OBAMA REFLECTIONS From Election Day to Presidency: Social Justice Thought Leaders Speak Out
Obama Reflections by john powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University in
COVER Photo istock.com; LEFT, Jodi Miller
Columbus, Ohio 05
Beyond Election Day by Dorian Warren, assistant professor of political science & public affairs at Columbia University in New York City
A New Era by David Levine, professor of business administration at the University of California, Berkeley
Hope—with a Sprinkling of Concern by Aya Gruber, professor of law at the University of Iowa in Iowa City
Let the Twenty-First Century Begin by Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York City
Barack Obama, Potentially the Greatest of Men by Andre Mayers, design development engineer from Hyattsville, Maryland
President-Elect Obama’s Legacy of Quality Education for Our Children by Kimberly Norwood, professor of law and of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
The New Era of Obama by Joan Blades, co-founder of MomsRising and MoveOn.org, from Berkeley, California
Inauguration Countdown: President Barack Hussein Obama—A Name that Truly Symbolizes Our Great American Journey by Sophia Nelson, lawyer, national columnist, speaker, and commentator, from Ashburn, Virginia
Hope, Not Fear by Dr. Catherine Svehla, cultural mythologist from Joshua Tree, California
From Harold Washington to Barack Obama—Leaders Who Bring Hope by Michael Orr, senior construction project coordinator from Chicago, Illinois
Racial Equity and the Obama Dilemma by Keith Lawrence, PhD, research associate at The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change in New York City
E Pluribus Unum—A Dream Realized by Reverend Dr. Eugene S. Callender, Presbyterian clergyman, lecturer, and urban strategist for education, equality, and social justice in New York City
A Huge Step Forward; a Long Way Still to Go by Alan Jenkins, executive director of The Opportunity Agenda in New York City
President Barack Obama: Seizing the Moment to Renew Hope, Commitment, and Engagement by Guillermina Hernandez-Gallegos, senior program officer at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan
Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish—“One Who Helps People throughout the Land” by Laura L. Harris, enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation and executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Barack Obama Inspires White Women Over Age Eighty by Anne Kubisch, director of The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change in New York City
This Is Our Moment by Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink in Oakland, California
Speculation about a Post-Racial Society by William L. Taylor, lawyer, teacher, and writer in Washington, D.C.
Barack Like Me: Our First Asian American President by Michael Omi, professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Taeku Lee, professor of political science and law at the University of California, Berkeley
Yes, We Can! by S.P. Udayakumar, research fellow at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, based in Nagercoil, India
Obama: the Potentials of Agency and Potency by Firoze Manji, founding executive director of Fahamu in Oxford, England, and editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News
Obama and Europe by Lidija Knuth, research fellow at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, based in Rome, Italy
Whither Obamamania? by Andrew Grant-Thomas, deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio
Lifted by CeLillianne Green, poet and attorney, in Washington, D.C. NOTE: ARTICLES FIRST PUBLISHED ON BLOGS (PAGES 5–19) HAVE ALL BEEN REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHORS.
Obama Reflections By john powell
The election of Barack Obama was a transformative moment for race in America. Yet through the lens of history, it’s just another milestone in our nation’s ongoing race relations journey. For the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s election provides a time to reflect on how far we have come, and what his election to the presidency means locally and globally, both today and for the future. To mark this election anniversary, the Kirwan Institute has published this commemorative book, Obama Reflections. It is our route of capturing the public excitement surrounding both Election Day and the inauguration while also compiling the varied perspectives of social justice leaders and scholars around the world on the impact of President Obama’s election. In the following pages, you’ll find a cross-section of perspectives that should stimulate thought while also documenting this historical election milestone. To these insights, I now add some perspectives of my own. For me, this past election year has produced profound and conflicting emotions that are hard to reduce to words. Over the length of the campaign and up to the point of Barack Obama’s election as President, and even now as he serves in the Oval Office, I have experienced a complex and multifaceted range of feelings. In the lead-up to the election, I participated in many discussions surrounding the country’s readiness to elect a Black President or a woman President, yet rarely was there serious discussion about the relative merits of a specific candidate. The concern about Obama was more than the possibility of being elected; there was serious concern that his very life was in danger because of the role of race and racial bias in our society. Each time Senator Obama overcame a racial hurdle there was a growing sense of hope—even pride. But this swelling of hope did not dispel the lingering, and even deepening, racial disquiet that continued throughout the campaign. The defined impact of the Obama presidential campaign is about more than the man; it is about the country, our history, and perhaps most importantly our emerging and projected future. One important factor that affected Americans’ 2
willingness to support Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was where those voters, and the country itself, placed themselves with regard to such vital issues as race and gender. Some questioned whether the country was more willing to support an exceptional candidate for President. I have been highly involved in past political campaigns, yet none of these past efforts compares with the intensity and energy many of us put into the Obama campaign. As I watched the campaign unfold, I saw that moderate and liberal Whites alike operated with a very narrow view of race. This view has four aspects. The first is to think about race mainly in the context of personal relationships and consciously held and expressed views. The second is to set up a false binary: either we are stuck in an old racial past with nothing changed, or we are well on our way toward a post-racial, colorblind world where there may still be a few residual issues related to race that will be appropriately addressed by race-blind universal programs as well as time. The third aspect is that to address and talk about race explicitly would necessarily polarize the population and prevent Obama from winning. Finally, the fourth aspect is that to talk about race, whether one is an old-style bigot or a racial justice advocate, means that one is stuck in the old racial past. My concern was that if Obama won the presidency based on these faulty assumptions it would create a confusing racial landscape that would limit the opportunity to move the country toward a more just society and a more perfect union. I remain concerned that this confusing environment indeed endures today. In truth, we as a nation have not developed the language and analysis to negotiate these racial issues skillfully. It would be difficult in the wake of recent events such as the arrest of Professor Gates, the incident at the Philadelphia swimming pool, or the birth certificate questions now being raised by the right wing about President Obama to assert that we have put the divisive issue of race behind us. The very false binary narrative during the election may have helped create grounds for racial resentment and racial practices to run amok. There has even been some suggestion that some of the intensity in the health care debate has a racial subtext. If so, it will not be the first time race has played an important role in health care
Kirwan Institute Foreword
debates, or in shaping American institutions for that matter. In 1948, race played an important role in the defeat of universal health care. And race was also critical in the attack on unions and the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, which many believe had an important role in weakening unions. Race in this country has never been just about race relations; it is also about the kinds of institutions and structures we establish, and the kind of country this is. During the election cycle, I began to raise concern about the emerging and confusing terrain, but these concerns largely fell on deaf ears. Many people accepted the validity of this binary narrative without question. This seems especially true for Whites. Blacks were largely so enthralled with the possibility of electing a Black president that they were blinded to some of the risks. Ensuing discussions led me to share concerns about the pervasive racial binary in a paper titled “Post-Racialism or Targeted Universalism.” At its center was the goal to challenge the idea of having achieved a colorblind society and instead suggest that there is another way to engage and talk about race that will help transform established perspectives. While it is important to identify a universal set of goals to which we can all aspire, it is equally important to recognize that we are not all equally situated in relation to society’s major structures and institutions. It is this latter point that begins to make it abundantly clear why universal efforts fail to move us toward a more perfect union— often even moving us further away from racial justice. If new government programs are insensitive to how individuals are situated, they will establish new structures on top of an existing structure of opportunity that is already uneven, as well as racially and gender-coded. Under such universal programs
many disparities will continue and perhaps become even worse. The current administration has been slow to discuss the implications that stimulus fund allocation will have on restructuring our society for the future, or to require the tracking of race data as stimulus funds are distributed. Instead the administration has pushed a concept of universalism that ignores how groups are situated from a racial perspective. We have tried to bring some attention to these issues through the work at the Kirwan Institute and through a new web site, FairRecovery.org. Other apparently universal programs are uncritically favored over programs more sensitive to the needs of particular racialized communities in areas such as education, housing, and others. I believe it is too soon to know how the Obama presidency will affect how we practice and address issues of race. We are certainly in a new terrain with new possibilities. There are conflicting signs; the skillfulness in tackling these issues, or the lack thereof, will be of vital importance. But it is also a mistake to assume that we can take care of the big issues (health care, the economy, and education) while continuing to believe that race will take care of itself. I fear if we do not become more skillful in addressing issues of race, it will negatively affect our approach to these other issues that are seen by some as more real. I still have much hope and support for the Obama administration to achieve a successful presidency for the good of the country. But the true impact of its work will be judged only after much time and effort: when we wait for young Americans to grow up; when we assess how our institutions function; and when we become attentive to racial perspectives hidden in the less conscious recesses of our minds. To have a more perfect union, we must indeed be the ones who build it.
john a. powell is executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, where he is also professor and Williams Chair in Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at the Moritz College of Law. An internationally recognized authority in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, and issues relating to race, ethnicity, poverty, and the law, he was previously national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, founder and director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, and a co-founder of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. He formerly taught at other law schools including Harvard and Columbia University. He holds a JD from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA from Stanford University.
Americans Speak Out—The Election
Beyond Election Day By Dorian Warren
Photo by Jodi Miller (left)
The Daily Voice and Racewire November 4, 2008
On this historic Election Day, I thought I’d offer up brief musings about where we have been the last year, and what we should expect on November 5. First, the most important thing this election has reconfirmed is that politics is both unpredictable and transformative. Just think about where we were this time last year. Senator Hillary Clinton was seen as the inevitable Democratic nominee for President. The “Clinton Machine” was going to make her victory swift (wrapped up by Super Tuesday in February) and she would be unbeatable by anybody, with maybe one exception (Al Gore). While many pundits assumed that Senator Barack Obama would do well by running in the Democratic primaries, most people thought he was just raising his profile for a “real” run in 2012 or 2016. Remember also this time last year the ridiculous debate about Obama’s “Blackness,” both in the mainstream media, and within African American communities. In fact, many assumed (especially the Clinton campaign) that Black voters would be skeptical of Obama’s “authenticity” as an African American and continue to be loyal supporters of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Both the Clintons and the analysts were wrong.
But the exciting thing about political campaigns is that they transform people’s attitudes, assumptions, and expectations. Many of us, on this historic day, expect an Obama victory, and even more possibly an Obama landslide. None of us would have predicted this a year ago, and especially not four years ago when then-Senate candidate Barack Obama was first introduced to a national audience with his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Yet Senator Obama’s campaign has permanently changed the electoral map; what has been the “red state-blue state” common sense has been seriously challenged. After today, there will be many more “purple” states that confound our red-blue dichotomy. North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Indiana, and Georgia are astoundingly “in play.” Much of this is due to the incredible engagement and participation of African American voters. Even though he might win more White votes than Kerry, Gore, and Clinton, there is no question that an Obama victory will be because of the tremendous turnout and strategic location of Black voters (especially in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia). This is despite the
Beyond Election Day
recent (and long historic) past of African American voter suppression and disenfranchisement. The Obama campaign has also transformed the nature of political campaigns for at least a generation. How? By bringing the principles and practices of grassroots community organizing to the national political stage. By training and empowering everyday people with the political skills to talk to neighbors, call strangers, knock on doors block-by-block, and host house parties of friends, colleagues, and relatives. From the abolitionist and womenâ€™s and labor movements, to the civil rights and gay rights movements, organizing is the time-honored political strategy that has been at the heart of all American movements for social justice. Thousands of Obama volunteers have been trained as organizers, setting a new standard for what is often considered the â€œground gameâ€? in campaigns. And if he wins, a President
Obama will need this energized, skilled, and motivated corps of thousands to keep sustained pressure on Congress and the new administration, and most importantly, to hold him accountable. Finally, what should we expect on November 5? As has been debated and discussed extensively in The Daily Voice, what will President Obama owe Black America? How will he navigate the range of issues and challenges confronting all of us across race but also specific to communities of color? How might he ever live up to the enormous (and arguably, unrealistic) expectations he and the rest of us have placed on his candidacy? The best answer to all of these questions is the same: keep up the organizing, engagement, and activism that so many thousands and millions of Americans, and especially Black Americans, have engaged in during this long and historic election season.
Dorian Warren is assistant professor of political science & public affairs at Columbia University in New York City. He is also the political editor of The Daily Voice.
Americans Speak Outâ€”The Election
A New Era By David Levine
Economists for Obama November 4, 2008
A new era has arisen in American politics. Much ink has and will be spilled about the race of our new President-elect and his age and his politics. The new era is much deeper. In 1994, a Republican Congress arrived in power with no respect for the laws of arithmetic. Following the lead of Ronald Reagan, they prescribed fiscal policies that had only the vaguest pretense of adding up. The goal was clearly to enrich the prosperous, disregarding the burden on future generations. The Bush administration expanded this model, moving from disregarding reality in fiscal policy
to disregarding it in a host of areas ranging from climate change to Saddamâ€™s relationship to 9/11. The incoming administration faces two wars, an unsustainable fiscal policy, and a financial crisis. The next two years will be bleak for the living standards of much of the world. In short, it is an unimaginably challenging time for a new administration to take power. At the same time, it is an unimaginably great feeling to be proud that our government is once again in the hands of people who believe in reality and who will respect the laws of arithmetic as they try to improve the world.
David Levine is a professor of business administration at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hope–With a Sprinkling of Concern By Aya Gruber
blackprof.com November 5, 2008
And so it is. It really is. It has really happened. For the first time in so long, I feel something new flow through me, finally springing eternal—I feel HOPE. For many of us democratic cynics, despair over the fate of politics and the constant worry that things never change have been part of our very existence, especially over the last eight years. Then from virtually out of nowhere, this man came, with his thoughtfulness, unending calm, and brilliance, and inspired a nation to believe that change could come. That this is an historic election is a gross understatement. This is a monumental election—one that has, at least for a brief moment, united a badly fractured nation broken by greed, identity politics, and ideology. We finally have a twenty-first-century leader, and the United States has a Black President. The United States has a Black President. Yes, the United States has a Black President. Even the most jaded critic of race relations in this country cannot help but be moved by the image of Americans—Black, White, Asian, and Latino—standing side by side, hand in hand, tears free flowing as they watch a person of color, of mixed heritage, of multinational origin take the helm as “our” President. So even for me, a person generally adverse to the assertion that Blacks/women/gays/etc. should just be happy with “how far they’ve come,” the world is awash in rose.
Today, following Election Day, everyone seems like a slightly better person. Even Senator John McCain was gracious enough to finally recognize during his concession speech what this election means to people of color. His statement that Senator Barack Obama’s victory marks a radical departure from the “cruel and frightful bigotry of the past,” although met with a pathetic smattering of applause that paled in comparison to the din of boos at the mention of Obama’s and Biden’s names (provoking one of the few smiles from teary-eyed Palin), was still moving and long overdue. Yet a part of me still worries. This election brought out the best in people, but it also brought out the beast in people. Obama was characterized by the McCain campaign as utterly foreign, dangerous, and even traitorous, and McCain supporters shouted, “Kill him,” “terrorist,” and “Arab.” (The latter McCain countered by clearing up that Obama couldn’t be an Arab because he was “a decent family man.”) The Virginia Republican Party distributed a mailer featuring an extreme close-up of Osama Bin Laden’s eyes (evoking Obama), manipulated to appear as possibly another set of “ethnic” eyes stating, “America must look evil in the eye and never flinch.” A California Republican group sent out a flyer featuring a donkey-suited Obama on a food stamp adorned with fried chicken, ribs, watermelon, and Kool-Aid.
Americans Speak Out—The Election
These sentiments will not disappear because Obama has been elected and, in fact, they may grow stronger. The very day after the election, conservative commentators are already using Obama’s victory to advance an anti-affirmative action agenda. One blogger writes: “Racism has been defeated once and for all time by the election of Mr. Obama. Let the healing begin. Henceforth, there will be no need to identify a person’s color or ancestry in any news story. There will no longer be any purpose in asking about ‘race’ on applications for jobs, universities, grants, etc.... No more affirmative action, minority business grants, housing subsidies, school busing, minority quotas of any kind. The debt owed by White Americans for ‘400 years of slavery’ is now paid in full.” Indeed, many have interpreted Obama’s win as an indication that race no longer matters, but race does matter, and it mattered in the election. A recent poll reports: “Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe Blacks, 20 percent of all Whites said the
word ‘violent’ strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with ‘boastful,’ 29 percent ‘complaining’...When asked about positive adjectives, Whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.” During the campaign, there was an angry man whose proclamations that he would stand up and fight were met with rousing cheers. Wasn’t there also a muscle-bound “guy’s guy” who boasted about his potential to buy a business and then complained about the prospect of paying business taxes? John and Joe were the heroes of many Americans precisely because of their complaints and willingness to “fight.” Now, just imagine if an amped-up Obama had arrived on the scene declaring with fervor that he would “fight” to be President. Yes, today I have pride and hope. Today, I look forward to the change that is coming. Today, I feel like “We’ve come a long way baby.” But I can’t lose sight of the fact that we still have many more miles to go.
Aya Gruber is a professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City, Iowa. She previously served as a public defender in Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida. She holds a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a JD from Harvard Law School.
Americans Speak Out—The Election
Let the Twenty-First Century Begin By Todd Gitlin
Photo by Jodi Miller (left); right, David Shankbone
salon.com November 6, 2008
New York exults. Don’t say, “Well, what did you expect?” When strangers embrace and high-five on upper Broadway (“Yes, we did!”), when church bells ring in Harlem at 2 in the morning, when 125th Street clogs up, as do Brooklyn streets, and celebrants dance on the roofs of taxis, when confetti rains down on the northwest Bronx, this is astonishing—a popular festival that’s unprecedented, maybe since VJ Day in 1945. We’ve entered a new world. It’s not, God knows, a world that will stay exultant or one that’ll be easily or quickly “fixed.” In fact, it won’t be fixed. We have a President-elect who, true to his Niebuhrian roots, knows
that it can’t be fixed—knows the difference between improving and fixing. But it can be galvanized, and, yes, in some measure redeemed. In what measure? That depends on Obama’s adroitness (the campaign promises much); on his ability to keep his tremendous base of the professional classes, minorities, and women mobilized and deployed against the forces that will continue to block his initiatives (Yes, we did it once! and will have to do it again!); on the wisdom of Democrats; on whether some Republicans can be peeled away from their kamikaze party; and, as always, on the unpredictable. Let the twenty-first century begin. Finally.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University in New York City.
Americans Speak Out—The Election
Barack Obama, Potentially the Greatest of Men By Andre Mayers
Photo by PRPhotos.com (left)
Howard Chronicles November 5, 2008
Sounds like a bold statement, doesn’t it, but please believe I wouldn’t have made a statement like that without explaining what I meant. Everyone takes what they want from this election. It means something different to each person. For the Black college students and high school students, I suspect they will come away from this elated, as they should be, because finally they have a President whom they can look up to, who too is Black. I suspect most of them realize they have more to look forward to in life. They expect that people will now see that greatness and leadership are not colour-specific, however, soul-specific. But...it is more than that. For the parents who raised those college and high school students, it means starting the day with a tear in their eye because they can tell their children that anything is possible, and that those young people can be anything they want to be; no one can stop them. However, this will not be said with doubt, but instead with a firm conviction because these parents have actually seen their hopes and dreams come to fruition. What was once a lingering hope is now almost a certainty in their eyes, that their children will grow up in a world where all children are equal, and as such, have equal possibilities. But...it is more than that. For the Jessie Jacksons and the Al Sharptons, it becomes not only the day when they realize that what they have fought for for years back has come to pass. It becomes a moment in which they see their cause embodied in a passive leader to whom, for once in these situations, words spoke much louder than actions. These words were enough to motivate a nation regardless of colour, inspire a world irrespective of culture, and hold
up through any test of time. It is the moment the words “I have a dream” become the personification of a transcendent figure. But...again, it is more than that. For those who experienced the stain of slavery and segregation, those who could not vote and never thought they would be able to see the day where all people regardless of class or colour were allowed to do what is now nonchalantly seen as a right, Barack Obama represents the manifestation of all the votes that could not be cast generations ago. But...it is more than that. In my eyes, Barack Obama is a blend of three of the greatest figures in American history. In him are parts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who inherited a nation during the great depression and rallied the spirit of its inhabitants to band together toward a brighter and more prosperous future. He has traits of John F. Kennedy, an inspirational speaker who listens intently, gathers a consensus, and seeks to be a bipartisan figure, a non-ideological leader of all people, not just those to whom he directly relates. And of course, he is the modern-day Martin Luther King Jr.—a scholar in his own right, who represents the ideals of the oppressed. A leader whose words create a movement, and whose ideas are decades ahead of his time. Rather than a man of the moment, Barack Obama has become the moment. He is a figure more eagerly expected to change the world than any figure that has come before him. History will have a chapter for Obama not only because he is the first Black President of the United States of America, but because he has become the President of all people.
Andre Mayers is a design development engineer from Hyattsville, Maryland.
President-Elect Obama’s Legacy of Quality Education for Our Children By Kimberly Norwood blackprof.com November 6, 2008
The impact that President-elect Obama will have on Black youth in particular will be astounding. And nowhere will this be felt more, I believe, than in the area of education. Not only is President-elect Obama’s commitment to education unwavering and strong, his life and his victory this election week are strong testaments to the value of education and what education can do to advance the hopes, dreams, and successes of all. He understands that public education in America is in crisis. He understands the devastating drop-out rates. He understands the horrifically low proficiency levels, particularly in reading skills and in math. He understands that teachers are undervalued and underpaid. He understands that we need to put real money and real commitment into the education of our youth. And he understands that all of these hardships in public education have fallen, disproportionately, on Black youth, particularly Black males. President-elect Obama believes access to a meaningful and adequate education is the key to success in life. And as a living example of the power of education as the true social and economic equalizer, President-elect Obama represents our most promising hope and opportunity for true and lasting educational reform. Since his first official entrance on the national scene in 2004, President-elect Obama has delivered a consistently powerful message about the value of education and the necessity that government take steps to fix its very broken public school system. And, to his credit, he has pushed us to acknowledge that although there are problems that the government can
photo by Joseph Angeles, Washington University Photographer
President-elect Barack Hussein Obama’s mark on history is clear and undeniable. For the last 20 months, I have watched and listened to so many people, particularly Black Americans, who just could not believe that in their lifetime a Black man would be elected as our nation’s leader. His mark on history is so vast and so deep that it was a little difficult trying to decide what the theme of this essay should be. How could I isolate one single important legacy of the many President-elect Obama has provided to choose from? I pondered this question deeply as my 10-year-old daughter and I did our “Get out the Vote” canvassing on Election Day. My answer came that night. I was overcome with incredible emotion on election night as I heard and watched CNN declare Senator Obama as the next President of the United States. Many of the feelings stirred in me that night—feelings of pride, feelings of overwhelming joy, feelings of utter disbelief, and feelings of exasperating relief—were also evident in the expressions of my 18-year-old daughter, who voted for the first time, and in the expressions and jubilation of my 16-year-old twin boys, who rarely care about anything political. As President-elect Obama spoke on election night, I could see the hope in the eyes of my children—the same hope that has been one of the primary themes of his campaign. I thought how profound it must be for my children to see him, to hear him, to see his family, and to see crowds of diverse people around the world rejoicing and cheering for him. What a wonderfully lasting image for Black children to dream about on that monumental night in the history of this great country.
Americans Speak Out—The Election
and must deal with, the government cannot do this alone. The government cannot make children walk away from the television, or the streets, or drugs, or gangs, or do homework, or even show up for and participate in school. Rather we, as parents, educators, and citizens, must work together in a unified “Yes, We Can” mantra to motivate our children and convince them that they must take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist. So, while it is true that public schools in inner cities, particularly those with majority-minority populations, are often under-resourced and underperforming and building facilities often lacking, this reality should not thwart our youth’s drive toward obtaining an education and our commitment to provide it to them. We must enhance both— the infrastructure of the public education system and the determination of our youth—to make historic and lasting changes in access to a quality education in this country. President-elect Obama understands that we must get our children excited about learning. We have to re-instill the
lesson most of us undoubtedly were taught during our youth about doing one’s best and striving for excellence. Somehow many of our youth have lost that drive. But with this new presidency, I see a tremendous opportunity for this lost thirst for knowledge and excellence to be restored. During the Obama presidency, we can reinvigorate our youth. Many of us have already started this journey and with this great victory this week, our road should be a little easier to travel. Indeed, after January 20, 2009, Black youth will regularly see a President and a first lady who are professionals, who are intelligent and well educated, and who believe in striving, at all times, for excellence. They will see a President and a first lady who understand the value of education and who are living illustrations of how education can impact and transform lives. And most importantly, they will see a President and a first lady who look like them. And seeing role models who look like them in positions of such national prominence and power will tell them, unabashedly, that “Yes,” with the proper educational tools, they can, too.
Kimberly Norwood is a professor of law and a professor of African and African American studies at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri. She holds a BA from Fordham University and has a law degree from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Law.
The New Era of Obama By Joan Blades
salon.com November 6, 2008
This election is about much more than who won and who lost. It’s about our culture changing, becoming more inclusive, and embracing our diverse citizenry. It’s about courage and dreams winning out over fear. It’s about coming together to reject the politics of the past and instead deciding to build the kind of nation we want for ourselves and our children. What happened on Election Day can be the start of a profound change in our country, the goals we set, the ways we operate, and how we measure success. My most profound hope is that we become a more family-friendly nation that is compassionate, just, and fair to all its people.
I am co-founder of MomsRising, and in that role I will work tirelessly to continue mobilizing moms and everyone who has a mom, all over the country, so we take advantage of this opportunity to advance paid sick days and family leave, flexible work schedules, after-school programs, health care for all kids, and realistic and fair wages. We did something remarkable on Election Day, but our work isn’t done. The challenges we’re facing are great, and the obstacles to progress won’t disappear overnight. We all have to remain active and engaged if we are to realize the promise of the election.
Joan Blades is the co-founder of MomsRising and MoveOn.org. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Americans Speak Out—Inauguration
Inauguration Countdown: President Barack Hussein Obama– A Name that Truly Symbolizes Our Great American Journey By Sophia Nelson
Political Intersection January 17, 2009
“For every hundred of us who survived the terrible journey across the Atlantic…four hundred of us perished. During three hundred years—the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries— more than 100 million of us were torn from our African homes.” Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices, 1941 I had the privilege on election night 2008 of being live on air on BET News as one of a panel of political pundits and writers who were analyzing the results of the historic 2008 campaign as they rolled in state by state. I was truly a witness to living history in the making. Around 10 p.m., it became apparent that Senator Obama was going to be elected President of the United States when the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania voted for the democratic standard bearer. However, what struck me most profoundly that evening was an interview that one BET correspondent, who was reporting from Atlanta’s Spellman College, had with the Reverend Joseph Lowery (founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). He was very emotional (as were we all) and she asked him did he think he would ever live to see a Black man being elected President of the United States. He responded very softly and said simply: “Yes, we thought it would come to this, but not this soon. I think God was in the plan. There are too many things that converged in his favor for it to have been accidental or even coincidental. Today America was reborn.”
As I reflect on the historic and profound change of November 5, 2008, I agree with Reverend Lowery’s comments most of all. Barack Hussein Obama is a name we, as African Americans in particular, should all be proud to say out loud because his name has meaning rooted in providence and scripture, and in thousands of years of African culture and civilization. It was somewhat of a disappointment to me on election night beyond all of the coverage, tears, and joyful celebrations being broadcast worldwide, that no one mentioned that our new President is not really a “Black American” as we have come to embrace our evolution from “colored” to “Negroes” to “Afro” Americans to “Blacks.” He is, in fact, something broader than that. His father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., was a full-blooded Kenyan, an African from the east coast of the largest continent in the world. His mother, Anne Dunham, was a White woman of European roots from Kansas. Unlike me, and millions of other Black Americans who bear a “slave name”—like Johnson, Smith, Wilson, or Jones—Senator Obama’s name is pure African. The Senator’s own wife, the former Michelle Robinson (now Mrs. Obama), is also a direct descendant of slaves. President-elect Barack Obama is the genuine article as they say. He is more than mulatto or bi-racial; he is the very embodiment of how this great nation began in 1619 on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia. He is one-half African and one-half European-Caucasian.
He embodies the worst of our past—a nation that captured millions of Africans against their will and stored them away in the hull of slave ships, brutalized them, and held them illiterate for hundreds of years before truly granting them the full rights of citizenship in this country. And he embodies the very best of our future—a Black boy born of a broken home, who was raised by his White grandparents, was educated at the best schools our nation has to offer, and who made no excuses for his life. He truly pulled himself up by the bootstraps with the love and support of his family. He married above himself (as all smart men do) and he had the courage to pursue his ambitions and dreams for a better America. He never let the naysayers in—he never doubted that America could and would vote for change. But my point is deeper than that: For me, President-elect Obama’s election to the presidency is the providence of God in action. In the book of Daniel, chapter 4, the scriptures tell us that God chooses who rules in the kingdoms of men, whether princes or Kings, good or bad, He decides and gives men dominion. It is poetic justice—a form of providence as the founding father John Adams would call it. Perhaps it is the ultimate
right to a wrong done so long ago when America started with its great “birth defect” (e.g., slavery) as Secretary Rice so poignantly coined the phrase last spring in an interview with The Washington Times. Senator Obama has been labeled “messianic”: he has been called “The One.” Of course, we know none of this is true. He is just a man. A man with a funny name. A man so unlikely to be President. A man whom many tried to disparage and label as an “Arab,” “Muslim,” “a socialist,” “a terrorist pal,” and on and on. My Nana used to say, you can’t judge a book by its cover. You also can’t judge a man by his name. Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Kenyan and an American. You can’t tell me God’s hand was not in this outcome last November. Because it clearly was. How profound and how appropriate that our nation’s first commander in chief of color would be an African. How amazing and right that Americans, White and Black alike, elected him so resoundingly and placed the hopes of our present-day America and future generations of Americans in his hands.
Sophia A. Nelson is a popular blogger and a national columnist, speaker, and political/social commentator for such media outlets as CNN, FOXNEWS, BET, PBS, and BBC. She is a regular contributor to theRoot.com, huffingtonpost.com, essence.com, and NPR. Her opinion pieces have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chicago Sun Times, USA TODAY, Essence, and National Journal/Legal Times. Nelson is a former senior counsel/lobbyist with the international law firm of Holland & Knight, LLP. She is admitted to practice in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and before the United States Supreme Court. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in African American studies from San Diego State University and her law degree from American University–Washington College of Law. She lives in Ashburn, Virginia.
Americans Speak Out—Inauguration
Hope, Not Fear By Catherine Svehla
www.catherinesvehla.com January 21, 2009
Yesterday I listened to Obama’s inauguration with a kind of giddy joy, a joy that infused the crowd at the party I later attended and hasn’t totally subsided. For the first time in my life, I am proud of our President and of the opportunity to participate in civic life that he offers to everyone, especially my generation. At long last, the rebuilding, renewing, rejuvenating, and “revisioning” of this country may take place along lines of which I approve. But when I hear people talk about wiping the slate clean, I also feel trepidation. We need to remember how we got here, not sweep aside the lessons or the debts that we’ve accumulated
in our collective rush toward transformation and the dawning of a new day. So at the top of the list of thrilling moments from the last 72 hours, even edging out Beyonce’s rendition of “America The Beautiful” at last Sunday’s pre-inaugural concert and the images of thousands upon thousands of people gathered to witness the swearing in of our first Black President, is the announcement that Obama plans to close Guantanamo Bay and has suspended the military tribunals. This action, which will no doubt usher in all kinds of complications, gives meaning to the rhetoric “We chose hope over fear.”
Dr. Catherine Svehla is a cultural mythologist from Joshua Tree, California. She received a PhD in mythological studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute and is former associate director of the Fund for Public Interest Research.
While the preceding articles were assembled and reprinted from blog entries with authors’ permission, the following articles were composed by request specifically for this book.
From Harold Washington to Barack Obama– Leaders Who Bring Hope By Michael Orr
same expectations of Obama. Obama dispels the notion that it’s politics as usual and turns back the behavior of selfish and self-centered policy politics by reaching out to the elected officials from both sides of the aisle to turn their thinking to “Let’s all be better and do better for the benefit of all folks.” Nowhere in the history of Chicago and the nation did one man represent such an equal chance for all to thrive and prosper as a people. Washington and Obama drew people together to succeed as we climbed out of the separate and self-centered goals of “hurrah for me” and “to hell with the rest.” Obama ascended to the highest office of the land through the collective efforts of people across all socioeconomic groups. Washington’s election differs in this sense, as it depended on bringing together a minority plurality. The Hispanic groups were brought into the political mainstream of Chicago because they were equally underserved as the city’s Black population. The result was a civil service corps that more accurately reflected the city’s population make-up. Blacks, Hispanics, other minority groups, and women were more equitably represented in the make-up of police, fire, and public segments of the city’s service workers, as evidenced by increased opportunities to serve in
Photo by Brent Jones, Chicago State University Photographer
As I reflect on the election of Harold Washington to mayor of Chicago, I think of the pride and jubilation Black Chicago felt. For the first time, Black Chicagoans felt that their concerns would be addressed by someone who had experienced and felt the despair of neglect for the quality of life in Chicago. Never again did we have such an experience of pride and camaraderie until Barack Obama became our 44th President. Harold Washington represented renewed hope in a city that was hypnotized by the machine politics of previous City Hall administrations. Black Chicagoans believed just from Washington’s persona that things would get better. Washington and Obama represent a microcosm and macrocosm of the socioeconomic condition of a nation. Just as Washington opened the door to more meaningful access to City Hall with administrative appointments to executive positions, Obama is doing the same to better impact positive changes in how things get done in Washington, D.C. These are not just affirmative action policy decisions, but equal opportunity rights. Just as Washington’s election to mayor of Chicago brought new hope of a more equitable distribution of city services, jobs, and relief from constabulary indiscretion, America has the
Americans Speak Out—Inauguration
all municipal departments. In turn, private sector employment broadened and expanded to provide minorities upper level and management opportunities and positions previously held by the good-old-boy network. However, we shouldn’t—and can’t—forget that equal participation in the municipal arena was not an instant result of the selection of a leader nor were the obstacles to equal participation erased. Harold Washington had to contend with the entrenched power brokers of the good-old-boy network. This network was no more solidly opposed to his policy changes than those who represented his political party across the city. That party included Blacks who remained attached to the puppet strings pulled by their White colleagues in the machine-controlled Democratic party. Washington’s perseverance and political acumen were personal ingredients that the good old boys didn’t recognize until the die was cast. City services didn’t diminish; they
became more widely and equitably distributed. The city budget process was made more transparent for community access and review. Increased constituent participation forced officials to act more responsibly if they wanted to continue to serve the people. Yet, Obama’s election stands in stark contrast to Washington’s to the extent that Washington came into office with a fairly strong, balanced economy. On the other hand, Obama inherited a dismal economy that is essentially bankrupt and heading deeper into the tank. In this instance, the American experience is more similar to when the nation had to come to grips with the depression of the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented seemingly radical economic programs in response. In turn, President Obama faces a similar economic circumstance, and may respond to the current financial crisis by infusing the economy with a wider and more flexible variety of government programs and services.
Michael Orr is a senior construction project coordinator who resides in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a BA in economics.
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
Racial Equity and the Obama Dilemma
Photo by JODI MILLER (LEFT); right, The Root Group
By Keith Lawrence
Like many struggling to understand race in America, I was blindsided by the “Obama phenomenon.” Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to the highest office in this land just two generations after African Americans needed to march on Washington for civil rights contradicted everything that seemed axiomatic to me about race, electoral politics, and voting patterns in America. I could not imagine that the 44th President would be identifiable with this nation’s least favored racial group. Decades of civil rights backlash had long dulled that kind of optimism. Obama’s victory was a huge lesson in the limits of “rational” imagination. Nonetheless, looking back soberly at that election and into the future, the Obama phenomenon seems more likely to further complicate America’s long struggle for racial equity rather than accelerate progress in that direction. Obama won because a critical mass of White Americans overcame their reticence about voting for a Black presidential candidate, and so a symbolic but highly potent racial barrier came crashing down. But it’s hard not to notice that candidate Obama made this a lot easier by pragmatically glossing over the hard realities of how race was—and is—lived in America. He understood that many White Americans wanted a kind of absolution for America’s original sin in exchange for their support. As one writer put it, Obama seemed to give Whites the benefit of the doubt on race—to empathize with their sincere struggle with the hard moral dilemmas of implementing a racial equity agenda. White liberals had long yearned for a Black leader of his ilk: a paradoxical “race man” who “transcended” race. Obama embodied the non-threatening, urbane figure who was not “angry” about racism and dismissive of Whites’ desire to do good (without surrendering too much privilege). He seemed a welcome break with the old zero-sum paradigm of racial justice. Obama didn’t invoke specters of reparations and massive wealth redistribution like traditional civil rights leaders. Liberals and conservatives alike also found his unflinching affirmation of Black personal responsibility comforting,
particularly since he seemed to juxtapose it—if not confer upon it a kind of moral equivalence—with the far more profound problem of structural racism. Structural racism remains the elephant in America’s living room. So many ideals of laissez-faire democracy have been corrupted by historical racism that we have evolved a large, color-coded, socially immobile underclass. Our current mortgage foreclosure crisis is but the latest “unintended” reinforcement of America’s racially lopsided distribution of wealth and opportunity. Regrettably, the Obama phenomenon seems to have changed the tenor of our always tenuous race discourse in a manner that will make it even harder to convince the attentive public that such inequities are really cause for alarm. “Colorblindness” frames now appear reasonable, and we may have seen the end of the restorative justice race conversation falteringly sustained by leaders in the Martin Luther King tradition. It may be the ultimate irony that Barack Obama’s success completes the reduction of the entire civil rights struggle for substantive equality to Dr. King’s “dreams.” Will Americans care to remember why King went to Memphis and died 40 years ago: in support of Black sanitation workers who struck protesting the deaths of two men who were crushed in the back of their garbage truck because Blacks weren’t allowed to ride up front in the cabs, even in bad weather? So, while the symbolism of a Black family in the White House—particularly this Black family—is a priceless gift for America and the world, it is far from a panacea for America’s racial inequities. We all should celebrate Obama and the milestone of racial progress he represents. But at the same time, given what we know about the embeddedness of racism in our society’s values, institutions, policies, and common sense, we cannot afford to settle for the symbolism of his great achievement while racial inequities in wealth, health, incarceration, and so many other vital areas remain the norm beyond the White House.
Keith Lawrence, PhD, is a research associate at The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change in New York City where he is a leading contributor to its work on structural racism and community building. 23
E Pluribus Unum–A Dream Realized By Reverend Dr. Eugene Callender
E Pluribus Unum: from many, one. This motto, from the Great Seal of the United States, is now more significant to our nation than ever, as we usher in the presidency of our first African American chief executive, Barack Obama. E Pluribus Unum means that regardless of whether we’re White people, Chinese people, Black people, or people of any color, we now—finally— are just going to be people. On inauguration day, when I saw that crowd in Washington D.C., and saw on TV the reactions to President Obama’s election—in Harlem and Chicago and across the country—it was very clear to me that this is the beginning of the fulfillment of a long-held American dream of a united state for America. That dream was long in the making. It was shared by my parents when they immigrated to this country, like so many others before and after them. My parents arrived here separately from Barbados in the British West Indies. Like countless others, they then got jobs, became citizens, raised a family, and pursued a better life. My mother moved from nanny, to cook, to seamstress making military uniforms in a defense plant. My father was a factory worker in a meat-packing plant. They both worked hard seven days a week. We were very poor, but my parents stressed education, and they were devout Christians. My dad may not have been born in this country, but he knew as much about American history as I do! He was a proud American. Years later, no one would have thought that Barack Hussein Obama, with a Black father from Africa, and a White mother from Kansas, who was raised in Hawaii, would go on to become a top student at Harvard Law School and then the first African American President of the United States.
It was a combination of destiny—being the right person at the right time—and his focused determination to serve. After his Harvard graduation, he could have gone to any Wall Street firm and made $200,000. But money was not his motive. He had a deeper concern—the transformation of American hearts and souls and the realization of the American dream. Instead, he went back to Chicago and practiced civil rights law at a small law firm—in the same city where he had once been a $13,000-a-year community organizer. I first had the opportunity to meet Barack Obama in 2004 when he was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. He was an unknown—a newly elected senator— and I was ready to support him for vice president. But a momentum was starting to build. People said that he could become President of the United States someday. It turned my head when a White businessman from South Africa told me “You’ve gotta go with Obama. He’s won the hearts of so many people.” If this White South African businessman could share Obama’s vision, I thought, so could many Americans. With this groundswell of support, Obama realized he could organize a campaign. So he went forward and organized a campaign so grass-roots oriented, broadly oriented, and Internet oriented that it was unlike any that had ever gone before. He inspired people. People felt he was honest, genuine, real, and sincere. Young people took a year off college to move across the country and work for him. It was destiny. People wanted change; and that’s what he had to offer. As a minister, I like to preach the oneness of us all; nobody is a nobody and everybody is somebody in God’s sight. Barack Obama carries these values. He is intellectual, spiritual, incisive,
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
and deep. He believes there are many paths to the same place; that there is a higher power and we’re all connected. He is working to transfer that vision into action to reduce tension and racism that exist because of the color of skin. Yet throughout his campaign, he never played the “race card.” Obama has a good sense of self and can hold onto that sense of self under extreme circumstances. It’s that kind of energy that moves out of this man’s personality and “state-of-beingness.” This energy—and the support that he builds—broke through and elected him. In terms of well-known role models, Barack Obama brings together a combination of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thurgood Marshall. All three had a vision and put it into action. Lincoln freed the slaves and led our nation through a bitter war. Roosevelt gave the country hope and saw it through a deep depression by creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to help people learn a trade and get back to work. Thurgood Marshall had a “bullet” mind, creative ideas of how to get things done, and the dogged determination to carry out those ideas. Like these other famous leaders, Obama also faces a war and difficult economic times; and his speeches show Marshall’s same sense of determination. He is committed to act with energy, initiative, confidence, and vision.
Now that he is in office, this is a unique opportunity for us. It’s a chance to bring the United States back to the country we knew it was and to make this globalization work for us like it did for China and India and others. But Obama can’t do it alone. He can’t go to Chicago and Harlem and the Appalachian Mountains, and everywhere between and beyond, and do all that needs to be done there. I’m 83 years old, and when I preach and teach, I tell people that we have to do all we can; fiscally—and physically—we have to commit ourselves to help. Barack Obama is a man for these times. He couldn’t have been elected even 10 years ago. Our country is in a unique place today; and with his election, America has crossed a threshold. If my parents could see President Obama today, they would be truly amazed. Fifty years ago, my father would never have imagined we would come this far. Even the visionary Martin Luther King’s dream did not extend this far. In the “Dream” speech, he said he could see Black kids swimming with White kids and going to school with Whites. But he did not even dream of the day we’d have a Black President of the United States! To me, it’s clear that Barack Obama is a destiny-driven man who is here for a purpose—to restore the values for which America was created and to demonstrate that all people of all races and tongues are created equal.
Reverend Dr. Eugene S. Callender is a Presbyterian clergyman, lecturer, and urban strategist for education, equality, and social justice. The 2007 Leader in Residence at the Colin Powell Center at The City College of New York, he formerly served as executive director of the Urban League, president of the Urban Coalition, and deputy administrator of Housing in New York City. He has taught at Columbia School of Business, New York University, The New School for Social Research, and CUNY York College in Queens. Callender holds a BA from Boston University, a Master of Divinity degree cum laude from Westminster Theological Seminary, an MA in Theology from Union Seminary, a Doctor of Divinity from Knoxville College, and a JD from New York Law School.
A Huge Step Forward; a Long Way Still to Go By Alan Jenkins
Early in 2009, I visited my father, who lives in the Bay Area. As we drove from the Oakland airport, the conversation quickly turned to the Obama presidency. Born in 1923, my dad survived the Great Depression, fought in World War II, endured vicious Jim Crow segregation and violence, participated in the civil rights movement, and this year, witnessed the inauguration of an African American President of the United States. On our drive, he reminisced about how, at age 8, he had gone with his second grade class to see the cavalcade of thenPresident Herbert Hoover as it drove through downtown Detroit. A year later, the country would throw Hoover out of office for his gross mishandling of the economy, choosing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his message of change. Before my dad’s teen years were through, he would join the Marines and defend a segregated nation from within a segregated military. Traveling to and from southern military bases, he would experience racial humiliation, threats, and violence from White fellow Americans, often while wearing his Marine uniform. As we marveled at the progress we’ve made as a country, we drove by block after block of boarded up houses in some of Oakland’s African American neighborhoods, many with foreclosure signs visible. Many homes in the same neighborhoods still sported lawn signs, reading “Change” and “Hope.”
As the Obama presidency sinks in, many are interpreting it in absolute terms: arguing either that it shows that racial bias and discrimination are no longer factors in American life, or that the election means little for race relations, reflecting merely a unique confluence of events—a historically unpopular incumbent, a historically bad economy, and a gifted politician raised by White folks who ran a flawless 21st-century campaign against a pair of tone-deaf 20th-century opponents. News media coverage mostly echoed that polarized, simplistic discourse, with an emphasis on the “post-racial America” narrative. As usual, the reality is not nearly so simple. As my dad said to me back in Oakland, this election reflects a huge step forward, but we’ve still got a long way to go. The blocks of foreclosed homes in Oakland are a good example of the new world we’re in when it comes to equal opportunity. Despite occasional incidents, the “Whites only” real estate signs (and burning crosses) of my father’s day are largely gone. Oakland has an African American mayor and a diverse city government. And foreclosures and crushing debt in that city are affecting people of all races. At the same time, though, it is well documented that people and communities of color have been racially targeted by unscrupulous lenders for sub-prime, and often, predatory
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
loans. Research by The Opportunity Agenda, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council found that people of color were far more likely to receive high-interest subprime loans than were White borrowers with the same income. Indeed, the racial divide in subprime lending is larger among upper‐income borrowers than among lower‐income ones. Predatory lending—a subset of sub-prime lending—has also long been targeted at communities of color. For these and related reasons, people of color have higher rates of foreclosure, whole neighborhoods in communities of color are in danger of deteriorating, and a generation of people of color is losing the most secure path to building wealth: homeownership. Research shows that discriminatory and predatory lending practices have combined with practices like institutionalized housing discrimination, banking deregulation, and
disproportionate disinvestment in communities of color to help perpetuate a racial gap in economic opportunity. Studies have found similar patterns in employment and in other sectors. Indeed, on some measures of equal opportunity we are moving backwards as a nation—our public schools, for example, are more racially segregated today than they were 30 years ago. Obama’s victory does show that, in a single lifetime, transformative change is possible. Yet it also makes clear that significant progress on one front (or even many) does not guarantee similar progress on all. Accepting and understanding these two co-existing ideas is key to fulfilling our nation’s promise in the 21st century. And crafting new rules for our globalized economy that promote greater and more equal opportunity for all is key to our entire nation’s economic recovery, as well as to our long-term prosperity.
Alan Jenkins is the executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and policy organization located in New York, New York. He previously worked as the director of Human Rights for the Ford Foundation, as an assistant to the Solicitor General at the U.S. Department of Justice, and as an associate counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School, an MA in media studies from New School University, and a BA in psychology and social relations from Harvard College.
President Barack Obama: Seizing the Moment to Renew Hope, Commitment, and Engagement By Guillermina Hernandez-Gallegos
We are each influenced by our past and our own sense of a personal destiny. We are formed by circumstances and by choices we and others make, whether consciously or out of our own awareness. My family decided to emigrate to the United States and we arrived in Florida in January 1963. Like so many other immigrants, we came here with dreams of a different future. My mother had worked with U.S. “transplants” in Colombia, who helped us fulfill that dream of a green card for each member of my family. We arrived with a deep sense of gratitude for all that this country offered. Not fully understanding the social upheaval underway—including the transformations brought about by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the repercussions of the 1962 Missile Crisis, the almost 300,000 Cubans airlifted by Freedom Flights, and the challenges to Miami, struggling with what to do with so many families and children—we settled, having been inspired by the promise of freedom and opportunity. To receive the gift of a public education, the gift of teachers who loved their chosen vocation, who encouraged us all to surpass our very own expectations, filled my heart and spirit with deep gratitude. That has been the case for me ever since: gratitude and hope. So I was formed by the commitments and the aspirations of the U.S. constitution and what I understood it meant—an invitation to belong to the biggest experiment in democracy the world had ever known. Forty-six years later, President Barack Obama represents to me that renewed invitation to belong and to participate fullheartedly in this experiment that is a vibrant democracy, to this American dream of equality, of justice, of engagement. This emphasis on what “I can do as a citizen” to bring my own energies and gifts in service of the country is a reawakened seed planted by John F. Kennedy, whose words reached me at age 13 when he encouraged us all to see what we can do for this country.
Since 1963, I have voted in local and national elections and participated in as many community activities as I had extra time to pursue. Like me, there are literally millions of people who devote time each week to creating a more just and prosperous nation. There are, on a weekly basis, millions helping neighbors, giving food to shelters and food pantries, making donations to the millions of nonprofit organizations and churches that look to guard and strengthen the health of their communities. All these years of civic engagement have filled my heart with a sense that, even as we take a few steps back and one step forward, we can make—and are still making—a difference for children, youth, families, for our future generations. And that is not to say that I am being naive. Racism in all of its forms is still alive and well and taking its toll. As a lightskinned Latina, I recognize that my life’s course has been different from those of my immigrant sisters and brothers whose darker skin has instead closed doors. I have been privileged by how my DNA played out. There is indeed economic oppression in this country; whether we want to see it or not, it is there. We have incredible disparities in health outcomes that can be traced to income and social class. And we live with injustices resulting from an unfair and stacked criminal justice system that criminalizes one behavior and looks the other way for others. Our challenges are many as a nation. Sometimes we can’t help but feel that these issues are intractable. Here, in the most prosperous country in the world, millions of children do go to bed hungry. They can’t learn with an empty stomach. An intolerable number of families are homeless, living out of their cars, or are “couch surfing.” For a “developed country,” we fail miserably on stemming infant mortality. For those children who do survive, we—the people—fail to help create the conditions for their successful transitions through childhood and beyond. Over 40 million of us have no health insurance coverage.
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
Rampant greed in Wall Street, foreclosures, unemployment rising—how much more can go wrong? No wonder so many of us feel weary and others truly worn out by these conditions, which are real and impact people’s lives. There is no doubt about it—whether or not we are impacted, many of us do feel empathy and are broken-hearted. We are ready “to do something different.” President Obama invites us to share leadership, to engage, to participate in this stage of our national journey. He has said he can’t do it alone. He needs us all. We need to believe that indeed, he can’t do it all alone. It will take our joined efforts and energy to continue to open the way for the change that is underway. Presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007–08 and now President Barack Obama in 2009 opened a new chapter in our collective lives. This nation, in spite of the political schisms and deep-rooted differences, made the choice for hope and change. This nation elected Barack Obama to lead it into a different future. His leadership style is genuine and practical. He understands the ravages of poverty, has seen what disinvestment on so many levels creates in our social fabric, how it strips the spirits of people and communities who, feeling disempowered, no longer care, who feel they don’t belong or fear that no matter what, things won’t change. Few past Presidents have been formed by circumstances that provided them with a window into our collective soul as a nation; a window into how and why we treat each other the way we do. At least, I can say that I have not seen any such President in my lifetime. President Barack Obama inherited a tattered country, a world filled with all the contradictions we humans carry in
our social, cultural, and religious worldviews. He has issued a call to all of us to reach out beyond our limited understanding of each other. He asks us to reach out with an open hand for peace at home and abroad. That will require us to change our behavior and attitudes. To keep an open hand we must learn to forgive and seek reconciliation with those with whom we have “warred” in our very own backyard—be it a neighbor or a co-worker. We must practice the capacity and the ability to understand each other, to see each other’s humanity. And, to see our opportunities in the world community, we must consider diplomacy, dialogue, and work for shared agreements based on mutual benefits. I am inspired by President Obama’s reassuring honesty and integrity. For the first time in so many years, I see the opportunities we each have to stand up and show up for our communities, for our children, for each other. For the first time in many years, we have been asked to be good ancestors to those generations we can only imagine in the distant future. Let’s work across political divisions. Let’s reach out to cooperate in rebuilding our communities, to eliminate poverty, to love our neighbors and express that love for each other by being civically engaged in our political and social systems. Let’s act as if we truly believe that we are one among nations working for the sustainability of our planet. Early in my professional development, I worked as a community organizer in Miami. I have worked both in the nonprofit and public and private sectors. For the first time, the words “yes, we can” have meaning for me. Como decimos en Espanol, “si se puede.”
Guillermina Hernandez-Gallegos, PhD, works with the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as a senior program officer. She earned her MA in public administration from The John F. Kennedy School of Public Administration at Harvard University and her doctorate in social welfare policy from Brandeis University.
Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish– “One Who Helps People throughout the Land” By Laura L. Harris
the vote in 1924 through the Indian Citizenship Act. However, the right to vote for most of us was not upheld until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Over the last several election cycles, Native Americans have moved to a new level of participation in national politics and the U.S. electoral process. We have taken a more visible role in presidential campaigns and in getting out the Native vote. This trend has been on the rise in the last four presidential elections. In the 1990s, Native Americans were targeted for outreach and “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts. As a result of hard work and the bump of a candidate like Barack Obama, we saw a culmination of these efforts in the 2008 campaign activities and voter turnout. A more organized effort to register and involve a greater number of Native American voters has been building for several years, but during the 2004 elections, we saw an increase in targeted efforts because more Native Americans became operatives in the political process. Since 2000, presidential campaigns began to seek the endorsements of Native American leaders. Candidates developed Native American policy statements. Non-partisan organizations began to work on increasing voter registration and GOTV in heavily Indian precincts in about 18 key western states. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, in an effort to increase the number of trained political and field organizers from underrepresented communities, trained and hired five Native Americans to work in state party headquarters, most of which had never hired an Indian. Placed in states with large proportional numbers of Natives, these Democratic organizers,
Photo by Jeff Lui
Many Native Americans feel a kinship with President Obama. He’s of mixed heritage, like many of us. He has a “funny” name, like many of us. In fact, the Crow Nation of Montana adopted him into the tribe and gave him another name, Black Eagle—the family name—and Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish, which means “one who helps people throughout the land.” The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States has helped Native peoples throughout the land participate more fully in national elections and has opened the door for unparalleled opportunity to make policy and influence decision makers. I had the opportunity to work directly with the Obama campaign on Native American outreach. Before that, I was a senior political staff member for the Richardson 2008 presidential campaign. When Obama spoke in Philadelphia on race, I was very moved by this long overdue discussion. Like President Obama, I have a White grandmother. She wasn’t too happy at first about having an Indian for a daughter-in-law. It took many years for my mother to change the attitude of my father’s family. Obama spoke honestly about race relations in our country in a way that helped Americans relate to the issue of racism, giving us hope to move forward together. I knew at that moment I had to support him. The 2008 elections saw an unprecedented number of Native Americans involved in campaigning. For 200 years, American Indians have participated in U.S. politics, sometimes successfully, often futilely. The United States granted American Indians
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
for the first time, helped to institutionalize the involvement of Native Americans in state and national politics. The Obama campaign continued this legacy by appointing a Native American to a key position on his national staff and creating a Native American steering committee made up of leaders and activists with campaign experience. Obama, like all the 2008 Democratic candidates and some of the Republican candidates, developed and distributed a Native American Policy Platform and a campaign sanctioned plan for Native GOTV. The Obama campaign hired Dustina Gil, a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation, as the Northeastern South Dakota regional field director. With little political experience, the first thing she noticed was that the voters list provided by the campaign didn’t even have the registered voters of her reservation on it. In the past, little attention was paid to Indian voters because our populations were not considered significant. However, Native Americans make up the swing vote in several states, like South Dakota. With this knowledge and the confidence and backing of the Obama campaign, Dustina took on South Dakota, which Indians called “our Mississippi” during the civil rights movement. Dustina garnered the endorsements of all 10 South Dakota tribal leaders. She insured that a “red” state had patches of “blue” in Indian Territory. Obama received 43 percent of the overall vote in South Dakota, but he won the Northeastern region, which includes the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation.
Obama came to our communities, talked about our issues, and hired our people. Native voters responded overwhelmingly in support of his campaign. Processes and systems that have long been denied us are now more accessible and less of a mystery. For 100 years, we have seen ourselves as a part of the political fabric of this country. Now, the rest of America has begun to appreciate the power of our vote. Clinton’s White House afforded Native Americans access to the federal government. Howard Dean incorporated tribes into the Democratic Party structure. Obama’s campaign utilized our professional skills, which opened up more opportunity for Native Americans to become involved in state and national politics. He didn’t include us because he likes Indians or has an understanding of our issues (which he does). Natives were more involved and active this year because Obama included Native Americans in his political structure and campaign plan. Never before have so many talented, educated, and campaign-experienced Native Americans been involved in the political process. Because of this inclusion and our own hard work over the past several election cycles, we will never again allow ourselves to be marginalized or considered superfluous. President Obama’s administration will not be like past Presidents’ when it comes to American Indian affairs. Already, Obama has appointed an unprecedented two Native Americans to positions in the White House. He has nominated the first Native American woman as solicitor of the Department of Interior. And he nominated the assistant secretary for Indian
One Who Helps People
have been struggling to overcome the institutionalized racism and the lack of experience that have kept us off the presidential election playing field. For the first time, we will have a President who recognizes and comprehends fundamental American Indian issues, which provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to influence policy and effect change. Native Americans have trust in our adopted brother, Barack Obama. The Obama campaign launched us to a new level of political participation. With a President who “gets us,” we can create positive change in Native American communities. With a President who has a shared experience with us, we look forward to working together with other Americans for the common good. Barack Obama’s presidency could signify a true transition of power in the United States. Native Americans are ready for change and the opportunity to contribute our cultural values and traditional wisdom to make our country stronger and to “help people throughout the land.”
Laura L. Harris, an enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation, is the executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), a nonprofit Native American advocacy organization. Harris is a trained facilitator in the ILIS/CogniScope civic engagement process. Before joining AIO, she was development associate for the Smithsonian’s Office of Institutional Initiatives, was one of the original staff of the National Museum of American Indian Campaign Office, and served in Senator Jeff Bingaman’s Washington, D.C. office. Harris, on temporary leave from AIO, served as Midwestern states political director and senior advisor for Bill Richardson for President 2008. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Harris senior consultant to Clinton’s Initiative on Race. Harris is the chair of the New Mexico Native American Democratic Caucus. She holds a BA from the University of New Mexico and is the mother of SamFred Goodhope, age 21.
photo by Janet Mayer, PR Photos
affairs and the director of Indian health in his first 100 days. Past Presidents have not viewed making these key Indian appointments a priority. We anticipate that he will continue this trend throughout his presidency because Obama “gets it.” As a person of color from humble beginnings, President Obama shares our experience. He has educated himself about Native American issues. President Clinton’s Initiative on Race found that the number one issue of racism facing Native Americans is that most Americans, especially elected officials, do not understand modern tribal governance and its place within the U.S. federal system of governments. Tribal leaders and Indian activists constantly waste precious energy educating others. Candidates and government officials must be taught how tribes fit into federalism. President Obama understands contemporary Tribal America. We haven’t had to, nor will we need to, educate him as we have had to do with past Presidents and their administrations. Native peoples
Barack Obama Inspires White Women Over Age Eighty By Anne Kubisch with Patricia Brooks, Constance Kubisch, Margaret Messimer, Irene Stefany, and Barbara Thompson
inexperienced. They worried that he hadn’t had enough time in the Senate and didn’t have foreign policy experience. They didn’t think the country was ready for a Black President. But they were also captivated by his charisma, his “mesmerizing oratory,” his policy stances, and his steady and flawless campaign. They were impressed when he picked Biden as his running mate and took it as an important indicator of how he would make decisions. They admired how he was energizing young people and giving hope to so many Black people. By November 4, 2008, my mother and her friends were convinced that Obama was a great man. They thought he was brilliant: “In his press conferences, you got a glimpse behind his thinking and you could see how analytic his mind was.” They were inspired by how ethical he was and how much integrity he had. When he talked, they would say, “Now, that’s exactly the way I think about that issue.” He was dignified, well-educated, and presidential. And, he was “gentlemanly.” Their retirement community is quite southern and Republican. Most are widows of men who were successful in business, law, or public and military service. Some of the women in this group had their own careers in business or the military; one was a colonel in the Air Force. They are “a group of gals who are very bright and culturally inclined,” and they are an enclave of liberals in a highly conservative setting. All of these women have seen racism in their lives. One has a daughter who married a Black man in 1989. The family couldn’t even hold the wedding in their home town in Pennsylvania; several of their cousins refused to attend. She had a brother-inlaw who would say, “I will never let a Jew or a Black man enter my house.” Another woman described how, “I’m sure there was probably
Photo by The Root Group (left); right, Sid Hicks
My mother is 87 years old. She lives in a retirement community in North Carolina where 90 percent of the residents are like her: White women, 75–100 years old. They have lived through so much politically and racially in this country that they could be excused for being cynical about a new President. But they are not. They think this is the most exciting political moment of their lives, and Barack Obama’s election as President has made them optimistic and hopeful about the world they are leaving for their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. When we proposed to include their perspective in this compendium, the editors were quick to agree because this was a demographic group whose views might not otherwise appear here. Thankfully, several of these fine women consented to be interviewed and have their perspectives summarized here. During the primary season, most of them were passionate supporters of Hillary Clinton. After all, many of them were born before women had the right to vote and they wanted to pull the lever for a woman in their lifetimes. They admired Clinton for her intelligence and for her ability to master any subject. A couple of them were Obama supporters from the beginning. In either case, they all had reached the point where they could hardly wait for George W. Bush to leave office, and they felt he had damaged our country domestically and internationally. Once the Obama-McCain contest was set, they had no doubts about who they favored. These women are serious political analysts—or, as they put it, “news junkies”—and they didn’t go easy on Obama. Although he had surely won their vote, he did not automatically earn their respect. They vetted him thoroughly during the campaign. They worried that he was too young and
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
a time when I wouldn’t have voted for a Black person. It wouldn’t Obama was really a Muslim and that he would allow the even have crossed anybody’s mind.” This woman’s grandmother Muslims to take over the United States. They heard people say, was brought up on a plantation in Louisiana with slaves, and “He scares me,” which they understood as code to mean, “He when her father was a child, he used to visit the plantation and scares me because he is Muslim and Black.” A couple of the play with the slave kids. “He loved them…but, in their place, if women are Catholic, and one believes so strongly that aboryou know what I mean.” They also know of one fellow resident tion is wrong that she struggled. “I prayed over that,” she said, in the retirement community—a woman who is 104 years old but I balanced it against his concern for the needy and I could but is very sharp and plays high-level bridge every day—who not agree with the Catholics who opposed him.” Then, at the “still calls them niggers.” speech that President Obama gave at Notre Dame about aborDo they know people who did not vote for Obama because he tion, “He came through again! Instead of avoiding the issue he was Black? Most of the residents of the retirement community tried to find common ground.” would not have voted for a Democrat regardless of the In their view, the symbolism of America’s choosing its first candidate’s race. They never heard anyone actually come out Black President is profound. One woman called it a “breakand say anything negative about Obama because of his race, through.” They believe that he’ll do more for civil rights than but they are quite sure that some people they know would never anyone since Martin Luther King Jr. One expressed the wish vote for a Black person. As one said, “I know that my own sister that King were alive today because, “He had it right. He was wouldn’t be able to pull the lever for a Black man.” By and large, the start of the whole national belief system that Negroes however, everyone in the community could really be somebody in this counpretty well knows the ideological views try, and he would love to see this.” of everyone else, and they tend to avoid A couple of the women wished that discussing politics with people who Lincoln could be alive to see how far are at the other end of the spectrum. we have come since he was President. Sometimes they can joke about it: one of One woman who had listened intently the liberal women reports that whenever to Obama’s Philadelphia speech felt she enters the gym, other exercisers will that it was a “magnificent step in the immediately turn the TV to Fox News right direction” of healing our racial just to tease her. divide, showing how Obama can really While race was not an open subject unify our country. His most important of conversation, some of their neighbors message is “that we are one people, from top left: Barbara Thompson, Patricia were openly concerned about Obama’s Clockwise indivisible, and we will stay strong if we Brooks, Irene Stefany, Margaret Messimer, and religion. They knew people who thought Constance Kubisch weigh in on Obama’s impact. all realize that.” They see his presidency
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
Photo by JODI MILLER
Over Age Eighty
as a “shining example” for Black families, where parents will have higher aspirations for their children and children will have higher aspirations for themselves. But they also point to the importance of Obama’s election for White people, “not the rednecks who won’t change,” but for the middle-of-theroad White people “who see an intelligent, stately, dignified, and presidential leader, and who need to be reinforced in their beliefs that Black people can really make it.” They speak most powerfully about the symbolism of a Black American President in the international arena. He is much more “of the world” than any of our previous Presidents. The word “heal” came up frequently: Obama can heal our relations with countries and citizens around the world. He has the potential to bring an end to the terrible wars that we’ve gotten ourselves into, and he might even be able to move other nations, especially in the Middle East, toward peace. He brings hope to the entire planet. They feel that the rest of the world will “look at us as a better people, and as more democratic,” and that they might see that “America has finally grown up.” All of the women interviewed spoke in reverential and sometimes spiritual ways about Barack Obama. As one put it, “I think God sent someone like him to straighten us out.”
Or, in the words of another, “Even at 80 years old, I am still an idealist, and he is someone who has actually strengthened my idealism—my belief that we can really be a better people than we have been in the past, that we can capture lost dreams.” They have seen leaders come and go throughout their long lives and none has been as inspirational to them as Barack Obama. “I go back to Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Truman. I remember seeing Hoover striding along Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Truman in the Winter White House in Key West, Kennedy on a golf course, but none is as thrilling as this,” one said. For all of them, their greatest fear is that “some lunatic” might assassinate President Obama. But his initial performance in office has been so impressive—the steady leadership, the excellent political appointments, the Cairo speech to the Muslim world—that it gives them hope that he will succeed in unifying people behind him, and that helps them bury their fear. These women have been and continue to be inspired and invigorated by President Obama. Their perspective on the world—the political and economic highs and lows that they have witnessed in their lifetimes—makes their belief in the potential of Obama’s presidency especially powerful.
Anne Kubisch is the director of The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change in New York City where she directs a number of policy research projects on poverty reduction, community development, and social justice. Previously, Kubisch spent 10 years at the Ford Foundation, initially working on Latin American programs, then as representative in Nigeria, and finally as deputy director of the Urban Poverty Program. She has an MA from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
This Is Our Moment By Angela Glover Blackwell
This is our moment. For a long time, I have believed that most Americans want what’s right on issues of race and inclusion. I have believed that millions of us—people of every color, class, faith, and family background—aspire to live in a society where everyone has opportunities for success. But we did not have the political environment to move on that aspiration. And the government never had a policy agenda that meshed with our personal yearning for fundamental fairness. This is our moment. It may go without saying that I was thrilled to see the United States elect an African American President. And more: a Black man who did not hide his belief in inclusion. Now, as I watch President Obama and his administration in action, I feel more hopeful than ever in my life that government and communities can work in partnership to achieve sweeping, enduring change. I see a leader who cares about the people who have been left behind. I see the first President willing to use his power to create the space for many to take part in our democracy, and to thrive. In recent months, representatives of many progressive organizations—PolicyLink, among them—have met with top administration officials. This, alone, marks an astonishing reversal; many of us have labored for years in the political wilderness. But what I have found most gratifying isn’t the mere fact of an invitation to the White House but the tenor of the conversation there. The people we have met with are knowledgeable about the issues that propel the equity movement: broad access to good jobs and adequate support for working people; reducing poverty, improving health and well
being; expanding affordable housing; and building strong, inclusive communities, cities, and metropolitan regions. The administration understands that in the past decade there has been an explosion of innovation at the local level to lift up the people and places in need. Officials are looking for ideas about the strategies that work. They are serious about equity. Equity means fair and just inclusion. An equitable society is one in which everybody can participate and prosper. In short, equity creates a path from hope to change. President Obama’s earliest initiatives reflect these values. The economic recovery package, for all its changes as it moved through Congress, held firm in its efforts to restore the safety net; the bill expanded food stamps, expanded unemployment insurance, and provided critical support to keep working families out of poverty by expanding the earned income tax credit and child care assistance. Through allocations for infrastructure and green technology, the recovery package is beginning to invest in long-neglected communities and in some of the nation’s most vulnerable people. The guidelines for spending the $787 billion package, quietly issued in April by the Office of Management and Budget, voice—almost verbatim—the principles for which equity advocates pushed hard. The guidelines call for projects that embrace “equal opportunity laws and principles, support businesses including disadvantaged business enterprises, engage in sound labor practices, promote local hiring, and engage with communitybased organizations.’’ President Obama’s budget has the potential to build on these commitments. It focuses on health care reform, education, and
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
environmental protection. The budget doesn’t include everything on the wish list of equity advocates, but it contains many of the things that Americans know we need to do to promote fair and just inclusion. And that sends a potent message. A President’s budget, after all, is much more than dry numbers. It articulates a philosophy of governance, it outlines a policy agenda, and it highlights priorities for action. Obama has sent Congress not only the most progressive budget in decades but also an ambitious blueprint for change. Yet this historic opportunity comes at an exceptionally inopportune time. The nation is in the grip of economic crisis. More than five million jobs have been lost since December 2007, and unemployment levels are at their highest in a generation. Even before the recession, 37 million Americans— one quarter of them African American—were living in poverty. Fifty million more were struggling in near-poverty. Those numbers are certainly worse today. Will the nation find the resolve to rebuild our aging and outmoded infrastructure, fix the health care system, improve our schools, revitalize our neighborhoods, and renew our cities? In this time of crisis, will we pursue policies that lift millions out of poverty and put all Americans on a path to prosperity? Or will we only respond to the immediate needs of the newly struggling?
These questions raise the stakes on our work as advocates for racial, social, and economic equity. This is no time to sit back, satisfied to have a President who “gets” the issues we hold dear. We did not arrive at this moment by luck or happenstance. We achieved it through hard, long work in our neighborhoods, communities, and regions. Now, we need to activate our networks to sustain the high levels of democratic participation and civic engagement we saw in the presidential election and for months afterward. We need to push leaders at all levels of government to translate the principles embodied in the President’s initiatives into the real dollars and programs that will help struggling families, revitalize distressed neighborhoods, build healthy communities, and allow us to create the society we aspire to have. President Obama is establishing his young presidency as a big tent. This is our moment to bring life to that ideal. We must dispel the myth that equity is the concern of a particular, and a particularly marginalized, segment of the populace. We must make sure that all Americans—in Congress, in our churches, in our workplaces, and on our blocks—understand what the President himself seems to know to his core: that when we solve the problems facing the most vulnerable members of our society, we make this country better for us all.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, an Oakland, California-based national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. A national leader for social justice and equity, Blackwell seeks to strengthen America by creating stronger low-income communities and communities of color. A former senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, she is a frequent commentator on public radio’s Marketplace and The Tavis Smiley Show. She is also the co-author of three books: The Covenant with Black America (Third World Press, 2006); Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002); and Ending Poverty in America: How to Restore the American Dream (The New Press, 2007).
Speculation About a Post-Racial Society By William L. Taylor
In our current penchant for snappy but often ill-defined public commentary, pundits have suggested that with the election of Barack Obama, America has become a “post-racial society.” In speaking of such a society, some people are saying that the nation has crashed through a formidable barrier—that never before did it seem possible that large numbers of White people would be ready to entrust decisions affecting their well-being to a Black man. I am one of these people. Having seen the hold that racism has had on our society, I now believe that the willingness of a solid majority to place their collective fate in the hands of a Black man speaks volumes about how far we have come. But there is a different meaning that may be attached to the descriptive of a “post-racial society.” It is best evidenced by the words of Justice Joseph Bradley, a member of the Supreme Court who played a large role in the late 19th century in dismantling the Reconstruction laws that were designed to replace slavery with equality of opportunity. Justice Bradley said of the Civil Rights cases: “When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he ceases to be the special favorite of the laws.” Justice Bradley thought that stage had been reached. That his view was a ludicrous distortion of reality became apparent as African Americans were systematically stripped of all the rights on which they had a tenuous hold, including the right to vote. Now, in the wake of significant progress in civil rights, the claim is being asserted again—that race consciousness in public policy is no longer needed and that we are in fact “color blind.” Thus, in our highest courts it is being argued with some success that race cannot be a factor in admission to a university and that public schools are limited in what they can do to establish a racially diverse school.
The trouble with this hopeful view is that it does not comport with reality. Despite the gains that have been made, race continues to pose a barrier to opportunity for large numbers of people of color. One key to understanding the continuing relevance of race is the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in the country. Over time, the affluence of the wealthy has increased substantially while many of the have-nots have become worse off than before. It is true that poverty is not solely a racial problem. Large numbers of White people are poor and with the increase in opportunities brought about by civil rights laws and social programs, many Black people through hard work have won their way into the middle class. But the fact is that the have-nots are disproportionately people of color and that overwhelming numbers of them grow up in circumstances that stack the odds against their ability to change their status. The continued prevalence of racial residential segregation is one crucial aspect of the problem. Throughout much of the 20th century, government and housing industry policies kept Black people from availing themselves of the housing assistance that was extended to White people of modest means. These policies prevented many Black people from accumulating assets that White homeowners enjoyed, a problem for which effects persist to this day, long after the discriminatory practices were declared illegal. Discrimination also forced minority home seekers into arrangements that exploited them, the most recent being the subprime market that has helped bring the economy of the nation to grief. Trapped in poverty and racial isolation, many minorities lack access to services that might give them a ladder to opportunity. The most important of these services are schools. Social science research has demonstrated that the most damaging learning environment for children is in schools with concentrated poverty. It is telling that the only two groups that attend such schools in large numbers are African Americans and Latinos.
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
While education reform has brought academic progress in some of these schools, the great majority of children remain in poor-performing disadvantaged schools. People of color living in isolation lack access to job training and employment opportunities. They often lack health and social services and are exposed to environmental hazards. Some of the problems are clearly caused by racial discrimination. Civil rights groups report that when they establish tests in which White and Black or Latino persons with perfectly matching qualifications apply for a job or for an apartment, they are treated differently, with minorities invariably on the losing end. When Congress was deciding whether to extend Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required states and districts with low minority registration to submit proposed changes in their laws for pre-clearance by the Attorney General, it found hundreds of instances in which the proposed change would have disadvantaged minorities. So blatant racism has not yet been consigned to the dustbin of history. But many other acts that do not appear to be prompted by conscious racism have harmful consequences. An advantaged parent may decide that she wants the very best education for her child—one that will ensure entry into an elite university and excellent prospects for an affluent career. She may decide that the best way to ensure such a trajectory will be to select an elite public or private school and that school is likely to be defined by students who are similarly advantaged and who are likely to be predominantly, if not all, White. There may be nothing racial, certainly not consciously so, that enters into the decision. Yet, history suggests that these elite schools will attract the best teachers, leaving those who are less competent or prepared for schools with more disadvantaged students. In the end, many of these schools may, both in outward appearance and in educational results, resemble the old racially dual system. No one deliberately planned “separate but equal schools,” but the results are the same. Similarly, a man may decide that one of the best ways to ensure an appreciation of his assets and those of his family is to
invest in a home that will grow in value. Such a home is likely to be found in a neighborhood with similarly expensive homes that may even be guaranteed by minimum lot size requirements. Again, without any racial motive aforethought, the result may be segregated neighborhoods. Also, given the history of discrimination in access to home ownership, the gap between Whites and Blacks is likely to continue and disparities in wealth due to increases in property values will also be perpetuated. In fact, one lesson some economic soothsayers are drawing from the current housing meltdown is that the nation need not invest so much in homeownership—a prescription that will cut off methods of asset accumulation for people of color that have long been available to Whites. These are only illustrations, but they demonstrate how, even in a society not driven by racial animus, equal opportunity may continue to be denied to African Americans and other people of color. In fact, while attention continues to be focused on major cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, among others, there are smaller communities in even more desperate shape. The big cities have financial resources, talented teachers, community organizers, and developers drawn to efforts to create opportunity for the disadvantaged. Yet there are other locales—usually small cities and decaying suburbs—that are in a state of distress without any visible handholds to recovery. Recent education research undertaken by my organization for the Joyce Foundation focused on such places in Ohio. We found underfunded schools that were racially and socioeconomically isolated that were performing very poorly. People who could were fleeing the area resulting in a decline in student population. That decline and a loss of revenue from property taxes exacerbated by the mortgage foreclosure crisis meant that the community has no vacancies for new teachers, even those with promising credentials. And a rising unemployment rate and a deteriorating economy left these areas bereft of hope that prospects would change, even when the nation emerges from the current recession.
Speculation About a Post-Racial Society
numbers seem less interested in organizing on major policy issues. Many seem beguiled by a technology that enables them to communicate continually with small circles of friends. And it is not clear what diversity means to many Americans. It seems promising that so many young people are at ease in the company of people of other ethnicities and races, far more so than people of my generation. But there is little evidence of the depth of interest that diversity holds for people. Is it limited to expanding one’s appreciation of foreign menus? Or does it include an appreciation of the culture, history, music, arts, and values of people of different backgrounds? President Obama may also undertake initiatives that stimulate interest in cooperative and altruistic enterprises and encourage those as citizen values. Such an effort already launched with a new AmeriCorps law tripling the number of slots for volunteers echoes the idealism of the Peace Corps, Vista, and Teacher Corps years and supports valuable initiatives such as Teach for America. But, for all of his brilliance, his omnivorous interest in issues, his broad grasp of American society, Barack Obama is a prudent man. He is unlikely to undertake campaigns that have little prospect of success. So the question may be whether by example he will ignite a new generation of leaders at all levels of society and whether he can stimulate people to detach themselves from the dreary materialism that the American dream seems to have become for many. Obama (in Lincoln’s phrase) has already “appealed to the better angels of our nature.” The rest may be up to us.
William L. Taylor is a lawyer, teacher, and writer in the fields of civil rights and education. He practices law in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation and other forms of advocacy on behalf of low-income and minority children. Taylor began his legal career in 1954 working for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. In the 1960s he served as General Counsel and later as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he directed major investigations and research studies that contributed to the civil rights laws enacted in that decade. In 1970, he founded the Center for National Policy Review, a civil rights research and advocacy organization funded by private foundations that he directed for 16 years. A long-time leader of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, he currently serves as vice chairman. He is also founder and chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and the author of his recently published memoirs entitled The Passion of My Times: An Advocate’s Fifty-Year Journey in the Civil Rights Movement (De Capo Press, 2004).
PHOTO BY JODI MILLER
In some of these places, it is possible that new development initiatives or a merger of education or political jurisdictions may bring new life to the area. But these measures are often resisted by the more prosperous jurisdictions and by taxpayers, and an amelioration of racial isolation and economic despair seem remote indeed. The spatial separation of Whites and Blacks and of wealthy and poor is not something that yields easily to policy initiatives. It extends not just to education and housing but also to the location of institutions that seek to rehabilitate and treat dysfunction. These too are often resisted in affluent neighborhoods. In sum, the functioning of communities and key institutions in our society may be more a product of individual values and choices than of public policies. Even when political leaders seek to shape policy for what they regard as the greater good, they may be thwarted by strongly held individual views opposing tax increases or resisting community change. So it may well be that a successful Obama administration, by promoting education reform for disadvantaged children, by pursuing desegregation policies where feasible, by increasing college admissions, by securing health protection, may help increase the ranks of racial and ethnic minorities in the middle class. In the coming years, there may be an interesting churning around of American values. But it is not certain in what direction that will go. The nation’s young people who ensured Obama’s election by organizing and turning out in large
Barack Like Me: Our First Asian American President By Michael Omi and Taeku Lee
the only state that has historically had a majority Asian American and Pacific Islander population. From ages six to ten, he attended local schools in Jakarta, Indonesia. He later returned to Honolulu and attended Punahou School from the fifth grade through his graduation from high school. The cultural influences are clearly evident. On inauguration day at Blair House, Amron-Paul Yuwono greeted Obama in Indonesian, and Obama demonstrated his command of the language by responding “in perfect Indonesian.”4 While Obama’s daughters may prefer macaroni and cheese, Garrison Keillor says that Obama can cook Indian and Chinese food.5 In addition to the cultural influences are the experiential ones grounded in family and kin. New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor observes that, “The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is Black and White and Asian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Low country.”6 Journalist Bill Wong says that Asian Americans ought to rejoice in Obama’s presidency since, “In many ways, he is like us” and that “he is certainly closer to us in terms of living experience and background than any other U.S. President has been.”7 Of note is the fact that both his father and stepfather were immigrants and both men of color. Maya Soetero-Ng, Obama’s half-sister, is half-Indonesian and her husband, Konrad Ng, is Chinese Canadian. During a fundraiser with Asian American campaign contributors, Obama himself contended, “I consider myself to be an honorary [Asian Pacific Islander] member, and I think I’ve got some pretty good credentials.”8
Photo by Dianne Yamashiro-Omi
In an oft-quoted 1998 column for The New Yorker, Toni Morrison described Bill Clinton as “our first Black President.” White skin notwithstanding, Morrison observed that, “Clinton displays almost every trait of Blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-andjunk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”1 Ten years after she wrote that Clinton was “Blacker than any actual Black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,” Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. The fantasy of another Clinton, funkmaster George Clinton who urged folks in 1993 to “Paint the White House Black,”2 has finally been fulfilled. While there has been near-universal agreement and acclamation about the election of the first-ever African American President of the United States, there has also been a remarkable diversity of additional identity claims in the 2008 election, each taking its own Morrisonian turn. Rabbi Arnold Wolf, whose synagogue lies across the street from Obama’s Chicago home, talks about Obama’s “Jewish side”: “Obama is from nowhere and everywhere—just like the Jews. He’s Black, he’s White, he’s American, he’s Asian, he’s African—and so are we.”3 Riffing off of this observation, we like to claim Barack Obama as our first Asian American President. Morrison’s original claim regarding Clinton was that distinctive cultural markers made him “Black.” Similarly, Obama has cultural markers that make him “Asian.” His life experiences have been fundamentally shaped in close association with Asians and Asian Americans. He was born at the Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women & Children in Honolulu, Hawai’i—
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
Representing Barack Obama as Asian American based on a pastiche of cultural practices, life experiences, and familial ties reproduces only one aspect of Morrison’s racial marking of Bill Clinton as African American. While Morrison has drawn the greatest attention for calling out Clinton’s raggedy upbringing and love for jazz and lowbrow gastronomy, the heart of her argument is that—as a result of the constant persecution and prosecution from House Republicans for Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, and the like—Clinton understood what it felt like to be an African American male in the United States. That is, Clinton is Black for Morrison not just because he might have the experiential bona fides to pass himself off as an honorary; he is also Black for Morrison as an ascribed identity vis-a-vis the harsh and unjust treatment by others. In this respect, we are especially struck by how distinctly Asian American Barack Obama’s racial ascription appeared to be in the 2008 election. By distinctly Asian American we refer here to political scientist Claire Jean Kim’s concept of “racial triangulation” to capture how Asian Americans, both historically and in the contemporary period, are located in a broader field of racial positions.9 Kim argues that Asian Americans are “triangulated” with respect to Whites and Blacks. On the one hand, Whites perceive Asian Americans as a racially subordinate group but one that is valorized as a “model minority” by Whites in contrast to Blacks. On the other hand, while racially positioned “above” Blacks by the White dominant group, Asian Americans are simultaneously ostracized in the civic and political arena and viewed as immutably foreign and unassimilable in contrast to both Whites and Blacks. Indeed, Asian
Americans are collectively regarded as the symbolic “alien” and remain “perpetual foreigners” despite the very long and continued presence of Asians in America. We find that Barack Obama was similarly “racially triangulated” as a candidate in the 2008 election. On the one hand, he was valorized in public discourse as the “exceptional” Black man whose saga from humble birth to the Office of the President speaks to the supposedly unparalleled social mobility afforded individuals in the United States. Obama himself did little to dampen this enthusiasm, noting repeatedly on the campaign trail, “In no other country is my story even possible.” On the other hand, a recurring theme in the McCain-Palin campaign was to incite suspicion of Obama as an “outsider”— the greenhorn “Manchurian candidate” and possible Islamic revolutionary whose actual loyalties and sympathies were subject to question. In this context, the McCain-Palin campaign theme of “America First” and advertisements that asked, “Who is Barack Obama?” raised suspicions, in a none-too-subtle fashion, of Barack Obama’s primary national allegiances and political loyalties. Such characterizations of Obama sound a lot like the conflicted, ambiguous, and unsettled racial position of Asian Americans. These features of President Obama’s life and his 2008 candidacy allow us to claim—if cheekily—him as our first Asian American President. But did Asian American voters themselves find a compelling frame of commonality? Here it was not initially clear during the presidential campaign whether Obama would be actively soliciting the Asian American vote, and it was correspondingly unclear whether Asian Americans would vote for him.
Barack Like Me
Early on, he was criticized by the 80/20 Initiative, an Asian American political action committee, for not initially responding to a survey of Asian American equal opportunity issues that the committee had circulated to the major presidential contenders of both parties. In February 2008, a Time magazine article titled, “Does Obama Have an Asian Problem,” stated that Asian Americans were the one racial/ethnic group who has voted consistently and overwhelmingly for Obama’s rival, Hillary Clinton, and asked, “Could some Asian Americans not be voting for Obama simply because he’s black?”10 The issue of Asian anti-Black racism surfaced on a segment of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that implied that Asian American immigrants were fearful of “change” and correspondingly suspicious of a Black candidate. In fact, as the researchers of the 2008 National Asian American Survey (NAAS) found, racial considerations did play a role in shaping Asian Americans’ vote choices between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.11 This effect, however, was modest and smaller than the role that other factors like age, gender, and ethnic group differences played in differentiating Clinton from Obama supporters. It is also interesting that Obama’s race as “Asian American” does not appear to have been a notable asset with Asian American voters. The data from the 2008 NAAS suggest that Asian Americans voted for very much the same reasons as the rest of the country. When the 2008 NAAS asked respondents whether Obama’s childhood in Indonesia or his Indonesian half-sister increased their favorable impression of his candidacy, there was very little effect to speak of. When asked about
the importance of the economy, pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, and achieving universal access to health care coverage for all Americans, however, there was an overwhelming degree of support among Asian Americans and a clear perception that there was a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on these defining issues of the 2008 election. Thus, while we may be persuaded to think of Obama as the first Asian American President, average Asian American voters themselves do not appear to share our gusto. Not yet, anyway. But here we close by noting reasons why Asian Americans might eventually be drawn to think of Obama as “their” President as a result of his symbolic and substantive actions in the White House. In particular, what Asian American voters could not have anticipated in the heat of the campaign was the extraordinary degree to which the Obama administration has relied on Asian Americans in his transition into the presidency and the unprecedented number of Asian Americans that Obama has nominated and appointed to key positions in his administration. In the weeks immediately following the election, Obama’s former law school classmate, Chris Lu, was named executive director of his transition team, with Peter Rouse (who is of Japanese-American ancestry) added as his transition team co-chair and Sonal Shah as a member of the transition team. Then, in his initial appointments, Obama has named three Cabinet-rank Asian Americans—Physicist Steven Chu as secretary of energy, Army General Eric Shinseki as secretary of Veterans Affairs, and former Washington Governor Gary Locke as secretary of commerce. Beyond the Cabinet
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—U.S.
ranks, there also has been a multitude of other high-profile appointments such as Tammy Duckworth as secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs within Veterans Affairs, Yale Law School dean Harold Koh as head legal advisor in the State Department, and Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar fame) as associate director, White House Office of Public Liaison. The heavy Asian American presence in the Obama administration, quite frankly, presents a high-stakes course for the future of Asian American politics. A misstep into political scandal or a downturn into economic or geopolitical scapegoating and fearmongering, and the visibility of Asian Americans in key positions could become a liability for President Obama and, ultimately, further ossify prevailing Yellow Perils and perpetual foreigners in our midst. Absent such missteps or downturns, however, Asian Americans will likely take great pride—a pride of ownership—in the successes of the Obama administration. If this more sanguine scenario should come to pass, future generations may well credit 2008 as a watershed election in the political maturation and Democratic consolidation of Asian Americans.
1 Toni Morrison, “Talk of the Town: Comment, The New Yorker, October 5, 1998. 2 George Clinton, “Paint the White House Black” from the Paisley Park/ Warner Bros. album Hey Man, Smell My Finger released in 1993. 3 Quoted in Tom Hundley, “Barack Obama: The First Jewish President?” Chicago Tribune, December 12, 2008. 4 Quoted in Leah Garchik column “Inauguration Day Special.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 2009, A-11. 5 Garrison Keillor, “Sitting On Top of the World.” International Herald Tribune, November 13, 2008. iht.com/articles/2008/11/13/opinion/ edkeillor.php. 6 Jodi Kantor, “A Portrait of Change: In First Family, A Nation’s Many Faces.” The New York Times, January 21, 2009. 7 Bill Wong, “Barack Obama: Almost Like Us.” November 6, 2008. ocadc. org/boardblog/Willaim-Wong-Barack-Obama-Almost-Like-Us-.html. 8 Jonathan Weisman, “Obama, at Fundraiser, Pronounces Himself an ‘Honorary AAPI,’” The Trail Blog, posted on July 29, 2008, voices. washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2008/07/29/obama_at_fundraiser_ pronounces.html, (accessed November 11, 2008). 9 Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics and Society 27 (1999), 105–138. 10 Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, “Does Obama Have an Asian Problem.” Time, February 18, 2008. 11 Karthick Ramakrishnan, Janelle Wong, Taeku Lee, and Jane Junn. 2009. “Race-Based Consideration and the Obama Vote: Evidence from the 2008 National Asian American Survey.” Du Bois Review 6 (Spring).
Michael Omi is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the co-author of Racial Formation in the United States. He holds an AB in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Taeku Lee is a professor of political science and law at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also serves as director of the IGS Center on the Politics of Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity. He is also chair of the Diversity and Democracy Cluster of the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative, and senior faculty fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity. His publication credits include the award-winning book, Mobilizing Public Opinion (2002). He was born in South Korea and grew up in Malaysia and New York City. Lee holds an AB from the University of Michigan, an MPP from Harvard University, and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—International
Yes, We Can!
Photo BY jodi miller (left)
By S.P. Udayakumar
As the American presidential election climax was building, I had a nagging worry in my mind. What if the American voters said the politically correct thing that they would vote for Barack Obama (and thereby tried to establish that his being Black was immaterial for them), but then voted for Senator John McCain out of the age-old prejudices and fears that a Black man could not be trusted with presidential powers? What if McCain defied all the polls and predictions and emerged victorious, proving that racism in the American society could not be set aside so easily? What if African Americans and other minority communities in the United States took the Barack Obama defeat personally and lost faith in the American system once and for all? I was really worried. But the American voters spoke clearly and concisely. As Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, put it rightly and nicely, “Twenty-five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of an America where men and women would be judged not on the colour of their skin but on the content of their character. Today what America has done is turn that dream into a reality.” And that is the message of hope that the world needs today. Moreover, the American voters have avoided the Florida fiasco of the 2000 election, and the wishy-washy indecisiveness of the 2004 election results. They have come out openly and defiantly with a clear mandate for Obama and strengthened the U.S. democratic system. And this message of democracy is what the world needs today. These two factors did weigh heavily in the favourable assessment of the 2008 presidential elections by non-Americans. There was also another important factor that makes Obama so attractive outside the United States. This world has always been ruled by the small minority of White people who make up barely 11 percent of the world population. The world’s socioeconomic-political happenings have been a White show headed by a White man in Washington, D.C. (and his White cronies in
European capitals), who have had little understanding of—and even less concern for—the outside world. But now here is a Black man at the helm of world affairs who does have ancestral, temporal, and emotional ties with subSaharan Africa, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Midwest America. What else can be a better qualification to lead the United States and the larger world? The expectations for the new President are quite high— not just in the United States but also in the outside world. Americans may look to Obama to improve their national economy, homeland security, world dominance, and so forth. Non-Americans may not be very much interested in those things. But they may expect the new President at least to question the way things have been done in the United States so far for so long. The U.S. government can spend more than $1,000 billion on a meaningless war in Iraq, churn out $700 billion to rescue the failing private financial institutions and banks in their country, but cannot find $18 billion to provide basic nutrition to the women and children in the developing countries. Non-Americans do well know that it is not his responsibility to provide nutrition to the women and children in the developing world. But they do hope that Obama can rein in on the ruthless American military-industrial-media-academic complex that hurts, harms, and kills millions of people in the developing world. Most people outside the United States think that America needs a Gorbachev who can bring about an American version of “glasnost” and “perestroika” to reinvent humanitarianism in American politics and reinscribe American values on humanity. Obama may or may not do all that. But Obama’s election is certainly the first bold step the Americans have taken toward that direction. And that is why the world outside is also so hopeful and excited.
S.P. Udayakumar is a research fellow at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Nagercoil, India. He formerly worked as a research associate at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota before returning to India in 2001. He earned a PhD in political science from the University of Hawaii, an MA in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA in English literature from Kerala University in India. 49
Obama: the Potentials of Agency and Potency By Firoze Manji
The resonance of Obama’s victory has been felt across the world, not least among the African American people as well as across the African continent. Pent-up frustrations with the Bush junta were given release, and even the ruling class realized that they were in need of someone who could restore their credibility, not only internationally, but also domestically. The hugely popular populist Obama fit the niche perfectly. His rhetoric, his ability to convey sincerity, his youth, and his extraordinary oratory captured people’s imaginations. Across Africa, as well as in the international media, the phrase on everyone’s lips was “Imagine! An African elected as President!”—an implicit recognition across the world that racism is so deeply imbued in America that the mere idea of having a Black person in the White House is the most noteworthy feature of last year’s U.S. presidential elections. Yet what is not sufficiently acknowledged is that Obama’s victory was not just due to the extraordinary electoral machinery that he helped create but more importantly due to the sense of agency that he inspired, a sense that citizens might and could—if not determine—certainly play a significant role in influencing their own destiny. It was not he who would win the election, he told them repeatedly, it was “we” or “us.” His repeated use of the first person plural may well have been a clever rhetorical tool, but the consequence of using it was to create the confidence that it was citizens who were making things happen, not simply a presidential candidate. And it is that sense of agency that has to be retained and expanded despite the ease with which one could fall into the trap of cynicism. But as Obama’s administration takes form, as its policies become articulated and implemented, the mist clears. For
the mass of people who voted for him, there is—as one would expect—enormous generosity of spirit, patience, and willingness to give the benefit of the doubt for the person they elected. But one can sense a growing disenchantment and potentially dangerous disillusionment beginning to emerge amongst activists and progressive analysts. Over time, that disillusionment could spread into even wider sections of the population. That could happen more rapidly in the present conditions of capitalist crisis as people pay for their generosity of spirit with redundancies, unemployment, and impoverishment, while watching those responsible for the crisis get fat hand-outs by the trillions. But, as Linda Burnham has so succinctly put it, “[Obama] broke the death grip of the reactionary right by inspiring and mobilizing millions as agents of change. If Obama doesn’t manage to do even one more progressive thing over the course of the next four years, he has already opened up far more promising political terrain.” His campaign, she continues: “…Revealed the contours, composition and potential of a broad democratic coalition, demographically grounded in the (overlapping) constituencies of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, youth across the racial groups, LGBT voters, unionized workers, urban professionals, and women of color and single White women, and in the sectors of organized labor, peace, civil rights, civil liberties, feminism, and environmentalism. Obama did not create this broadly democratic electoral coalition single-handedly or out of whole cloth, but he did move it from latency to potency and from dispirited, amorphous and unorganized to goal oriented, enthusiastic and organized.”1
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—International
It is, of course, easy to criticise the new administration, despite its having been in power for so short a time. The list of disappointments is long: bailing out bankers and industrial corporations; increasing troops in Afghanistan and greater interference in government and dismissal of principles of selfdetermination; delaying withdrawal from Iraq; opposing the Durban II conference against racism; continuing the militarisation of development through AFRICOM; supporting Israel’s occupation and refusing to acknowledge the crimes against humanity carried out against the Palestinian people, etc. Much of the new administration’s policies are focused on solving the domestic crisis, while depending on the continued ignorance of the mass of Americans about what their own governments are involved with abroad. The Internet, listservs, journals, and magazines are replete with analyses of the Obama administration’s policies. But the majority of the critiques are based on the implicit assumption that Obama should be expected to deliver on fundamentally different social, economic, and foreign policies from those that one would expect of a global imperialist power, the leading capitalist country on the planet. Why a Harvard-educated lawyer who stood as presidential candidate of the U.S. Democratic Party should behave any differently from previous incumbents is difficult to fathom. That is not to say that detailed analyses and critiques of the policies of the administration are not needed; on the contrary. But while necessary, my concern is that they are not sufficient to bring about change. Obama’s victory was based, as I suggested earlier, not so much on the machinery he built but by virtue of the fact that he helped release the floodgates of hope, the floodgates that have
so long prevented American people from believing in themselves as the agents of change, that it has been—and will always be—they, and not their Presidents—who make history. That underlying aspiration for self-determination is something that needs to be held on to, nurtured, and given scope to flourish and bloom. As we explore and analyse the shortcomings (and yes, even disappointments) of the Obama administration, there is a desperate need to provide an active role to citizen organisations, be they community-based, trade unions, membership organisations, women’s organisations, organisations of other oppressed groups, or other social movements. Some of that is happening. But the Achilles heel of such movements has always been its understanding of the imperial nature of American capitalism. The concerted attempts by the mass media to keep Americans ignorant of the real nature of U.S. foreign policy has to be countered. This is particularly so in relation to Africa. One way of overcoming the isolation of American citizens could be to develop means for exchanges between social movements in the United States and those in Africa, enabling people to gain experience of the day-to-day struggles of their counterparts on another continent. The heroic (and sometimes tragic) engagement of peace activists in Gaza is an example of the finest forms of solidarity. The Obama administration faces the well-seasoned assault of corporate interests who have long experience in exerting influence on policy. Given that Obama is, by virtue of his position, frequently isolated from the mass movement that hurled him into office, there is a need for that movement to exert its pressure too—and not leave it up to Obama to merely
Agency and Potency
The significance of having an African as President of the United States is not just in the fact that few would have imagined that this would be possible but for the hope it creates that the pillars of structural racism in the United States will somehow be eroded. This is a hope that fires the imagination of people of African descent in the United States and across the world. There appears to be little attention yet to addressing this, but these are early days. For that to change requires actions from below, not just policies from above. Mobilizing people to feel that they are the agents of change is not an easy task. Whatever one might think of Obama, he has to be given credit for creating belief among millions of people. It is that dynamic that needs to be built upon. It is the aspirations of the millions that could have a profound impact on the type of policies that are implemented by the administration. This is a unique moment in history. Are we able to “seize the time”? Linda Burnham (2009): Notes on an orientation to the Obama presidency. zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/20694.
Firoze Manji is the founding executive director of Fahamu–Networks for Social Justice, a pan-African organisation with bases in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. He is the editor-in-chief of the award-winning pan-African social justice newsletter and web site, Pambazuka News, and is the senior editor of a series of distance learning courses developed for human rights organisations. Manji previously worked as the Africa program director for Amnesty International and was the chief executive of the Aga Khan Foundation (UK). He has also worked as the regional representative for Health Sciences in Eastern and Southern Africa for the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Manji has published widely and has authored a wide range of books on social justice in Africa. He holds a PhD and MSc from the University of London, and a BDS from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
PHOTO BY JODI MILLER
“deliver” on vague promises. The electoral machinery that was built provides a unique structure for continuing the engagement of citizens in discussing, debating, and taking actions to have their voices and demands heard. Such forums could not only provide platforms for those engaged in the struggle for justice in Africa and elsewhere to share their own experiences but could also form the basis for citizen delegations to Africa to investigate particular aspects on U.S. foreign policy and of U.S. corporations’ activities and to consult with citizens in affected places. Such citizen delegations could provide powerful counter-positions on key elements of U.S. policy and help build an alternate power base to the weight of corporate interests. My fear is that unless initiatives such as these are encouraged, disillusionment, cynicism, and depoliticization will gradually become embedded. This could be dangerous in a period in which capitalism is experiencing possibly the most serious crisis of the last century. Obama is already under severe pressure to save U.S. corporations from the impact of the imploding economy, the same institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Their solutions already involve making increasing numbers of citizens unemployed so as to protect profits.
Reflections from Social Justice Leaders—International
Obama and Europe
photo by jodi miller (left)
By Lidija Knuth
Now that the United States has its first African American President, a critical question remains: are any European countries ready to elect a leader from one of their own ethnic minorities? Europeans reacted toward Barack Obama’s election with a general euphoria which, although overwhelming, also gave way to some self-doubt. Barack Obama’s election has triggered an outburst of European soul-searching about whether a minority candidate could ever win a general election on the other side of the Atlantic. The question was raised not only in the mainstream media but also in discussions on the streets and in the schools and universities of European cities. In reality, the prospects look quite dim. The proportion of ethnic minorities in European societies is not at all reflected in the political arena. For example, although 19 percent of Germany’s residents are of foreign or partially foreign descent, only 10 out of 612 seats in the Bundestag are occupied by ethnic minorities. In Great Britain, ethnic minorities make up at least eight percent of the population; yet they hold only 15 out of 646 seats in Parliament. With a few exceptions, such as the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam (one of The Netherlands’ biggest cities), a similar pattern of skewed representation is evident across Europe. However, Europe has experienced some change. For instance, Cem Özdemir, the German-born son of two Turkish guest workers, was elected as the Green’s new leader at the party congress just two weeks after Obama was elected the new President of the United States. This occasion marked the first time a person with an immigrant background was chosen to lead a mainstream political party in Germany and also, it appears, the first time in Europe as a whole. Hopefully, Barack Obama’s election is a further catalyst for minority candidates in Europe.
Evidence of post-Obama-mania was particularly strong in France, the European country with the greatest number of Black communities, and an Arab-Muslim minority of about five million people. “This is the fall of the Berlin wall times ten,” said Rama Yade, junior minister for Human Rights and France’s only Black government member, in a radio interview. However, one must also bear in mind that the context in Europe is much different from the United States since most European countries have a much shorter history of immigration than the United States. Spain and Ireland, for example, have only been countries of immigration for the past decade. In other European countries, labor immigration began after World War II, in the 50s and 60s. Therefore, many of the questions and issues surrounding immigrants and minority populations that have already been faced by the United States are new to many European countries. Europe needs to engage in dialogue with the United States to better understand which approaches have been successful and which have not, and then tackle these issues together. While ideally the new administration in Washington should facilitate collaboration on such issues, there are so many expectations for Obama—expectations he won’t be able to meet. The withdrawal of the United States from official participation in the Durban Review Conference—the World Conference Against Racism, held in Geneva in April—is one of the first disappointments showcasing the limits of U.S. outreach on this subject. In any case, only time will tell whether Obama’s message of change becomes true for Europe as well. One thing is certain; even after an initial hype surrounding Obama’s election, Europe will not be back to business as usual.
Lidija Knuth is a research fellow at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and is dedicated to the institute’s international program with a research focus on human rights. An attorney based in Rome, Italy, she received a JD from European University Viadrina in Germany and an MA in state management and humanitarian affairs from the Interdepartmental Research Centre in European and International Studies at the University of Rome La Sapienza. Knuth studied at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University with a European Community—U.S. Alternative Dispute Resolution grant for one semester and plans to pursue work in international public law.
PHOTO BY A. Gilbert, PR Photos
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, African American poet Maya Angelou recalls crowding with friends, family, and other black folk into her grandmother’s general store in her hometown of Stamps, Arkansas, on the afternoon of June 25, 1935. They had come from miles around to hear the radio call of Joe Louis’s fight against Primo Carnera at Yankee Stadium. Louis would dominate the bout, but at one early point Carnera has the Brown Bomber pinned on the ropes, raining body blows. Just like that, all “the shufflings and smiles, flirtings and pinching of a few minutes before” vanish from the store. This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes. True that we were stupid and ugly and lazy and dirty and, unlucky and worst of all, that God Himself hated and ordained us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, forever and ever, worlds without end. We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited. Again and again my mind revisited this passage in the days leading up to Election Day 2008, as signs of the emotional investment made by so many in Obama’s candidacy grew more frequent and remarkable. No, the United States of 1935 is not the United States of 2009; boxing’s heavyweight championship carries neither the symbolic heft nor the practical weight of the U.S. presidency in public affairs; and, from occupation to education level to rhetorical style (Louis had a speech impediment), Joe Louis and Barack Obama are cut from different cloth. And
yet Louis knew, and Obama knows, a burden of racial representation with which very few Americans of any stripe have been familiar. As African Americans would erupt in celebration of Louis’ pivotal victory in 1935, so they would again upon Obama’s still more momentous win almost 75 years later. And yet, for me, perhaps the most remarkable feature of “Obamamania” was precisely its multiracial character. My first big hint came in March 2007, when a friend emailed to say that her White, rightof-center, 44-year-old husband had taken to leaping about the house, chanting “O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!” The states of Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington would go on to share two interesting features: Black Americans comprised less than five percent of the population in each of them, and Obama won all of them. This multiracial enthusiasm for the candidate spread well beyond the U.S. Six Brazilian politicians officially changed their names to “Barack Obama” to boost their chances in October 2008 elections. Ghanaians danced in the streets as news of Obama’s victory spread. In Kenya, six “Barack Obama” baby boys and one “Mitchelle Obama” [sic] girl were welcomed into the world on November 5th. Ogawa Rubber, Japan’s top maker of rubber masks, sold an astonishing 2,500 Obama masks in one month of production before Inauguration Day. And on it went. For African Americans, Obama’s triumph marked a particularly important milestone in the centuries-long struggle
for racial justice and inclusion in the United States. Many who were not African American shared the recognition and joy. What else was at stake for the millions of others, perhaps billions, who celebrated so mightily? Certainly, Obama adulation largely reflected widespread revulsion for the economic, military, and political tumult of the Bush years. Especially in the U.S., other factors tilted in Obama’s favor, including a raft of scandals involving Republican lawmakers, Sarah Palin’s poor command of the issues, McCain’s age and “erratic” campaign performance, changing demographics, the Democrats’ fundraising edge, and more. Even in places like North Carolina and Virginia, where for decades the GOP had traded on White racial resentment for electoral gain —the “Southern Strategy”—many Whites resisted the McCain campaign’s increasingly desperate race-baiting to vote for the candidate they believed had the insight, judgment, and temperament needed to tackle the critical issues facing the country. Moreover, Obama became not only the first Black President of the United States, but also, some have argued, the first member of a historically marginalized racial minority group to lead a major democratic nation. At very least, he is an extremely rare example of the species. Not surprising, then, that his triumph has been seen as a global, as well as an American, one. However, running through all these sources of Obama fever was an undercurrent of something else we had experienced before. We felt it in the immediate wake of the 9-11 attacks, as
Americans and the world expressed outrage and mourned the loss of innocents whose identities spanned many permutations of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and nationality. We felt it in the countless acts of interracial compassion that buoyed the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Living on the South Side of Chicago in the early-1990s, I also saw it after each of the Chicago Bulls’ championship-clinching victories, as for a day or two unsolicited grins, whoops of joy, and high-fives with strangers bonded residents of the famously segregated city across lines of difference that seemed unbridgeable in the day-to-day. This “something else,” I believe, is a yearning for human and social connectedness whose realization founders on the shoals of race and the fears, misunderstandings, and resentments it generates in both the U.S. and global contexts. Race is not the only edge along which we divide, but it is surely the sharpest. Obama’s personal biography and vision invited us to believe that we can repair our disconnectedness. After all, he told us, in no other country on earth was his story even possible. Here was the early-21st-century version of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city of a hill,” recast through the prism of a Black man’s personal story. As the best of our friends sometimes do, Obama invoked the “better angels of our nature,” and thus of our nation, and promised that it was within our power that those angels, rather than our shadier impulses, should define us. That, in my view, was the core promise of his “politics of hope.”
On one hand, the centrality of Obama’s biography, sensibilities, rhetorical gifts, and self-possession to the power of his message is hardly accidental. On the other hand, Obamamania ultimately is more about us than about him. Our needs and aspirations are the seedbed that called it into being. Our energy, determination, and, yes, hopefulness, are what will nurture, sustain, and direct it to concrete ends, if it is to be sustained at all. The practical obstacles to doing so are many. Even among Obama voters more than a few did not subscribe to his vision. Detached from the drama and high stakes of the presidential contest, the racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and vitriol so manifest throughout the campaign may have receded somewhat from public view, but—as the high-profile flaps featuring Eric Holder, Sonia Sotomayor, and Henry Louis Gates attest—they have hardly gone away. Still, there are promising signs that Obamamania already has made a mark on American civic life. The Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., reports that 1,200 people applied for its 65 paid community organizing internships and fellowships in summer 2008. One year earlier, 250
people had applied for 26 paid positions. The venerable NAACP has suffered widespread charges of political irrelevance for some time. Yet a record number of people registered for its 2009 convention, and the resurgent interest of young African Americans is particularly notable. And consider that some 400,000 people applied for 3,000 jobs in the Obama administration—more than four times the number who sought positions in George W. Bush’s administration eight years earlier. It appears that more Americans are seeking to engage our public leaders, and each other, than we have in some time. Who knows where all this is headed. I do know that as caretakers in this “land of opportunity,” we have much more work to do to fully realize that promise across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, disability, geography, religion, and the interactions among them. And much more to do to satisfy that longing for connectedness that marks us as human beings, and which now sounds a note of special urgency in the U.S. context. Barack Obama may prove willing and able to help lead the way on the next stage of the journey, but he can’t get us there by himself.
Andrew Grant-Thomas is deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. He directs the institute’s internal operations and oversees much of its U.S.-based programming. He serves as associate editor of the institute’s journal, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts and directs its semiannual Transforming Race conference. He is a regular contributor to Imagine2050.org, Racewire.org, and WOSU radio and sits on the boards of several nonprofit organizations and various social justice initiatives. Formerly with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, Grant-Thomas holds a BA from Yale University and an MA and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
Lifted By CeLillianne Green
Photo by Marvin T. Jones
It’s time. It’s time for the nation and its people to be lifted This journey was long ago scripted Scripted in a Declaration of Independence and then a Constitution Founding documents that hold the nation’s solution The solution for an infant democracy Of government, by and for the people, as it should be Those original documents, most profound Embody principles that continue to astound Principles in a Constitution, strong yet, flexible enough for amendments Means each of us can live free and independent Principles, such as a government with three branches, equally respected Where the voice of the people is totally protected Where the Constitution and its Bill of Rights Provide the people with a guiding light The light needed to reach the highest heights Of the ideals that brought this nation to life A nation that is continuing to grow and to mature And like any adolescent, our nation has not always been sure Yet, its founding principles lead us in the direction of high ideals Ideals that call us to do the work to heal And it will require work The work of committed people, young and old In order for our healing to fully take hold Healing is required for our 21st century minds As the country embarks on a new paradigm The paradigm of a country determined to heal Where its people are not afraid to feel To feel the nation’s growing pains To feel we can overcome the stress and the strain We simply must remember Remember what the ideals of those original documents call us to do Regardless of our origin, gender or hue Those documents call us to embrace the power of the truth, as we learn from the past Knowing that preserving a true democracy is our healing task
Healing is our task for this moment, for this time Healing will lift this nation to that place where all is fine It’s time. It’s time to begin a process unlike before Delving into those areas we have not explored It’s time for healing without reservation To ensure the nation’s continued elevation You see, our country is poised to move higher With new leadership meant to truly inspire This leadership includes a role for me and a role for you Working to make certain the promise of America comes true It’s the promise of life and liberty The promise of a nation lifted to where it’s suppose to be Yet, we must work to be lifted Lifted from the bowels of centuries of ships Ships carrying Africans who did not voluntarily make the trip We must work to be lifted. Lifted with the descendants of those, who to this nation, voluntarily came Understanding that America is the home we all now claim And as we learn from our past and the truth is told A nation, truly lifted will begin to unfold It will unfold as we the people, begin to make real The more perfect union of the country’s founding ideals It is the perfection of that union that keeps this democracy on pace It is that more perfect union, we are called to embrace As we embrace it, we shall be lifted Lifted because we want to be Eyes wide open, wanting to see To see the humanity in each other’s eyes Cleansing our souls, unafraid to cry We shall be lifted, father and son, friend and foe Lifted for the world to know To know we are sisters and brothers Daughters and mothers We shall be lifted in the world’s eyes As a beacon for people seeking the prize The prize of freedom and true democracy Knowing that all people are created free
Yes ... we ... can “Lifted,” CeLillianne Green, Copyright © 2008 CeLillianne Green is a poet and an attorney who lives in Washington, D.C. 62
PHOTO by jodi Miller
Free to rise like the tide Ever so humble with just enough pride Therefore, we must continue the journey, long ago scripted As a nation destined to be lifted Lifted by you and lifted by me Each of us, ensuring this nation meets with its destiny So, as we move forward into the 21st century We do so hopeful. We do so free Indeed, we will have the audacity to hope that all will have plenty And hope will be kept alive by this nation of many Many working together as one Guided by the ideals long ago begun The ideals of a country ready to be lifted By its people who have internally shifted Shifted into a healing frame of mind Pursuing truth and peace for this day and time And in that healing mode, we will join our collective hands Prepared for destiny, prepared to stand To stand open and receptive to a new century plan In small towns or in big cities throughout this land We will stand ready to be lifted With complete understanding that all are gifted Gifted, to do what they are uniquely called to do Helping to move this nation through Through to a place that is higher A place to which all can aspire That place where a nation and its people are lifted One by one Until our healing is over and done Lifted Lifted, along with our 44th President, a visionary man A man who has come to remind a nation and to remind its people
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