An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2011

Challenging History: Barack Obama & American Racial Politics

Rogers M. Smith, Desmond S. King, and Philip A. Klinkner

Rogers M. Smith, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2004, is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the Executive Committee for the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism. His publications include The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America (with Philip A. Klinkner, 1999), Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership (2003), and Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America (with Desmond S. King, 2011).

Desmond S. King is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Nuffield College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. His publications include Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government, rev. ed. (2007), The Unsustainable American State (coedited with Lawrence R. Jacobs, 2009), Democratization in America (coedited with Robert Lieberman, Gretchen Ritter, and Laurence Whitehead, 2009), and Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America (with Rogers M. Smith, 2011).

Philip A. Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. His publications include The Losing Parties: Out-Party National Committees, 1956-1993 (1994), Midterm: The 1994 Elections in Perspective (1996), and The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America (with Rogers M. Smith, 1999).

When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences devoted two issues of its journal Dædalus to the topic of “The Negro American” in 1965 and 1966, the United States had reached the triumphant end of the second of three eras of racial politics that characterize the American national experience thus far. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 raised hopes that the end of the third era was near, after which racial inequalities and conflicts would no longer be central to national life. Although the demographics of the 2008 electorate signaled the impact of historic racial transformations and the possibility of even greater changes, the campaign offered at best a glimpse of how the central issues of the third racial era in U.S. history might be resolved. As long as the debate over managing race-based discrimination and inequities persists, the current era cannot be said to have ended.

We view the three eras of American racial politics in terms of rival racial policy alliances: that is, durable coalitions of political actors, activist groups, and governing institutions united by their stances on the central racial policy issues in the eras of American politics their conflicts help define.1  In the slavery era of 1790 to 1865, pro-slavery and antislavery alliances fought over whether slavery should be maintained and extended. Next, after a period of transition, the Jim Crow era emerged in the mid1890s and endured (for practical purposes) until .  .  .


  • 1These arguments are developed chiefly in Desmond S. King and Rogers M. Smith, “Racial Orders in American Political Development,” American Political Science Review 99 (2005): 75–92; Desmond S. King and Rogers M. Smith, “Strange Bedfellows? Polarized Politics? The Quest for Racial Equality in Contemporary America,” Political Research Quarterly 61 (2008): 686–703; Rogers M. Smith and Desmond S. King, “Barack Obama and the Future of American Racial Politics,” Du Bois Review 6 (2009): 25–35; Desmond S. King and Rogers M. Smith, Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011). In these and the present essay, the order of authors’ names indicates merely which author initiated the project. Here, we replace our earlier term “racial orders” with the more accessible term “racial policy alliances.”
To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now