Review: The Price of the Ticket by Frederick Harris

Fredrick C. Harris is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of Columbia University’s Center on African-American Politics and Society. In the world of academia, his racial/political bona fides are beyond reproach. so when he proposes that our first African-American President hasn’t adequately addressed racial inequality, it’s worth a read. In his Price of the Ticket, Harris explains that the election of President Obama has allowed the country to feel good about itself for choosing a black man as President, even as this President has done little to forward the causes for which so many of his fellow African-Americans have long fought. Harris hopes to put “Obama’s race-neutral campaign strategy and approach to governing within the context of history, politics and policy.”
Much of the book does just that. Harris spends a few chapters providing historical context that explains the two strategies (and the tension between them) used by African Americans to achieve political power:

The coalition-politics perspective calls on black voters to build coalitions with whites and other racial and ethnic groups to develop support for issues and policies that help most everyone. The independent-black-politics perspective presses blacks to work independently of other groups to push for community interests with the aim toward building support with other groups around both universal policies and community-specific issues.

Harris’ telling of the evolution of these strategies over the decades is an interesting story and he provides valuable insights as to how the political campaigns of Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and the late-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington laid the groundwork for Obama’s successful 2008 run for the Presidency. Focusing on Obama, Harris contends that the race-neutral politics of the President–which go hand-in-hand with coalition politics–“has marginalized policy discussions about racial inequality.”

Proponents of “race-neutral” universalism fail to acknowledge that policies that help everyone–what can be described as a trickle-down approach to eradicating poverty and social inequality–are not enough to correct the deep-rooted persistance of racial inequality. In many ways, the majority of black voters have struck a bargain with Obama. In exchange for the president’s silence on community-focused interests, black voters are content with a governing philosophy that helps “all people” and a politics centered on preserving the symbol of a black president and family in the White House.

This is the “price of the ticket” and it’s clear that Harris is no proponent of coalition-politics. To bolster his point, he contrasts the gains made by the LGBT community under the Obama Administration to the lack of progress made on racial equality. The former, Harris contends, has kept the pressure on Obama (as has, according to Harris, the Tea Party) and been rewarded while the black community has given the President a pass, a dynamic he delves deeper into in his chapter, “Wink, Nod, Vote.”
Further, Harris argues that Obama has become a “hollow prize” for Black America because the President has been forced to contend with an economic downturn instead of turning his attention to implementing policies–however modest–that dealt with racial inequality. Worse yet, by Harris’ contention, Obama hasn’t adequately addressed inequality even within the context of the economic downturn. When asked in 2009 about the “mounting problem of black unemployment” and why he hadn’t targeted it:

Obama provided the same pat answer. Obama acknowledged that black and Latino workers were disproportionately affected by the great recession, but he still insisted that policies that helped everyone would cure the catastrophic unemployment rate in minority communities.

This was in contrast to a proposal by the Congressional Black Caucus, for instance, that:

…incorporated the principle of “targeted universalism”; an approach that would geographically target government-sponsored job projects in communities most affected by the recession and with the greatest concentrations of poverty. By default, such legislation would not help everyone equally but benefit those most affected by the recession.

In other words, blacks and other minorities.
In a comparison between Herman Cain (running for the Republican Presidential nomination at the time Harris’ was writing the book) and President Obama, Harris finds that both fall short of the promise that politically powerfull African-Americans are supposed to fulfill.

When you place Cain next to Obama, who appears to be too timidly strategic to raise questions about–and work overtly against–racial inequality, the actions (or in the case of Obama inactions) of both diminish black interests on the national political scene. One black candidate for president spouts bigoted views about blacks and the poor. The other is silent on issues of racial inequality and poverty. In the end, neither political party is a vehicle for blacks to directly confront inequality, because both parties push black-specific issues to the margins of national policymaking. This development tells us something about the durability of racism as an ideology in American politics. Instead of fading away in an era celebrated as “postracial,” race as ideology demonstrates convincing staying power, endowed with the ability to readapt and readjust as new political situations arise. {emphasis added}

Thus, we see that Harris’ critique of Obama is rooted in his apparent belief that America, as whole, is still a racist society. By Harris’ interpretation, electing a black man president is not to be taken as a symbol of the end of widespread, institutional and cultural racism, but rather a signal that such racism has changed and “readjusted.”
The problem is that his interpretation is based on his contention that Obama hasn’t done enough to address what Harris refers to–multiple times–as racial inequality. Yet, he never truly defines that inequality and the reader not versed in contemporary African-American politics is left wondering, “so what could Obama do in the realm of addressing racial inequality that will make Harris happy?”
Harris does spend time giving examples of, and discounting, what he calls the “politics of respectibility” (Bill Cosby comes in for some criticism on this front). But without more specificity as to what policies Harris supports towards racial equality, as opposed to explaining what he doesn’t support, we are left guessing. In the end, Harris has provided a fine history of the development of contemporary black political strategies. He is less convincing in supporting his contention that President Obama’s decision to govern America as a coalition–and not focus on acute issues affecting African-Americans–marks Obama as a failure as an African-American president. As a result, we’re just not sure, exactly, what President Obama could have done to have been a success in Harris’ eyes.

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10 years ago

“black voters are content with a governing philosophy that helps “all people”
Except if you are greedy corporations (you know..the REAL job creators) such as traditional energy companies.
“To bolster his point, he contrasts the gains made by the LGBT community under the Obama Administration to the lack of progress made on racial equality.”
Follow the money…LGBT help Hussein with large Hollyweird donations. The guy is a sucker for a $40,000. per head fund raiser. What racial group can give Hussein that level of cash?
“Obama has become a “hollow prize” for Black America because the President has been forced to contend with an economic downturn”.
A downturn he has created by piling up debt and penalizing the private sector. Most people ever on food stamps,US credit downgraded, high real unemployment rate,etc. Hussein’s vision for America is that of a self absorbed tin horn dictator. His vision is becoming his reality.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
10 years ago

“Obama has become a “hollow prize” for Black America because the President has been forced to contend with an economic downturn”.
I notice he didn’t insist on prosecution of the Black Panthers turning away voters. That would have cost little.
Does anyone know what happened to the house painter who was elected to Congress from RI? That must have been the 70’s, maybe early 80’s.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
10 years ago

Google answered my question:
“director of elderly affairs, City of Providence, R.I.”
BEARD, Edward Peter, a Representative from Rhode Island; born in Providence, R.I., January 20, 1940; attended Assumption Elementary School and Hope High School, Providence, R.I; Rhode Island National Guard, 1960-1966, where he completed high school as well as a college-level course in agriculture; worked as painter; member of the Rhode Island state house of representatives, 1972-1974; delegate, Democratic National Convention, 1976; elected as a Democrat to the Ninety-fourth and to the two succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1975-January 3, 1981); unsuccessful candidate for reelection to the Ninety-seventh Congress in 1980; owned and operated a tavern; director of elderly affairs, City of Providence, R.I., 1986-2002; unsuccessful candidate for Democratic nomination to the One Hundred Second Congress in 1990; is a resident of Providence, R.I.

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