Mr. Kennedy, who is African-American, has long been among the most incisive American commentators on race. His books, which include “Race, Crime, and the Law” (1997) and the best seller “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” (2002), tend to arrive in full academic dress (his new one has footnotes and endnotes) and seem to be carved from intellectual granite, yet they have human scale. When it suits him, he can deploy references to Stevie Wonder and Kanye West as well as to Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mahalia Jackson and Malcolm X. He has the full panoply of the black experience in America at his fingertips.
Mr. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, sets what we know of Mr. Obama’s presidency thus far in relief against the sorry history of racial politics in the United States. He worries, even in 2011, about “an inflated sense of accomplishment” in regard to racial progress. He points out that, in all of its history, America has elected only three black senators and two black governors. Mr. Kennedy examines recent racial flare-ups — over criticisms of America by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama’s former pastor; over Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation; over Mr. Obama’s remarks when the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by a white police officer after forcing open his own front door — and declares, using what is, I think, his book’s sole exclamation point: “Race still matters!”
His book is also, crucially, a running and sometimes acid commentary on Mr. Obama and what Mr. Kennedy refers to as “the Obama enigma.” How progressive, deep down, is this man? Does he have the audacity, to borrow one of Mr. Obama’s favorite words, to lead?