Thursday, November 6, 2008

Black Studies, Obama, and Transitions

So here we go.

Our candidate wins and begins contemplating his next moves, figuring out what the programs and agendas will look like under his administration. We'll try to make similar moves by figuring out what our planning and programming will look like under an Obama presidency.

We're in one of those moments again where I'm wishing more black studies programs had blogs. As mentioned before, the creation of an interrelated group of African American or black studies blogs would possibly constitute an important system for sharing and producing knowledge.

In the meantime, we'll keep moving forward and building our local networks. We'll do more and more reading and observing and try to absorb some of what we're witnessing. But we'll also want to take steps to produce our own knowledge on what, for instance, the rise of Obama might mean for us.

In his article "Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls" for the NYTimes, Adam Nagourney opens by noting that "Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive."

Obama's victory is worth celebrating, no doubt, but I'm hesitant about the claim that "the last racial barrier in American politics" has been swept away. In fact, in their article about the Obama team's campaign strategy, Nagourney, Jim Rutengerg, and Jeff Zeleny quoted top aides for Obama who noted how they tried to distance Obama from some aspects of being black.

For example, the writers quote Cornell Belcher, a pollster who worked for Obama as saying, "It would be difficult for an African-American to be elected president in this country. However, it is not difficult for an extraordinary individual who happens to be African-American to be elected president."

At another point David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, is quoted as saying, "the biggest race problem we had to start was not with the white voters, but with African-American voters" who seemed to hold "a deep sense of skepticism that this might happen."

Apparently, figuring out how to position Obama in relation to black people and culture was a serious challenge for his strategists. It was a challenge occasionally lost in some of the unqualified celebrations of Obama as simply a black president who swept away "the last racial barrier in American politics."

We have much to learn by considering how Obama's team sought to frame (and un-frame) him in relation to African Americans. How, I wonder, will black studies programs need to re-position themselves in order to progress? What's lost and gained by presenting people as figures who "happen to be African American"?

We'll continue raising questions and addressing these kinds of issues. We'll keep observing and thinking about the implications as Obama transitions into office and black studies programs consider repositioning themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Deuce,
So glad you're blogging and I'm sad I didn't know about this until today. I've been having an interesting dialogue with your "brother" on this one. I've been fighting the desire to have a singular "black response" to the significance of this election and role Black Americans want Barack Obama to play, but I think there is tendency to demand a "black response" on most things. It seems both Blacks and Whites have a love-hate relationship with Black folks being defined as a homogenous group. I think Barack Obama's role as a figurehead is obvious, but beyond that I have a feeling that most of us will find his election and presidency to be anticlimactic as it relates to specific issues in the Black community once he actually begins the work of leading this country. By the way, your "brother" insists on refraining from identifying Obama as Black, choosing to use the term African American instead. I know this is deliberate and I'm just curious if you or anybody else has thoughts on this. Not that we can ever understand the identity of anyone beyond ourselves...