Scholars examine ‘race talk’ in age of Obama

Published: February 20th, 2012

Category: Events, News

Race Talk in the Age of Obama

From left: UF Law Professor Kenneth Nunn; Jackson State University Political Science Professor Michelle D. Deardorff; Mississippi School of Law Professor Angela M. Kupenda; UF Law Irving Cypen Professor of Law Sharon Rush; and UF Law Professor Jonathan R. Cohen. (Photo by Marcela Suter)

When Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States in 2008, the question of whether America had finally moved into a post-racial society became a widely discussed topic. While the answer to the question is still being debated, it is clear that there are many valid questions about how to approach and discuss issues of race in the modern world.

Scholars at “Race Talk in the Age of Obama,” addressed some of these questions by participating in a panel discussion based on the December 2011 issue of the University of Florida Journal of Law and Public Policy to which each of the five panelists contributed an article. The event, which was held Feb. 8 at UF Law, was co-sponsored by the JLPP and the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations.

The panel was comprised of UF Law Professor Jonathan R. Cohen; Jackson State University Political Science Professor Michelle D. Deardorff; Mississippi School of Law Professor Angela M. Kupenda; UF Law Professor Kenneth Nunn and UF Law Professor Sharon Rush, the Irving Cypen Professor of Law.

Each participant brought a unique academic perspective to the discussion, which was facilitated by brief summaries of each panelists’ article and questions from members of the JLPP.

A recurring theme of the discussion was that race should be looked at as a structural institution rather than viewed in terms of personal relationships — an idea initially put forth by Deardorff in summarizing her article co-authored with Kupenda titled “Negotiating Social Mobility and Critical Citizenship.”

“We had 300 years of racialized, legalized, maintained oppression,” Deardorff said, “and then we removed the legalized part of it and said it was done.”

Yet, all the other structures still remain, she said.

The panel also examined how to address issues of race in educational institutions — and looked at examples of it being ignored and other situations where it is being addressed.

“Talking about race is difficult and it is challenging,” Nunn said. “It takes courage, perseverance, leadership and a thick skin.”

Cohen said in terms of exchanging ideas in the classroom, you can’t guarantee that people will fully understand you, but it shouldn’t prevent you from expressing your perspective. And he pointed out that the part of the conversation that is in your control is the act of trying to understand what other people in the conversation are saying.

Rush’s article, “Talking About Race and Equality,” which posits the idea that many people fall into two categories when it comes to talking about race — those who let blindness to racial inequality lead to the avoidance of talking about race, and those who see racial inequality everywhere and want to talk about it all the time. She suggests there is a middle ground people can find where they can comfortably address topics of race and inequality.

This led to the questions of whether Obama’s “approach concedes too much by ignoring the discriminatory intent that some people have that undermines (his good intentions).” Rush said she believes Obama understands that many equality-minded people don’t think about, or understand structural racism and that he is “managing the color line with extreme aplomb.”

On the other hand, Nunn stated that “Obama’s treatment of race is his consequence of negotiating a culture in our society where he knows it’s an explosive issue. His failure to engage it shows more than anything that we haven’t gotten beyond it.”

The University of Florida Levin College of Law Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations is committed to fostering communities of dialogue on race. The center creates and supports programs designed to enhance race-related curriculum development for faculty, staff and students in collegiate and professional schools. Of the five U.S. law schools with race centers, the CSRRR is uniquely focused on curriculum development.