the impact of these poverty rates. Obama is a charismatic speaker with a keen intellect and attractive family. A constitutional lawyer, Obama will bring a respect for the nation’s legal traditions missing from Washington in recent years. But the ascendency of this exceptional individual to the highest office in the land hardly means that we, any more than the Drayton and Prentice families in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, have put race behind us. With the unpopularity of the Republican incumbent in 2008 and the collapse of the financial markets, one wonders if race prevented Obama from attaining an even greater vote in the election. Although Obama has clearly established an African-American identity, perhaps a white mother and the prominent role played by his white grandparents in his upbringing made him more acceptable to some white Americans.
In his pragmatic approach to governing and his appeals for bipartisanship, Obama does sometimes appear to embrace a post racial politics. But in his search for consensus, Obama must be careful that he does not repeat the mistakes of Lyndon Johnson. Addressing issues of economic inequality and the intersection between race and class will require some bold leadership to challenge the consensus and foster some meaningful redistribution of wealth in the nation.
President Johnson also feared that conservatives would accuse him of supporting socialism. To cover himself from domestic McCarthyism, Johnson committed the United States to the military defense of South Vietnam. While President Obama appears ready to disengage from Iraq, he is committed to making his mark on the war with terrorism by increasing forces in Afghanistan, which has the potential for becoming Mr. Obama’s war. Confronting the challenges of governing during a time of war and depression will require President Obama to go beyond the persona of John Prentice and become the dinner guest who is willing to make the difficult choices which may upset his hosts.
The Obama story indicates that the American dream remains a possibility, but for many black and Latino children the dream remains elusive. Education, health care, job training, and a commitment to reducing economic inequality are essential if all children are to have the opportunity accorded John Prentice and Barack Obama and America is really able to move into a post racial era.
Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.