Talking Points: Glenn Loury on the Obama Win
Something we never imagined happened, and now the system is open and malleable. Reform now seems possible….[But] One in seven adult black men are in prison, and that didn’t vanish last night. The ghettoes in Chicago and Detroit did not disappear last night. The fact that African-Americans are underrepresented in elite universities, law schools and scientific institutions didn’t change last night.
–Glenn Loury, quoted in the Brown Daily Herald
Glenn Loury is Professor of Economic and Public Policy at Brown University. He is also the Merton P. Stultz Professor of the Social Sciences at Brown’s Alfred A. Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.
While all of Dr. Loury’s statistics are correct, I disagree with the subtext of his statement. Loury seems to suggest that our enthusiasm and exhiliration at the election of an African American president should be tempered by the reality that many African Americans are still living very much at the margins of society. If anything, the fact that disproportionate numbers of Black people a struggle under poverty, within the criminal justice system, and within/or against the social services establishment should give us all the more reason to celebrate Obama’s victory.
You see, Obama won because he entered the presidential race as a candidate whose Blackness coexists with and informs his political vision, but does not define or limit his political agenda, his goals, or his rhetoric. This poses an interesting model for how we as a Black community might in the future approach issues like incarceration, drug dealing and addiction, poverty, and academic underperformance.
These isssues and challenges can impact all types of communities, regardless of ethnicity. This is not to say that the social ills that plague a given neighborhood or region cannot take on a racial or ethnic dimension (when a family member who is addicted to heroin, for example, his or herher participation in certain racially- or culturally-specific activities or roles will be compromised). Still, though, there is nothing specifically “Black” about poverty, drug abuse, incarceration, etc. Thus, the lesson of the Obama campaign may well be that race-specific approaches to cross-racially occurring issues like incarceration, poverty, and illegal drug use and sales have exhausted their usefulness. The lesson of Obama’s successful campaign might be, in other words, that when there is a common and pan-racial interest in addressing, say, the problem that confront convicted felons who attempting to re-enter soceity, the most fruitful approach could well be the one that is rooted in the common threads that link all ethnic and racial communities that are impacted by the inability of newly released convicts to find work and housing.
I would be very interested to see what would happen if the Obama campaign catch phrase, “Yes We Can,” became the ethos that informed the new administration’s efforts to address those issues that disproportionately impact communities at the economic margins. Just as in Obama’s political campaign, the we in “Yes We Can” could become an expression by the new president’s supporters of their willingness to privilege their common belief in their candidate’s ability to lead over any other identity category (including race, gender, class, faith, or region), at least in terms of their political interests. Thus, the identity category Obama supporter comes to trump all other identity categories as that special interest group that defines their political goals and desires. As such, the needs of one sub-group among Obama supporters (Black people, for example, or Latinos or women or gays) would become the need and interest of all members of that group.
Posted by Ajuan Mance