Analyzing American Democracy In the Age of Obama

Michael Eric Dyson keynotes a Tufts University conference dedicated to evaluating the successes and challenges of the Obama administration.

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President Barack Obama speaks at an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House April 14, 2014.

YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

The fifth annual Barack Obama and American Democracy conference will convene at Tufts University this week. Sponsored by the university’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the conference draws a community of scholars, activists and policy experts to debate, analyze and discuss the Obama administration’s impact at the local, national and global level.  

As a research center, the CSRD has been active in highlighting the way in which issues of race, civil rights and democracy converge at the local and national level. Through a series of research projects focused on civil rights, health care disparities, criminal-justice reform and race relations, the center serves as an intellectual hub and resource headquarters for students, activists and scholars interested in the ways race and democracy form the crucial nexus that shapes institutions and politics in American society and beyond.

The Obama presidency, for many black Americans, is arguably the most significant historical occurrence of their lifetimes. But too often the heavy symbolism of President Obama’s biography has overshadowed the substance of his political ideas. In a very real sense the figurative weight of Obama’s iconography has burdened both the man and the country at the expense of a critically engaged analysis of his ideas, leadership, and impact on African Americans.

For the black community, this analysis is not only vitally important but long overdue. A candid, research-driven discussion measuring tangible areas of progress and possibilities—as well as the setbacks and shortcomings—of not simply Obama the man but the entire breadth of his administration makes this gathering more than a simple academic exercise.

In bringing together a diverse group of participants, such as Boston NAACP President Michael Curry, Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Diane McWhorter and Boston University Professor Ruha Benjamin, the conference seeks to extend the breadth and depth of public and intellectual discourse about the meaning of the current president and his administration.

This year’s conference asks: How far has America come in the 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act? It’s a broad question that a close examination of the Obama administration’s domestic and foreign policy agendas helps to answer.

And the answer to that question too often depends on where one is positioned on the ideological spectrum. But at this conference, Obama supporters, critics and those who find themselves straddling both camps will find a robust venue for debate, discussion and disagreement. 

Indeed, a lack of consensus is what makes this conference refreshing and provocative.

Obama’s presence in the White House speaks to the possibilities of democratic progress in America. First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha represent a kind of aspirational vision that has guided the black community since antebellum slavery. Obama’s substantive accomplishments—passing the Affordable Care Act, the 2009 economic stimulus and rescuing an economy from the brink of collapse—have often been overshadowed by the challenges of being America’s first black president. But make no mistake, history will judge the Obama administration as unleashing the most progressive domestic legislative agenda since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society launched almost 50 years ago.

Yet Obama’s enormous political achievements came during the first two years of what is now a two-term presidency. Since then he’s been assaulted, and seemed at times overwhelmed, by democracy’s jagged edges. The setbacks and shortcomings of the age of Obama are broad and comprehensive: a black unemployment rate that is nearly double that of whites; a racial wealth gap that has increased during his presidency; and a criminal justice system that targets African Americans as young as elementary school age for punishment and a future behind bars.

African Americans remain, when measured by virtually every important socioeconomic indicator of success and opportunity, residents of another, less hopeful country.

The conference will try to make sense of this paradox in the age of Obama by evaluating the promise and possibilities that resulted from the historic election and reelection of President Obama and the very real limits, mistakes and missed opportunities that have marked his presidency. In so doing, the goal is to emerge, not only with a fresh sense of purpose to tackle long-standing challenges of poverty, mass incarceration and institutional racism, but also with the formation of new and innovative networks, creative ideas and solutions that can positively impact the lives of Americans and the political life of American democracy.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton Fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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