Barack Obama and American Democracy (BOAD) Conference Origins
The inaugural BOAD Conference took place on March 5-6, 2010 at Tufts University. The conference brought together an extraordinary collection of scholars, activists, and students to critically analyze, interrogate, and discuss the meaning of the 2008 watershed presidential election at the local, national, and international level. On the heels of the successful conference Peniel E. Joseph, BOAD Organizer and Professor of History, conceived of a Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD) to be established at Tufts to promote interdisciplinary and multi-school research around issues of race and democracy. The CSRD evolved out of collaborative work and sustained dialogue between Professor Joseph and Matthew Whitaker, Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University. This dialogue anticipated the creation of a CSRD at Tufts and also encouraged the establishment of a sister center at ASU.
Arizona State established its own Center For the Study of Race and Democracy, on March 21, 2011 and hosted the second annual BOAD on March 24 and 25 of that year. ASU’s Center is a direct outgrowth of the remarkable scholarly and collaborative efforts that began in 2010 and continued in 2011, this time hosted by Professor Whitaker, the Founding Director of the newly inaugurated CSRD.
The 3rd Annual BOAD, which will take place over three days for the first time, continues Tufts University’s extraordinary partnership with ASU, which will continue to alternate their roles as conference hosts. The announcement that Tufts will launch a new Center for the Study of Race and Democracy brings this partnership and collaboration full circle.
It also continues the academic collaboration between Professors Joseph and Whitaker, a partnership that has brought together two of the leading historians and public intellectuals of their generation in service of a larger vision that seeks to promote and foster a national and global dialogue about issues of race, civil rights, and democracy. The two centers will continue to work together by convening bi-annual conferences at Tufts and ASU, and will collaborate on a variety of important research projects.
Barack Obama and American Democracy: A Conference
On November 4, 2008, the very aesthetics of American democracy were transformed. Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States represented a watershed moment in the history of the republic. The key to the historic nature of Obama’s victory is rooted in the very fabric of the nation’s tangled racial history. That a nation founded in racial slavery could, 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, elect a black president speaks to the promises and possibilities of American democracy.
In the initial aftermath of Obama’s stunning victory journalists and pundits cheerfully declared that America had become, in one dramatic instant, a “postracial” nation free of ancient vestiges of racial prejudice and discrimination and cleansed of the original sin of slavery through the election of the first African American head of state. From election night through to Obama’s January 20, 2009 inauguration, America (and indeed much of the world) basked in a kind of collective euphoria that recalled celebrations after the Second World War, rare instances where the entire world seemed to recognize, in unison, that humanity had taken a significant step toward progress.
More than three years later the politics of hope, optimism, racial equality, and change that Obama’s campaign and election inspired have bumped into a new political reality marked by economic crisis, political acrimony in Washington, and disillusionment. The resulting political backlash has triggered roiling debates over public policy, race, war, and democracy.
This conference brings together scholars, activists, and academics to discuss, debate, and analyze the wider implications of the Obama administration’s foreign and domestic policy agendas after over three years in office. Over the course of three days it seeks to probe the meaning of the historic 2008 presidential election for the very heart of our democracy, paying close attention to issues of race, active citizenship, and international affairs.
Ultimately, Barack Obama’s presidency represents a unique, perhaps unprecedented, opportunity to interrogate the very meaning of American democracy. While President Obama’s very biography has helped to spark a national dialogue about race and democracy, the onus rests upon educators, students, and citizens of all backgrounds to sustain it. This symposium on “Barack Obama and American Democracy” offers Tufts University and the wider Boston community an opportunity to engage in, while expansively adding to, this discussion.
Obama, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Democracy
By Peniel E. Joseph
The years between 1954 and 1965 represent the heroic years of the civil rights movement. From the Supreme Court’s historic Brown school desegregation decision to the passage of the Voting Rights Act these years unfolded, at times in spectacularly cinematic fashion, in a manner that continues to both fascinate, inspire, and confound contemporary generations of citizens, activists, scholars, and organizers. The unveiling of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C. in October 2011 commemorates the single individual most identified with the civil rights era. King’s powerful iconography has at times obscured the equally important role of the thousands of local activists, organizers, and ordinary citizens who helped to draw the nation closer to the dream of multicultural democracy and racial and economic justice he eloquently articulated in on August 28, 1963 in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Yet King suggested many times during his lifetime that he would rather be remembered as a drum major for justice than an important leader. King’s advocacy for racial justice, economic equality, and world peace were rooted in a belief that these were, at their core, struggles for democracy. His famous letter from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963 reminded critic who preached moderation that the black freedom struggle was rooted in the “great wells of democracy” that were dug deep by America’s founding fathers.
In fact the civil rights movement’s expansive vision of American democracy far exceeded the imagination of the nation’s architects, a paradox that has frustrated black activists such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer ever since. But tying the civil rights movement to broader democratic terrain was more than just a rhetorical device. Race and democracy remain at the core of the American story just as antebellum slavery maintains its status as the original sin of a republic founded in ideals of liberty. President Barack Obama’s recent dedication speech at the King Memorial unveiling acknowledged parts of this narrative but understandably left much unsaid.
There is no monument in Washington dedicated to the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) but there should be. Founded in the aftermath of the waves of sit-ins that began on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, SNCC inspired thousands of young people, black and white, to dedicate their lives to turning democratic rhetoric into reality. From the Mississippi Delta to Alabama’s black belt to Southwest Georgia and Arkansas, SNCC activists served as a roving band of organizers who literally bled for democracy in some of the most dangerous parts of America. Driven by a belief that people like Ruleville, Mississippi sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer could vote, lead, and help organize a more just nation, SNCC challenged the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations at times slow response to civil rights violations and pressured King into taking more robust stances against the Vietnam War. Their remarkable lives and potent commitment to activism continues to this day, with many former SNCC members serving as mentors, organizers, and activists in their communities long after the organization’s demise.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign cast his personal biography as an extension of the nation’s larger civil rights narrative. At times explicitly, often times more subtly, Obama presented himself as a singular leader—like King—who could ingenuously blend movements for racial justice with an expansive democratic vision. But presidents are not social movement leaders. The civil rights revolution required the presence of King, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Frederick Douglass served as Abraham Lincoln’s racial conscience, a role that both Mary McLeod Bethune and A. Philip Randolph served at times for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the more than three years since Obama’s election the black community has experienced the unimaginable joy of witnessing the nation elect the first black president, a feeling that produced exhilarating levels of pride that transcended social-economic and even ideological divisions. But this victory has come at a heavy cost. Proliferating right wing attacks on Obama since his January 20, 2009 inauguration thrust the majority of black religious, civic, and political leaders on the defensive, a posture that reached new dimensions with the advent of the Tea Party and the increase in overtly race-based criticism against the president and the First Lady.
The White House’s political relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) remains tense, with certain members, most notably California Representative Maxine Waters, publicly assailing the president’s failure to forthrightly address the devastating rates of unemployment, incarceration, housing foreclosures, and general economic misery that has plagued the black community in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Journalist Tavis Smiley and Princeton scholar Cornel West have been perhaps two of the president’s most vocal critics, with West going as far as calling Obama Wall Street’s “black mascot” and Smiley demanding the black community hold the White House accountable for its political needs.
Obama’s admonition that black leaders should “stop complaining” and “stop grumbling” at a CBC event in September 2011 was interpreted by some as simply the latest sign of disrespect from a president who took black votes for granted. By October, with polls showing black support dropping to the mid-70s from almost 90 percent, Obama has made campaign stops in predominantly black areas to bolster up a minority vote that he will need for re-election.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement, which has managed to harness disaffected progressive energies in a manner that evokes parallels (in terms of galvanizing national attention if not ideological similarities) to the Tea Party, represents a democratic surge that recalls aspects of insurgency not witnessed since the civil rights movement’s heyday. The reverberations of this movement can be felt in the black community with the burgeoning Occupy the Hood efforts.
Obama’s defenders in the black community, most notably radio personality Tom Joyner, have publicly admonished critics as virtual Uncle Toms and rallied African Americans to vote for Obama out of naked appeals to racial solidarity, a stance which offers little space for even supportive critics. Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry has accused the president’s white liberal critics of unconscious race bias after favorably comparing Obama to former President Bill Clinton and finding that both men’s centrist politics should, except for race, have elicited the same support from white voters. These swirling controversies and debates put to rest the idea that America has become post-racial but they also offer us important lessons about Obama, the civil rights movement, and ongoing struggles for democracy.
The civil rights movement, despite important victories during its classical phase, in fact never ended. From roiling struggles over Affirmative Action in the 1970s, to Jesse Jackson’s historic presidential campaigns in the 1980s, to the Million Man March and anti-police brutality efforts in the 1990s, this struggle continues. Currently, the movement to stop mass incarceration, what law professor Michelle Alexander has referred to as the New Jim Crow, represents on of the most important civil rights issues of the 21st century as does passing the DREAM Act and ensuring a pathway to citizenship for immigrants from around the world. Obama himself cut his teeth in Chicago politics during the remarkable tenure of Harold Washington, the Windy City’s first black mayor.
Narratives of civil rights, just like stories of American democracy, highlight the symbolic and substantive victories that present a straightforward and mostly uplifting trajectory of ascent, evolution, and progress. In many ways history reveals the exact opposite. Every victory during the civil rights era was marked by violent setbacks, most notably the murder of four little girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama less than three weeks after the March On Washington. The black vote in the South remained precarious for years after the passage of voting rights and the nation’s public schools remain, in certain instances, more segregated now than in 1954.
Obama’s election then, remains better judged as a starting point toward further struggles for racial justice and radical democracy rather than the capstone of the civil rights era. For African American and racial minorities the current economic crisis has ushered in a mean season of economic and social misery that Obama’s presence makes all the more ironic. The civil rights movement was also a movement for democracy that coerced, threatened, and inspired elected officials to take risks, commit resources, and pass legislation considered impossible only a short time before. Obama’s willful identification with King during the campaign helped blur lines between elected officials and grassroots insurgency that activists should be reminded of now more than ever. In his capacity as president of the United States Obama serves the role that Kennedy and Johnson did during King’s era, not the reverse. Ultimately, the democratic surges inspired by civil rights transcended celebrated icons and elected presidents by unleashing national political, economic, and institutional transformations that reverberated globally and whose legacies remain embedded in our collective DNA. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama told one audience that, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” These words echoed Ella Baker’s maxim that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” As we assess race and democracy in the age of Obama we would do well to consider the meaning of these words now more than ever.