Squaring the Circle: A Response to Fredrick Harris’s The Price of the Ticket

by Shaun Terry

“[I]f the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. …And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science at Columbia University, where he also directs the Center on African-American Politics and Society. He has written a good deal on African-American politics and seems to be well-respected in his field. In previous writing, Harris has often taken a more quantitative approach to trying to answer political science questions, while The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics uses historical accounts to contextualize the important issues raised in the book.

The Price of the Ticket concerns the implications of the election of Barack Obama. In the book, Harris addresses questions of what was gained and what was lost for the African-American community by way of Obama’s election. In this essay, I will contend that the price of the ticket, in Harris’s Baldwinian sense, was perhaps more complicated than Harris realized at the time. In a twist of irony, Obama faced incredible challenges largely brought on by fellow Democrat Bill Clinton’s policies in the 1990s, and I intend to try to illuminate some of these. Further, some of these complications may have helped to resurrect manifestations of racism that could have seemed unlikely to reappear. Unfair though it may have been, the strategy that might have worked best might have been to have addressed some of the legitimate concerns that poor, rural whites had that led to the especially onerous environment that Obama had to contend with. That is to say that, while there is a legitimate question over what and whom deserved the most consideration, Obama may have been well-served to have considered the particular wants and needs of poor whites while addressing issues of race and poverty in general. Before I get to that, we might consider where the idea of “the price of the ticket” comes from.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan explains to his younger brother, Alexei, or “Alyosha,” that he believes in God, but that he has less faith in the world that God has created for us. The injustices and cruelties of the world seem too much for someone like Ivan to bear, and therefore, he wishes to return to God the ticket to God’s world; for Ivan, the price of the ticket is too high. Harris makes a similar case, albeit using a more direct metaphor: perhaps Obama’s winning electoral ticket in 2008 bore too heavy a political cost. As Harris puts it, on pg. xv, “For black America—and its leaders—the dispiriting silence to this reality is the price paid for the election of the nation’s first black president.”

Harris makes his case in six chapters. The first two chapters provide the historical account of the tension between coalition politics and “independent black politics.” The middle two chapters look at divisions within African-American politics. Specifically, Harris develops ideas of a “black liberation theology” and a “prosperity gospel” to draw out a division in African-American socio-political life. He goes on to address ideas on respectability politics and Obama’s relationship to the concept. The penultimate chapter lays bare how “race-neutral campaigning” has played out in African-American electoral politics, while the last chapter describes Obama’s particular case and what it has meant for African-Americans.

Harris begins by providing a point of symmetry: Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign serves as a starting point for Harris’s story regarding America’s imagined first African-American presidency. Harris walks us through the empowerment of the 1960s Civil Rights movement and conceptions of African-American politics that followed, including rivaling independent and coalition movements. Harris provides a compelling account of how Chisholm and Jesse Jackson helped to solve problems so that Obama later avoided them. Put simply, Harris states on pg. 34, “In 2008, [Jackson’s past presidential run] helped pave the road to victory.” After having set the broad African-American political landscape on which Obama’s rise to the presidency came, Harris illuminates a more specific political incubator, in the form of late-20th and early-21st centuries Chicago.

In Harris’s second chapter, he describes Chicago’s unique role as “the mecca of black politics.” If we accept Harris’s position, it seems that it is no mistake that Obama chose Chicago over other options, such as Harlem, as the launching point for his political career. Chicago was not merely a backdrop for the rise of Obama. In fact, Chicago seems to have long been where the cutting edge of African-American electoral politics was put to the test. Diverging opinions on who should ally, and to what ends, led to a refined niche that a pragmatic Obama was able to take advantage of in order to tend to his ascendency. Harris explains how this complicated Obama’s political career: once a stalwart voice for African-American issues, Obama’s message increasingly changed as he stepped from state politics to the national stage. But Obama was not fully able to escape his Chicago legacy.

President Obama was made to answer for Reverend Jeremiah Wright having given a sermon in the long tradition of black liberation theology. Black liberation theology had historically preached that the United States was worth criticizing on moral grounds, and that it was righteous for African-Americans to fight for their own empowerment. Harris draws a tension between black liberation theology and the prosperity gospel, by which churches and preachers assert that individuals can be rewarded on Earth with things like “wealth, good health, and positive relationships.” Lessons in this emerging gospel give greater responsibility to its followers, marking a change in terms of how inequalities are dealt with within the African-American community. While Harris finds Obama to have remained true to black liberation theology, Harris notes that Obama has moderated some, even going as far as saying that there are “too many daddies not acting like daddies.” This serves to segue into talking about respectability politics.

By 2008, Obama was two years removed from his post in the Illinois Senate and two years further removed from having been a more vocal advocate for racial issues. Harris uses the next chapter to explain how Barack Obama plays a role in a kind of intraracial dispute: that of social norms. Harris addresses how different members of the African-American community treat respectability, and how, upon the Obama family’s residence in the White House, the nature of this argument changes. Harris tells us, on pg. 135:

“What is different about the twenty-first-century adaptation of the politics of respectability is that black politicians—particularly Barack Obama—have joined community leaders as the guardians of respectability and have cultivated the politics of respectability as a public philosophy aimed at managing and governing the black poor.”

In the end, the “talented tenth” can be seen as adversarial to poorer African-Americans, only that now, Barack Obama relies on the votes of all African-Americans and is made to balance conflicting imperatives within the African-American community.

Harris seems to recognize some of the complexities of the problem. Perhaps most people would agree that President Obama could not be the sole source of all of the problems raised by Harris. To this point, African-Americans have been made, according to Harris, a “captured constituency,” meaning that African-Americans have little choice in electoral politics. They can vote to help Democrats win or do nothing that might be helpful to African-American causes. In fact, Harris seems to have been interested in some of these questions for quite some time. Harris’s 2005 book, Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994, shows that, as more African-American officials were voted into office, poorer African-Americans seem to have engaged in non-voting civic activism at a lower rate; put another way, there was a negative relationship between this kind of activism and the rate at which we have elected African-Americans into office. This might bear special significance in Obama’s case as the environment within which Obama has operated has been different from what it was in decades past and has continued to evolve as he has been in office.

President Obama has, in Harris’s view, done little to help African-Americans and he has done even less for the explicit and specific reason of helping African-Americans. Obama seems to have constantly felt the need to explain that economic measures are intended for universal benefit and not targeted at African-Americans. Harris compares Obama’s attitude toward African-Americans with treatment of groups such as the LGBT community, who have seen more intentional engagement on behalf of their concerns. In the end, Harris leaves us to consider exactly what the price of the ticket really is. Harris demonstrates that the election of Obama may have appeared to have been a victory, and perhaps in many ways, it was one. Still, considering Obama’s treatment of race issues, it may be that a good deal of what African-Americans were really wanting and needing was lost.

I find Harris’s book effective. It is impressive, especially considering that Harris more often works by a different mode: by way of statistical analysis. Harris’s book seems somewhat light on references (perhaps it is just that his book is short in general). He relies a good deal on logical arguments in order to build a case, occasionally using relevant quotations from figures important to his narrative, along with scattered assistance from other relevant scholars and media figures. For example, Harris begins chapter three by recalling an important speech by Reverend Wright. Harris uses the quotation to make the point that the speech by Wright had both been an example of how African-American church leaders can sometimes take America’s history to task for its misdeeds and how the speech became troublesome to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Later, on pg. 156, Harris draws on Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Majority in order to help make the argument that symbolic representation and substantive policy action should perhaps not be conflated.

That said, I would like to complicate the situation some. I do not expect that Harris could have predicted what could have happened, so to be clear, I recognize that my position outlined here comes with a great advantage in terms of available information. But I would like to argue that President Obama had a perhaps unobvious opportunity.

The birth of the Tea Party movement may have clearly taken place on Koch Brothers’ Astroturf™, but in the end, that would not matter. What I mean is that the problematic Tea Party movement appears to have been something fabricated by the Power Elite in order to pass a neoconservative and to insulate the government from leftist forces. It did not matter because Bill Clinton was largely responsible for decent jobs having been sent overseas, Wall Street having been given license to play with Main Street’s money, and for welfare checks having been slowed down, which led to a troublesome mass of disgruntled poor white people. In some ways, the situation was made apparently more challenging by mass incarceration and liberalization of immigration policy, at least from the perspective of these poor, rural whites, in particular.

Should we care about the plights of poor, rural whites? After all, are these not the willful bigots trying to hold back the United States in so many ways? It hardly seems fair that those maybe most responsible for the immiseration of so many in the African-American community should get special positive attention from President Obama. I would argue that it is not exactly fair, but the situation in front of us is a complicated one that may require counterintuitive and ahistorical consideration in order to fully accomplish agreed-upon goals. Then again, to consider recent history, rural whites have, in recent decades, lost a good deal at least in terms of their material welfare. Conservative rhetoric about where jobs were going, who was leeching off of the government, and other dog whistle messages seemed to give targets for many of these suddenly disempowered whites to misguidedly attack. Instead of recognizing that they had been sold out by politicians and the Power Elite, they directed their frustrations toward people of color and other underprivileged groups. Perhaps there is no good justification for policies and rhetoric that might benefit poor whites, but it may be that such policies and rhetoric represent the most practical solution, anyway. With that said, the situation inherited by Obama seems to have been especially challenging.

The symbolic victory of having the Obamas reside in the White House may be important in some respects, but its importance seems to have precipitated what might have been the inevitable, deeply troubling backlash of white supremacy percolating to the surface of American society. Without a staunch advocate for African-American concerns, is the value of an African-American not severely undermined? The response to Obama was characterized by unprecedentedly disrespectful characterizations of the American president and his family. The seething rage on the right seems to have culminated (or so one hopes) in the cooption of unvarnished white supremacist support for a thinly veiled racist and misogynist in Donald Trump.

I claim that Barack Obama had an opportunity to address race relations and possibly to transform the relationship with poor, rural whites who have mostly not considered voting for Democrats since the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. Perhaps helping to repair eternally broken race relations and racial inequality was an implicit mandate, fairly or unfairly, thrust upon Obama by leaders in the African-American community and others on the left. However, fundamental to accomplishing that may have been the requirement that Barack Obama do something for long-forgotten poor, rural whites. It would seem unreasonable to claim that Barack Obama went out of his way to help either African-Americans or poor, rural whites, though.

Barack Obama is exceptional in that, at least at by the time that Harris wrote The Price of the Ticket, Obama had spoken less of race issues than any Democratic president since 1961. In State of the Union addresses, Obama had spoken less about poverty than any president since 1940. Poor whites often seem to have seen poverty as an issue related to people of color, perhaps preferring to see themselves as part of a displaced middle class, so it is easy to see why Obama may have avoided discussing poverty, considering his general policy of swerving hard to his right in order to maneuver around the subject of race altogether. However, that whites, especially, have conflated poverty with minority status does not seem to have necessitated the avoidance of poverty as an issue, especially as economists have for quite some time now been pealing the bell of income and wealth inequality. Instead, what Obama could have done was to have spoken clearly and directly on the issues facing poor Americans of every race and ethnicity, forming a sympathetic narrative and a set of radically progressive policy prescriptions that would have been true to the Democrats’ historical legacy, especially of the 20th century. Such policies might have helped to bring poor, rural whites back into the Democratic fold. Simultaneously such policies could have brought significant progress for many African-Americans whose material outlooks had been egregiously, perpetually impinged upon by the white supremacism emanating into the ether from the long-dry ink of the United States Constitution.

Despite that Harris may have missed an opportunity to have made a more nuanced argument that might have provided more effective policy prescriptions, I found his book compelling. The questions raised in his book are powerful and important ones; after all, it does not seem easy to completely, definitively answer what the price of the ticket has been. For anyone concerned with the direction of race relations and of African-American politics, this book might serve as an important guide to developing an understanding of the recent state of affairs.