Will Obama's Presidency Change Perceptions Among Blacks?

In the latest installment of the series, What Now?, which explores the impact of the nation's first-elected black president, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry, Spelman College professor William Jelani Cobb and Columbia University Law Professor and Patricia Williams discuss how Barack Obama empowers African-American communities.

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KORVA COLEMAN, host:

I'm Korva Coleman, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. If you think cooking a Thanksgiving meal for your hungry family is stressful, well, you'll want to listen in on our conversation with Chef Daniel Young.

But first, many African-Americans have expressed deep pride over the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Many felt they would never see a black president in their lifetimes.

But his victory also prompted new questions about Obama's position. Is he a role model to emulate, or does he have specific responsibilities to the black community? African-Americans are disproportionately represented in many areas of concern - poverty, prison, the number of black Americans living with AIDS or HIV or in poor schools. But is it the new president's personal responsibility to fix this? Or does the responsibility lie more personally with black America?

To help us answer those questions, we turn to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry, who is here in the studio, Professor William Jelani Cobb, who writes and teaches history at Spelman College and contributes to the Root.com - he is in Atlanta - and Professor Patricia Williams, who writes and teaches law at Columbia University, and she's in New York. Welcome all three of you to the program.

Mr. WILLIAM RASPBERRY (Retired Urban Affairs Columnist, Washington Post): Thank you.

Dr. JELANI COBB (Department of History, Spelman College): Thank you.

Professor PATRICIA WILLIAMS (School of Law, Columbia University): Thank you very much.

COLEMAN: William Raspberry, you recently wrote an opinion piece in which you critiqued something you call the civil rights agreement's model. What did you mean by that?

Mr. RASPBERRY: What I meant was simply this. We learned during the Civil Rights Movement that one of the really effective approaches to solving the problems we then focused on was to present the grievance, create a little dramatic tension so the grievance could be heard - heat it up a little bit, and then America, we thought, would respond.

And we were right. It got us Voting Rights Act. It got us access to places of public accommodation. It did, you know, lots of very important things that we used to call civil rights. While it was extremely effective then, it has limited utility, that same approach, for the problems that now I feel we must focus on that seem to be our biggest concerns.

There are some things that simply cannot be had as a result of demanding them, no matter how righteous the demand. And I've suggested that the election of Barack Obama may mark a shift in the way we approach problems with the civil rights paradigm to a different way of thinking about them.

COLEMAN: Professor Cobb, what is your view on moving past a civil rights grievance model?

Dr. COBB: I don't think that we can say that we are simply looking at grievances. These issues are complex. Part of this is an issue and has been issue of what we do as a community. But the thing that concerns me a little bit is the belief that the election of Barack Obama will be a magic bullet for the other portion of it, which is the responsibility of the broader society and the government.

I'll just say very quickly, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president with a disability. We know he had polio - was stricken with at age 39. He was confined to a wheel chair. Yet, 45 years after the death of what was arguably the greatest president in the 20th century and a president who served heroically despite a disability, 45 years later, we still had to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act to defend the rights of people with disabilities.

And so, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not in and of itself end discrimination against disabled people. Barack Obama's election won't automatically end discrimination against people of color.

COLEMAN: Professor Patricia Williams, the idea that it's time for the African-American community to have more personal responsibility has been one that's discussed for years and frequently presented by conservatives, but also by individuals such as Bill Cosby. President-elect Obama has discussed it. What is your view?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, the Civil Rights Movement always involved a degree of personal responsibility. It was a theological movement. It was a personal movement. It was a civic commitment.

But I really have some objection to calling the Civil Rights Movement - first of all, using the past tense. What we used to call Civil Rights Movement is what I think I heard Mr. Raspberry say. But I'm very concerned about it being collapsed into a quote "grievance paradigm" because I'm a lawyer. The Civil Rights Movement was about rights. It was about legal rights. It was about court cases. It was about political causes. It was about claims. It was about lawsuits. It was about a form of pressure that was civic. It wasn't personal.

And I do hear frequently the word grievance used as though it only means whining or complaining. And I think that it has a gravitas that is rooted in law, in our civic participation, in our constitutional covenant, and it's central to how we continue to address questions of school quality, integration, poverty.

So I don't disagree that part of, you know, citizenship is personal responsibility, but I disagree with somebody like Bill Cosby, who thinks that this was framed at any rate as something which is only a problem with the black community.

COLEMAN: Let me get Mr. Raspberry in here. Would you care to respond to this?

Mr. RASPBERRY: We've always had internal and external barriers to our progress. The Civil Rights Movement focused on the external because they were of overwhelming importance then. The major problems today, I think, tend to be more internal than external. There's still both, but the more productive focus now, it seems to me, is on the internal.

There are some things, as I say, that you cannot achieve by demand. And I don't care whether you call it grievance or not. Grievance is a perfectly good word. For instance, it didn't matter what black folks did. If they could not live in a place because of their skin, if they could not enjoy a place of public accommodation or the ballot because of their skin, their virtue, in other regards, didn't matter.

Those barriers are essentially removed, at least in legal terms, and their power is substantially reduced. These are the power of deciding to do what we need to do. I mean, one of the really exciting things about Obama to me is that "The Audacity of Hope" is, for me, quite real. When I looked at a number - so many of our young people especially who really doubt that they are able to succeed in America, and many of them have given up trying, that, to me, is just fatal.

COLEMAN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More. I'm speaking with Professor William Jelani Cobb, William Raspberry, and Professor Patricia Williams about the goals of the Civil Rights Movement under an Obama administration.

Professor Williams, I'd like to jump on something that Mr. Raspberry has just discussed. And that has to do with the civic virtue and the innate civic feeling of black Americans who may have been personally very responsible. But, as you pointed out previously, there were legal issues here at hand - voting, housing, education. Do you see this as an either-or proposition?

Prof. WILLIAMS: It seems to me that the significance of the Obama presidency is that this is a public discussion, that this was about civic coming together. People came together, of all colors came together and monitored these elections. People came together and engaged in phone banks in a way that was trans-racial, in a way we have never seen before, in my understanding.

And that activity, I think, is what's a significant outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement - the historical Civil Rights Movement of the '50s, '60s and '70s, in its best sense. And so, I guess I'm concerned about our framing this as though the Obama presidency means the end of the Civil Rights Movement or that we have somehow grown passed it.

I actually see this as a reemergence of the very best sense of what happened in the '60s and '70s, when people really came together and traveled interstate to make certain things happen, both the passage of laws, the election of officials, and the bringing of lawsuits.

COLEMAN: Professor Cobb, what is your view?

Dr. COBB: One of the things that highlights that this is not an either-or is simply this. Last year, there were 30,000 EEOC complaints on the basis of race - racial discrimination. These are people who are employed.

If we look at black lawyers, black doctors, black engineers, black professors, these are people who are working hard and doing so-called the right things. They still wind up financially and economically grouped at the bottom of those tiers for their professional classes, meaning they make less than their white counterparts.

This is not an either-or kind of conversation. Barack Obama represents a great move forward. We all agree on that. But I think there's a particular kind of jeopardy that we're in if we take it to be something more than it is.

Last point, Barack Obama's upbringing was highly atypical. He was raised by a white family in Hawaii, which happens to be the only state where people of color are the numerical majority. What he really represents in some ways is the triumph of a class over his class status in terms of moving up in scale because, certainly, his racial experience - and this is not to get into the foolishness about whether he's black or not - but I'm saying his racial experience was highly atypical for what African-Americans would expect in this country. And, so I don't think that we can use that without taking those factors into account.

COLEMAN: I'd like to go back to William Raspberry. Do you see it as an either-or proposition?

Mr. RASPBERRY: I had tried to say earlier, nothing is an either-or proposition. That's the fundamental thing about understanding any complicated issue in America - in the world. It's never pure. I have not had all that I perhaps should have come to me during my life. But, I've had a good life and career.

My concerns are not my priority in this discussion. I'm thinking about millions of young people who have virtually no prospect of any kind of a life. There are people in that group that I'm talking about who simply don't have a belief that they can succeed in this America. And, if you don't have the belief that you can succeed and don't believe that education really matters very much to whether you succeed or don't succeed, you wind up feeding the statistic that we all complain about, including the statistics of incarceration.

And it seems to me that there is more than a right involved here. What is involved is an awakening of a generation of people to take advantage of rights that people bled and died for and have been at least in legal terms delivered, and yet, there are some people, and we all know them, who, for all that has come to them, those rights might just as well not have been delivered. They are languishing.

COLEMAN: How should we do this then? How should we then live?

Mr. RASPBERRY: Well, we all do what we can do. I'm spending my time in retirement, for instance, teaching parents of preschool children in my hometown what they can do - with some help - to get their children ready for learning and for life. These parents love their children, want them to do well, but haven't learned how.

COLEMAN: Professor Cobb, this is something that Mr. Raspberry has been working on. It sounds as if we we're trying to have a conversation about post civil rights, but it seems to me that there is no way to break these two apart. There is a level of personal responsibility, but there's also some level in which we have the ability to require that the government provide Americans with equal opportunity and equal benefit.

Dr. COBB: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, I commend Mr. Raspberry for that work. I will say this. What facilities are available in the schools those children are going to? And that is the other side of the question. Part of it is us maximizing the resources that we have available. The other side of it is what resources are actually available to us. The thing it does...

Mr. RASPBERRY: Professor Cobb, you're dead right on that. But let's be clear. Equalizing expenditures on a per-people basis, however desirable, and we're right to demand it. It's justice. But it doesn't produce a solution to the problems that inner-city kids are facing now. I have argued...

Dr. COBB: (Unintelligible) Let me say this very quickly. White mediocrity has been allowed to succeed in this country since the outset. You can talk about Andrew Jackson and the whole purpose of creating this so-called yeomen democracy, which meant that you did not have to be exceptional to be at the top of the society. We can look at the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and see that to be still the case.

Now, the fundamental reality is that disparity in resources produces a disparity in outcomes. A disparity in motivation produces a disparity in outcomes. There are some people on the left who can say, yes, you have to be motivated, and you also have to have access to resources.

But it seems to me the people on the other side simply say, you only have to be motivated, and it doesn't translate as if you can say, if you give one person a room with a school with 10 computers and another person a school with one computer that works some of the time, and then you're surprised to see who does better on the SAT.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Professor...

COLEMAN: Yes, Professor Williams.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I was going to say that - I mean, I - well, I applaud again, of course, what Mr. Raspberry is doing. But, again, my concern is the way in which you structure that as something apart from the civil rights model. The most important cases in constitutional law of the last century have been black parents begging, clawing, and just trying to sue their way into good schools.

And I think that it is a little naive to say that this is not a matter of resources. The statistics very, very much show the degree to which resources do predict outcomes in terms of achievement. And so to simply say that the students have to believe in education...

COLEMAN: Well...

Prof. WILLIAMS: When that belief is not rationally related to educational opportunities. You know, it's a kind of chicken and egg problem. I also wonder why you separate what you're doing from other efforts which are clearly political not just personal. I mean, it sounds like what you're doing, Mr. Raspberry, is very similar to what Head Start does. Head Start has been proved to be a very successful intervention.

But it is a political gesture that you're engaged in. It's a civic gesture. You're seeking funding. I don't understand why there's any objection to understanding that as part of what government can do - what private entities can do. It's part of a general effort.

COLEMAN: OK. Well, let's find out from him, professor. Let's find out.

Mr. RASPBERRY: What I have recognized late in life perhaps is that the resources by themselves simply don't deliver what we need. There's something that has to be done on the front end because most of what fails to happen and needs to happen must happen at home.

It seems fair to me to say that what parents do matters enormously in how effective the schools will be, and without something that we do at home, at church, in our communities. Without really re-intensifying that, we're going to continue down the road of demanding more and more resources with fewer and fewer positive results, that seems to me.

COLEMAN: William Raspberry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the Washington Post. He joined me here in our studio. Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University. She joined us from Columbia. And William Jelani Cobb is a writer and an associate professor of history at Spelman College, as well as a contributor to theroot.com. He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thank you all for speaking with me today.

Dr. COBB: Thank you.

Mr. RASPBERRY: Thank you.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

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