Panel addresses the primacy of race in American politics

Paige Bailey

The Race and Politics panel on Oct. 22 was a reminder that despite the election of President Obama, the country has much to do in terms of racial acceptance. The Race and Politics discussion was the last in a series of conversations to help the campus community hone in on key themes in the context of a momentous election. Each participant highlighted key ways that the race has manifested itself in the political arena in both invidious and consistent ways dating back to the nation’s founding.

Associate Professor of History Leslie Patrick outlined a historical account of the politics of race. He said that while the nation deliberately worked to exclude African Americans from politics at its founding, there is “ample evidence that the past is still with us.”

Patrick said there is a key break with the past in terms of the language that is used in politics to discuss race. She argued that in fact, the 20th century is distinct because race is not directly referenced. Instead there is a “new code” that attempts to mask blatant racism with language of “law and order” and “states’ rights.” All four panelists agreed on this point. Specifically, Associate Professor of Economics Nina Banks defined this situation as “racism without specific terms.” This color-blind racism is now the “dominant paradigm” in America.

Professor of Sociology Linden Lewis also discussed the paradox between the primacy of race and the lack of an explicit discourse on race. For example, Lewis said that the continuing question of Obama’s nationality deems him as “other” in a fundamental way. However, questioning African American citizenship is not a new feature in American politics.

“We are witnessing … the sharpening of the discourse of race … racially coded language and terms in the political debate,” Lewis said. “[For the first time there is] someone in the White House whose citizenship and patriotism can be brought into question by racist members of society,” Lewis said.

Professor of Political Science Atiya Stokes-Brown highlighted how the increased diversity of the American population brings important questions for the Republican Party in particular.

“There is reason to suggest that despite the Latino vote being up for grabs that they in fact primarily vote for the Democratic Party,” Stokes-Brown said.

She said that the important role demography plays in elections “guarantees race’s role” in the political sphere in the future.

In the context of an election, the audience was able to engage in how racism still pervades American politics.

“ … Despite having an African American president, we do not live in a post-racial society. The issue of racism is now below the surface, rarely discussed, as we see in the current presidential election,” Paige Cobbs ’13 said.

The “Great Recession” our country is currently in has magnified the preexisting wealth gap between black and white Americans. The unemployment rate of African American men is double that of their white counterparts. Because of the failure to address racism, Banks said it is unsurprising that the recession was “particularly catastrophic to the African American community.”


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