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Professors discuss ‘changing ideas of race in America’

Published: March 7, 2008
Section: Front Page


the_hoot_3-07-08_page_01_image_0003.jpgIn light of Barack Obama’s successful campaign run including an 11 state winning streak, his status as a black man, has sparked debate about whether or not his electoral victories signify a profound break from how Americans view the nature of race.

In Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Monday, a panel of professors discussed the “Obama Phenomena: Changing Ideas of Race,” one in a series of events centered on the 2008 Campaign.

According to Charles Radin, Director of Global Communications for the Office of Communications, the idea for the panel discussion “arose organically” in a conversation with Prof. Ibrahim Sundiata (HIST). Radin, who helped organize the event, also commented on how the primary focus of the panel was not directly on Sen. Obama. “It’s less about Obama than it is about analyzing race and politics… [in the context of the event] he’s more a test subject than a political hero.”

The members of the panel consisted of, Prof. Jacqueline Jones (HIST), Prof. Mingus Mapps (POL), and Prof. Peniel Joseph (AAAS).

Sundiata, the moderator, was the first to speak and discussed Obama in terms of race and how he is perceived by the developing world. He began his presentation by summarizing the recent publicized disputes about whether or not Barack is a “genuine African American.”

One view is that Obama’s electoral success marks the end of a “racist nightmare,” the opposing view is that Obama’s popularity is simply a way of avoiding dealing with that “nightmare.”

This conflict exists because Obama’s father was an immigrant, and Obama is not descended from slaves. Deborah Dickerson, who Sundiata mentioned and quoted, published an article entitled “Why Obama Isn’t ‘Black,’” in which she wrote, “He steps into the benefits of black progress (like Harvard Law) without having borne any of the burden and he gives white folks plausible deniability of their unwillingness to embrace blacks in public life.”

Sundiata came to the conclusion, that despite those criticisms, Sen. Obama’s electoral successes prove that he is “genuine.” He stated, “he reinforces the broad definition of what black is…and prevents further erosion.”

He then briefly discussed the perception that Obama will have better relations with the developing world because of his background. He remarked, “[while he] will do more for the world…the view that hope for Obama is hope for the third world is exaggerated.” Later, during the Q & A session, he joked, “if we parachute him to Darfur and he says ‘Yes we can’…that isn’t going to work.”

Following Sundiata, Prof. Jacqueline Jones’ speech highlighted the “historical estrangement between black activists and white women activists.” She illustrated how both marginalized groups viewed enfranchisement as a “zero-sum goal” and so they were, and still are, in constant conflict.

She explained that there is still a great “depth of prejudice” directed towards women today. Jones used the example of a crowd in New Hampshire heckling Clinton with the phrase “Iron my shorts!” and while it was considered in bad taste, there was no outrage. Jones asked, “how would we have reacted if they heckled Obama with ‘shine my shoes!’?”

Jones ended her presentation by questioning the basis of identity politics, of choosing a candidate because of gender or race, instead of voting for a candidate because of the issues.

Prof. Mingus Mapps addressed this topic further, posing the question, “have Democrats transcended identity politics?” Using graphs of exit poll data from early primaries and caucuses, Mapps disproved the assumption that Obama is doing well because of ‘cross-over voting’ The data showed that Clinton is doing better with white and female voters than Obama and that he is receiving more of the votes from male and black voters.

Mapps demonstrated that “when identities collide at the voting booth,” citing the example of a black woman, race tends to be more of a determining factor. However, Mapps pointed out that recently, Obama has been more competitive among white male voters.

Based on his data, he concluded, “race and gender continues to play a significant role in politics.”

The final speaker, Prof. Peniel Joseph, put Obama’s candidacy in the historic context of the black power and civil rights movement. He suggested that Obama has fused together the concepts of these two movements, the radical democracy of the civil rights movement and the autonomy and self-determination of the black power movement.

Then, Joseph spoke of the excitement that surrounds Obama’s campaign. He listed Ted Kennedy’s endorsement as an example. He also mentioned the anxiety that follows Obama as he gets closer to a Democratic nomination, highlighting the attention paid to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakahn’s endorsement of Obama. Joseph stated, “Before it was ‘is he black enough?’ now it’s ‘is he too black’?”

During the Q & A session one person asked the panel, “Why are we focusing so much on race? Why can’t we elect someone because of the issues?”

Jones replied, “there are deep and profound racial ideologies and we’re living with the consequences.”

Joseph also stated, “we’re still talking about it because it still exists.”

There was a large turnout of students, faculty and the general public for the event. Every seat was filled and a few were sitting on the floor. Jonah Seligman ’10 co-president of the club Gen Ed Now, which cosponsored the event, commented on why so many attended. “The event is timely so people care about it…[Obama] has a large student support base and he’s a hot commodity.”

The general student opinion was positive. Meghan White ’10 stated, “it was a discussion that definitely needed to be had,” but she expressed disappointment with the lack of interest shown by the audience in Jones’s claim that there is a greater depth of prejudice directed towards women. “I wish Jones’s point was discussed more during the Q & A,” she said.

Jaimee Halpren ’11 thought that Jones raised a fascinating point, “I thought it was very interesting when Jones spoke about how there has been so much [criticism] of Hillary Clinton’s attire and not Sen. Obama’s.”

Some agreed with the sentiment that there has been too much focus on identity politics in the 2008 campaign. “[There’s been] so much emphasis on race and minority…are people really concerned with that instead of the issues?” said Alexandra Dougherty ’11.

There are also those who felt that the event did not meet their expectations, Sahar Massachi ’11 said, “It had promise and it interested me at parts, but I thought a lot of it was common knowledge.”

On Thursday Gen Ed Now organized a discussion section with Mapps where students could continue discussing the issues raised by Monday’s “Obama Phenomena.” He examined graphs based on exit poll data from Tuesday’s primaries that confirmed the trend that he established earlier, Obama still continues to do better among male and black voters. He acknowledged that while the Democratic Party is not “colorblind,” members do tend to elect officials based on “the totality of the circumstances.” Mapps ended the section by stating, “It’s very unlikely that votes are actually going to determine who wins the nomination, which makes this election one of the most fascinating of the century.”

As for future events focused on the 2008 campaign, Charles Radin hopes to have one focused on the Republican nominee John McCain. Radin, who used to write for the Boston Globe, covered McCain’s 2000 campaign in New Hampshire. Radin stated, “[I] think we should be playing plenty of attention to Sen. McCain.”

Alison Channon contributed to this report.