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Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race

by Melanye Price New York University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 224 pages
AU$59.99 NZ$63.47
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Nearly a week after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, President Obama walked into the press briefing room and shocked observers by saying that “Trayvon could have been me.”  He talked personally and poignantly about his experiences and pointed to intra-racial violence as equally serious and precarious for black boys. He offered no sweeping policy changes or legislative agendas; he saw them as futile. Instead, he suggested that prejudice would be eliminated through collective efforts to help black males and for everyone to reflect on their own prejudices.           

Obama’s presidency provides a unique opportunity to engage in a discussion about race and politics. In The Race Whisperer, Melanye Price analyzes the manner in which Barack Obama uses race strategically to engage with and win the loyalty of potential supporters.  This book uses examples from Obama’s campaigns and presidency to demonstrate his ability to authentically tap into notions of blackness and whiteness to appeal to particular constituencies. By tailoring his unorthodox personal narrative to emphasize those parts of it that most resonate with a specific racial group, he targets his message effectively to that audience, shoring up electoral and governing support. The book also considers the impact of Obama’s use of race on the ongoing quest for black political empowerment.  Unfortunately, racial advocacy for African Americans has been made more difficult because of the intense scrutiny of Obama’s relationship with the black community, Obama’s unwillingness to be more publicly vocal in light of that scrutiny, and the black community’s reluctance to use traditional protest and advocacy methods on a black president.  Ultimately, though, The Race Whisperer argues for a more complex reading of race in the age of Obama, breaking new ground in the study of race and politics, public opinion, and political campaigns.

"[Price's] analysis shines new light on the price paid for black silence. If Obama is the model for black politicians going forward, how can they deliver more than symbolic benefit to black voters?"-The Historian

“With The Race Whisperer Melanye Price has helped decode one of the most enigmatic and complex dynamics of the Obama Presidency.”-W. Jelani Cobb,author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress

“Price has written a wonderfully rich treatment of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric and his usages of race. It is a highly critical, yet restrained analysis of his presidency. This book invites readers to think closely about how politicians, especially African American politicians, use race in American national politics. More importantly, it serves as guidebook for African American voters and how they might assess the use of race in political rhetoric and discourse.”-Randal Maurice Jelks,author of Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography

"In this book, Melanye Price masterfully explores the many ways in which the first black president, Barack Obama, navigated the complexities of race—not only as a politician but also as a candidate. The book’s success lies in Price’s ability to peel back the layers of racial significance within President Obama’s rhetorical approaches…[Price’s] work is extremely impressive."-Critical Dialogues
Melanye T. Price is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Rutgers—New Brunswick.She is the author of Dreaming Blackness: Black Nationalism and African American Public Opinion.