Dancing at the limits of consciousness: Racial discourse in the Obama Era

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By Stephen Maynard Caliendo, associate professor of political science at North Central College and Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. Both are investigators on The Project on Race in Political Communication.

We all watched Obama dazzle the American public with his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia. People – particularly those of us who champion the causes of social justice – had high hopes for him to bridge the racial divide in our time. But throughout his first year, a familiar pattern emerged. From criticisms about Justice Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” statement to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s claims of racial profiling to Harry Reid’s talk of light-skinned “Negros,” racial controversy persisted. Obama often responded with silence on the substantive issue (and when he did speak out – in the Gates case – he was roundly criticized). Many of us voiced vociferous criticism as we expected Obama to instigate a national dialogue about race.

For folks working in academic settings, we had to move quickly for a number of reasons. First, our students had a lot of questions. Isn’t this what we had been waiting for? The first Black president! Wasn’t this a sign of hope for meaningful racial progress and, in fact, a signal that the progress that has occurred might be more meaningful than we had thought? Weren’t we “post-racial” now, and if so, why did these racial issues continue to surface? And who the hell was Eric Holder calling a coward?! These twenty-somethings looked to us for answers, and we needed to figure out the most responsible way to help them to understand this new racial dynamic that was unfolding.

Second, in our role as analysts and “experts,” we were increasingly called on by media outlets – in the U.S. and worldwide – to help make sense of what the historical election meant, why race still seemed to be such a factor, and why Obama’s first year in office didn’t seem to be going so well. As much as people like to criticize “pundits,” the fact is that we were being asked questions that, given our training and experience, we should be prepared to answer.

Finally, the blogosphere was becoming crowded with disparate voices pertaining to these issues. While we were relatively lonely in the world of academic bloggers who focused on race and politics in 2006, by 2008 and 2009, there were a number of very thoughtful academics who were writing alongside very thoughtful journalists about the complexities of race in American politics. Where was our place in all of this? What should we do?

We put our heads together and came up with a new plan. While we couldn’t confidently solve the substantive problems with which we were confronted, we sought to take advantage of emerging technologies and trends in ways that would be exciting and enticing but that would not jeopardize the fundamental mission of the Race Project, which is to “contribute to the state of knowledge in the field of political communication and share that information with the mass public in an accessible way.” Of course, we are used to the first half of the mission as scholars who participate in the discovery of knowledge. It is the second portion that continually poses challenges because the target continues to move. How do we share the information? In what formats? What does “accessible” mean?

We recognized (and continue to recognize) that America desperately needs to have a “new” conversation about race. A recent poll indicates that 40% of White Americans believe Blacks have achieved racial equality (only 11% of Blacks say so). Almost 80% of Whites but only a minority of Blacks say they believe Blacks have equal access to jobs in the communities they live in.

Half of White Americans say that racism in America is rare or extremely rare. Only 12% of Blacks believe the same. With such racial disparities in America’s outlook about race, it is clear we have much to talk about, which is why we started our blog, This Week in Race, in 2006.  At that time, we recognized that there was something wrong with the conversations about race we observed taking place in the public sphere – they are too few, too reactionary and too simplistic.

A perusal of the comments for mainstream newspaper stories or YouTube videos that relate to race demonstrates that the relative anonymity of the Web allows for some of the most vitriolic expression of racial animosity that one can imagine in the 21st century. Some of that reflects real, deep-seated resentments, and some of it exacerbates legitimate concerns, but very little of it is productive. We knew that we had to do it differently – even if nobody read it.

We felt a responsibility to weigh in with our perspectives, not because those perspectives are privileged, but because they were different than much of what was out there. We wanted to create new space, and we realized that doing so would mean that we had to focus on both substance and form.

The evolution of this part of our work mirrors that of most businesses and not-for-profits: we had a website right away (a year after the Project began in 2001), we struggled to make the content useful and relevant for a number of years (updating with commentary on election contests, our research, etc.), we started a blog (and then added a guest blog a few years later), we got a Facebook group in 2007, a Twitter feed in 2008, and shifted our Facebook content from a group to a Page in the summer of 2009.

But that doesn’t tell the entire story. What we have sought to create, without stepping on the toes of our colleagues who also do this well, is a space for meaningful discourse. The context is crucial – when we began, the realistic expectation of having a president of color was quite remote. Now, it is a reality. If our research is to be meaningful, it has to be relevant within shifting contexts; yet because we are social scientists, we also seek to understand human behavior in ways that can be applied more broadly. Herein resides the ultimate struggle for the “wired” scholar.

Moving forward with a sophisticated conversation about race in the U.S. is predicated on giving up the idea that leading such a conversation is the principal responsibility of America’s first Black President. It is unfair to expect President Obama to be America’s porter-in-chief, carrying the weight of the nation’s racial baggage. It is simply not his role. Further, leading a national dialogue about race would be disastrous for both Obama and the country, from the standpoint of both politics and race.

The sharp ideological and political party distinctions magnified in Obama’s first year dooms any such national dialogue, especially if Obama is the one leading it. We must always remind ourselves that while Obama dwarfed John McCain in electoral votes, he defeated him by only seven percentage points in the popular vote. And, of course, most Whites voted for McCain. In an ideologically divisive environment such as defines the U.S. today, any attempt for Obama to call for and lead a national conversation about race will be discounted and sullied by the same kind of toxic partisan and ideological divisiveness that characterizes our nation’s persistent racial problems.

Friday, March 12 at the Transforming Race Conference from 2:30  -  3:45 p.m.

Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College.  He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Purdue University and focuses his research in the areas of political communication and political psychology. His book Teachers Matter (Praeger 2000) examines the effects of political socialization on attitudes toward American political institutions. Caliendo’s research has been presented at major conferences and published in The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics and The Journal of Research and Science Teaching.  He has authored or co-authored numerous entries in specialized encyclopedias such as Polling in America, The Encyclopedia of Human Rights, and The Encyclopedia of Political Communication.  He is a regular analyst for international, national, state and local media outlets.

Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. He has provided expert commentary on a wide range of racial issues for state, national and international media such as CNN, the New York Times, NPR, Associated Press, Reuters TV, O Globo (Brazil), Le Monde (France), CTV (Canada) and many others. Professor McIlwain worked a short stint in politics as Press Secretary for Ed Crocker’s 1996 campaign against former Congressman J.C. Watts, as communications director for Laura Boyd, a former state legislator running for governor against incumbent Frank Keating, and as communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

One Response to Dancing at the limits of consciousness: Racial discourse in the Obama Era

  1. “Moving forward with a sophisticated conversation about race in the U.S. is predicated on giving up the idea that leading such a conversation is the principal responsibility of America’s first Black President. It is unfair to expect President Obama to be America’s porter-in-chief, carrying the weight of the nation’s racial baggage”

    I agree with that statement..it’s not Obama’s duty but it does rest on the president our leader to set the stage for a national dialogue like this to take place. How else could it take place? what in Academia? Give me a break how long has racism existed in America? We still till this day in this post racial facade of a country don’t have a unified definition of the term in academia. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination, what?I get confused by the language. Obama is the first “black” president in the history of AMERICA!Is it identity politics or party politics we’re discussing when we try to justify Obama’s timid approach to dealing with race? Obama confuses me. Given the history of America and its blatant humiliation of an entire race of people, Obama visibleness is not enough. It doesn’t move me it doesn’t motivate me it doesn’t do anything! When you poor and black the face of your president doesn’t mean a thing. you’re still subject to racism whether it be institutionalized, socialized or the police shooting you in broad daylight. For some of us, we need more from this guy.

    February 18, 2010 at 11:48 pm

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