Mark Sawyer On Implications Of Obama's Election
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Mark Sawyer, describes Barack Obama's election as a gravity-defying moment where everything that we thought about race and politics has changed. Sawyer directs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA, where he's also an associate professor of African-American studies and political science. We spoke with him in August on the day that Obama accepted the Democratic nomination. We asked him today for an example of how Obama's election has changed what we thought about race and politics.
Dr. MARK SAWYER (Associate Professor, African American Studies and Political Science, UCLA; Director, Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.): The southern tragedy has been defeated. One can no longer use race and in particular sort of trying to organize the white, working-class in the solid South to win presidential elections in the way that one did in the past. And perhaps, the black politics have been changed permanently.
GROSS: How so?
Dr. SAWYER: Well, black politics has particularly operated in the context of having a racial spokesperson, the idea of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even the Reverend Martin Luther King. Now, we have Barack Obama, who's going to be the first African-American president, who doesn't hold himself out to be a racial spokesperson. This means that local communities, local black communities who've also been mobilized by this election, will not look to some sort of national leader, black leader per se, but will be probably articulating their own issues as they see them.
GROSS: It was interesting to hear way race was and wasn't addressed during the campaign. And I think one of the quotes that has been spread around a lot on the Internet and other publications was by Richard Trumka, who is the former president of the United Mine Workers and now secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. And he was trying to convince white working-class people to vote for Obama. And one of the things he said was, he's a black man. Obama is a black man who's going to fight for people like us. And you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?
What are some of the things that stand out in your mind as memorable moments that signify how race became or didn't become an issue in the campaign?
Dr. SAWYER: Well, that was one of the - Trumka's sort of stump speech, so to speak, was one of the most positive moments in which - it was one of those moments, in particular with the decline in the economy, this sort of contrast between the economic interest of the white working-class and what they might perceive as their racial interest were put in stark contrast to one another. And Trumka laid that out and opened up a dialogue amongst white working-class people about what are your real interests and how do we think about them, and let's talk about our prejudices.
The other issues were - in some ways, the lack of some racial issues. The McCain campaign tried to use the issue of patriotism as kind of a code for race, the question of Bill Ayers and sort of terrorism. But usually, Republicans have been successful in terms of tying African-Americans to race or tying the Democratic Party to race. These are the issues like crime, welfare, affirmative action. And in particular, John McCain's pro-immigration stance or pro-human rights for immigrants stance handicapped him, in that immigration is the race issue of our day, and he was unable to pin Obama down in an unpopular stance because previously, his stance had been quite similar to Obama's.
GROSS: So, are you saying that you think Bill Ayers became like the Willy Horton of this campaign?
Dr. SAWYER: It was an attempt to, but it was too personal. It doesn't - Bill Ayers doesn't connect to a real issue. There is no real issue of domestic terrorism out there that is a central issue in the way that crime was a real worry for white voters or affirmative action was or welfare was an important symbolic issue. Bill Ayers became a kind of personal attack or slander. That didn't work very well for McCain.
GROSS: When we spoke on the day of Barack Obama's acceptance speech, accepting the nomination of his party, you said that you thought that Obama had to really be cautious and play quite a balancing act because, on the one hand, he had to be able to fight back against his opponent. But at the same time, he couldn't afford to be perceived as being angry because white Americans might be fearful of the, quote, "angry black man." So, having watched his campaign now, his successful campaign, how do you think he played that?
Dr. SAWYER: Masterfully. If you watched the debates, they were all relatively boring, and that's because I would describe Obama's debate style as a kind of a debate Aikido. He turns the attack or the violence of the other opponent against his opponent by sort of not necessarily responding, but by sort of deflecting the energy. So the moments when McCain were - was most aggressive in attack was when he looked the worst.
And Obama did that by sort of using a kind of cool, a kind of unflappable way, but a kind of statement of a more positive message. And I think he mastered the way of making himself look good. People said that that's - that he kind of lacks a knockout punch in debates, and I think that's probably true. But he has a very effective debate strategy that always makes his opponent look pretty bad, particularly when they're trying to knock him off his game. TEXT: GROSS: As you pointed out, Obama didn't run as like a spokesperson for African-Americans. He really tried to keep race pretty much out of the election. Do you think that there will be pressure on him now from African-American activist groups to make race a part of the presidency? Not necessarily his racial identity, but racial issues, issues of racial equality and issues of special importance for African-Americans including...
Dr. SAWYER: Yeah, I think…
GROSS: Poverty, incarceration levels, education.
Dr. SAWYER: Yeah, I think those issues are going to be pushed by groups. But the African-American electorate showed an extraordinary amount of sophistication that bedeviled even some African-American groups in terms of leaders like Jesse Jackson. They showed a way of expressing and thinking about racial issues, but also thinking about them in their universalist questions.
So the question of incarceration, it affects everyone. We spend a huge amount to incarcerate large numbers of people. It affects all parts of society. The California budget is going over a cliff because of what we spend on incarceration. Education, if we fail to educate immigrants, minorities, African-Americans, we're going to fall behind the rest of the world.
So those issues are ones that tap in to concerns of the African-American community, but there's an interdependent frame. And that is what Barack Obama has been the master of, is demonstrating the interdependence between communities in America, rather than African-Americans have to triumph over some other group or whites in particular.
GROSS: Mark Sawyer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. SAWYER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Mark Sawyer directs the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA. You can download podcast of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.