While the election of the country’s first black president has been greeted by many as a step forward for race relations, political science professors Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago and Adolph Reed of the University of Pennsylvania raised complex questions and potential problems related to by President Obama’s race in a discussion Friday at the Franke Institute for the Humanities. The professors pointed out Obama’s privileged background and mentioned the minority marginalization that might arise from Obama’s criticism of poor blacks.
Though the professors acknowledged that they have been skeptical of Obama—in a May 2008 article in The Progressive, Reed referred to Obama as “a vacuous opportunist”—Cohen called the discussion an opportunity for “a moment of critical reflection” on the significance of his election.
While emphasizing that she did not want to discount Obama’s symbolic importance for many Americans, Cohen said she also sees several dangers in the frenzy the new president has generated. She cited the sense of history and celebrity surrounding Obama as an obstruction to democratic discourse and expressed concern that having a black president gives institutions legitimate cover to continue divisive policies.
Recalling the president’s comments in November suggesting that young blacks should not wear sagging pants, Cohen said she feared that what she described as Obama’s attacks on poor blacks would serve to further demobilize minority communities. She argued that if he is going to make such comments, Obama should first acknowledge that he is doing so from a privileged position. Such remarks, Cohen said, serve to consolidate the black upper class’s place in politics and only further the marginalization of poor blacks.
Reed echoed these sentiments, and argued that Obama’s election represents the fulfillment of one particular notion of what constitutes racial equality, but in no way indicates a total end to injustice.
“There are ways in which it isn’t the fulfillment of much,” Reed said.
When one audience member suggested that, race aside, Obama possesses a refreshing integrity, Reed responded that it is the nature of American politics for character to become irrelevant. Politicians, he said, are “like holograms created by the forces they think they have to respond to,” pointing out Obama’s carefully crafted personal story.
Both Reed and Cohen worried that Obama’s election will only further the lack of independent opposition in American politics, as it will consolidate black elites’ power to set the agenda for the rest of the black community. Reed noted that these groups may be too inclined to keep political peace instead of lobbying for more radical change, citing a similar phenomenon in the labor and environmental movements. Cohen argued that it is the elites, like Obama, who define their various groups’ interests, while minorities’ concerns often go unheard.