January 23, 2009
Unprecedented throngs of celebrants descended upon Washington D.C. January 20, 2009, as the city known for partisan rancor seemed to bask, if only briefly, in what legal scholar Patricia J. Williams recently dubbed the "civic bliss" of Barack Obama's historic election. But the new President's whirlwind first week highlights the many problems new or old; shallow or deeply-rooted facing him.
To find out how much America will have changed after the inaugural glow fades, Bill Moyers sits down with Columbia's Patricia J. Williams and Princeton's Melissa Harris-Lacewell. In a conversation that ranges from race to the closing of Guantanamo, the two scholars offer reasons for hope and caution.
Williams, while noting concrete policies she hopes President Obama will enact, also stressed the psychological importance of the moment:
I think it changes the self-perception of African Americans. Obviously nothing is going to change life overnight. But I think that it is too easy to dismiss the symbolism of this particular election. It's too easy to dismiss the sense of investment of identity. I hear over and over again people not just African Americans but, particularly African Americans who felt so disenfranchised for so long, feeling so deeply, deeply American.
Lacewell agreed and argued that euphoria is a good thing because it can help to ease a difficult transition:
This challenge that we face now is going to require us to rethink what we mean by the social contract. What exactly are the promises and the price of citizenship? Which is what, you know, Barack suggested to us on Tuesday.
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a JD from Harvard Law School.
She was a fellow in the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College and has been an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School Law School and its department of women's studies. Williams also worked as a consumer advocate in the office of the City Attorney in Los Angeles.
A member of the State Bar of California and the Federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Williams has served on the advisory council for the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice of the City University of New York and on the board of governors for the Society of American Law Teachers, among others.
Her publications include ANTHONY BURNS: THE DEFEAT AND TRIUMPH OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE, ON BEING THE OBJECT OF PROPERTY, THE ELECTRONIC TRANSFORMATION OF LAW AND and WE ARE NOT MARRIED: A JOURNAL OF MUSINGS ON LEGAL LANGUAGE AND THE IDEOLOGY OF STYLE. In 1993, Harvard University Press published Williams's THE ALCHEMY OF RACE & RIGHTS to widespread critical acclaim. She is also author of The ROOSTER'S EGG (1995), SEEING A COLOR-BLIND FUTURE: THE PARADOX OF RACE (1997) (Noonday Press, 1998) and, most recently, OPEN HOUSE: ON FAMILY FOOD, FRIENDS, PIANO LESSONS and THE SEARCH FOR A ROOM OF MY OWN (2004.)
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She received her B.A. in English from Wake Forest University, her Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School. She has recently enrolled as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
She is author BARBERSHOPS, BIBLES, AND BET: EVERYDAY TALK AND BLACK POLITICAL THOUGHT. This text demonstrates how African Americans develop political ideas through ordinary conversations in places like barbershops, churches, and popular culture. The work was awarded the 2005 W.E.B. DuBois book award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. It is also the winner of the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. She is at work on a new book: FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO'VE CONSIDERED POLITICS WHEN BEING STRONG WASN'T ENOUGH. It is an examination of the connections between shame, sadness, and strength in African American women's politics.
Professor Harris Lacewell's writings have been published in the CHICAGO TRIBUNE, LOS ANGELES TIMES, CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS and NEW YORK NEWSDAY. She has provided expert commentary on U.S. elections, racial issues, religious questions and gender issues for NBC, Fox, Chicago Public Television, Showtime, Black Enterprise, National Public Radio and many other radio and print sources around the country.
Published January 23, 2009.
Guest photo by Robin Holland.