January 23, 2009
BILL MOYERS: A year and a half ago Melissa Harris-Lacewell sat right here and told me she thought Barack Obama could not be elected president in 2008. This week she attended his inauguration. I'm eager to hear her reaction.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She's the author of "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought".
Patricia Williams is back, too. She teaches law at Columbia University, writes "Diary of a Mad Law Professor" column in "The Nation" magazine, and is the author of "The Alchemy of Race and Rights". It's good to see you both back.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Thanks.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks, great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You did say, sitting right there Obama can't win.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I did. And probably the worst part was I suggested I thought he'd be a great vice president. And in my mind I was thinking John Edwards would be at the top of the ticket. So this is maybe more than anything why political scientists don't run actual political campaigns. I mean, it has been quite an electoral season.
BILL MOYERS: So what were you thinking on Tuesday?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I suppose the greatest thought I was having as I was watching the inauguration of Barack Obama was my sense that I didn't even know I wanted a black president. I wasn't particularly attached to the idea of an African American in the White House. It seemed just sort of symbolic. And yet I was moved at a very profound level about how this made me feel connected to my country in a way that I'd never fully felt connected before. It was an astonishing feeling.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: But I think this was a very particular, remarkable moment because it came on the tail end of a very freighted, complicated, and I think unhappy eight years. And so I think a lot of people who did not necessarily even support the Democratic Party voted for Obama or celebrated his inauguration because the joy in it was infectious. And the sense of improvement, the sense of an opportunity for global recognition, not just domestic recognition, was something that, just spread like wildfire.
BILL MOYERS: And for all that he comes to office at perhaps the most difficult time since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Jon Stewart on Tuesday night after the inaugural that day had a marvelous moment in which he revealed the realities that we and Obama face. Take a look at this excerpt.
JON STEWART:No minor controversy is going to quell the enthusiasm of this crowd. For this, the most highly anticipated inaugural address of our lifetimes.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened. [...] Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many. [...] The ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
BILL MOYERS: That nailed it right?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see the headline in "The Onion" a few weeks ago? "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Are we being unrealistic with all this euphoria?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELLNo. I think, in fact, the fact that we have euphoria is a very good thing in the context of coming up against something so difficult. 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 WILLIAMS: I do think that we need to quell some of the expectations that, now that he is president, you know, bluebirds have suddenly come into, you know, that butterflies are hatching all over the country. It is, we still have difficulty with, for example, the vocabulary of race that I think is still very much confining how we see Barack Obama. Now, again, that may change-
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, I think that he is, on the one hand, our first African American president. And some people call him our first bi-racial president.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Some people say that he is, or really consider him still much more acceptable because he has a white parent. I think that part of that internecine warfare within the black community based on skin color.
I think one of the freighted problems within the black community with hearing words like "bi-racial" is that, you know, African Americans have always been multi-racial. We are, I mean, you know, since slavery, at least bi-racial. And so that some of that vocabulary within the black community I think evokes images of half-breed, quadroon, mulatto, the kind of color coded, tragic mulatto conversation that induces a kind of hierarchy. And I think that that's going to be part of a new American vocabulary in dealing with that unconscious level of distinction.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think about that?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, so for me I suppose the notion of Barack Obama as our first bi-racial president is troubling. And it's troubling in part because, as you point out, African Americans have always been a multi-racial people, or at least for all of contemporary American history they have been a multi-racial people. But the other thing is that race is not simply about biology.
Race is, of course, socially and legally constructed. And at every point in American history Barack Obama would have been in the category of black. He would have been enslaveable under the slave codes. He would have been Jim Crowed in the context of the Jim Crow South.
Homer Plessy, who is the litigate in the Plessy v. Ferguson, which establishes separate but equal, the legal code that we think of the civil rights movement as finally breaking open, was so visibly or physiologically white that he had to go to the conductor on the train and tell him, "I'm passing the color line here. I'm breaking the color line. You need to arrest me."
So all of the moments of American racial political history hinge right around a space where multi-racial, sometimes much more sort of in appearance white-black people, have been a part of the story. So it's very hard for me to imagine that now, at the culmination of one part of the black political story, we would start to break that off and assign it to a group that simply does not exist as a matter of law, the bi-racial group.
I suppose what I find exciting about the upfrontness about Barack Obama's patchwork, racial identity is that it allows him to be empowering to many different kinds of people. But at the same time, to take away that this is a particular moment of ordinary black folks on the ground who came to D.C. in numbers like nothing I've ever seen, who stood there in the cold.
That is the accomplishment and the achievement of ordinary black folks on the ground as voters, as those who survived the Jim Crow South. So I just can't take Barack away from us. We need him.
BILL MOYERS: Does this change life for those ordinary black Americans, this election?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: 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.
People saying that they picked up a flag and waved it for the first time in their lives and waved it with such enthusiasm. And not in a sense that this is just an African American administration but that they feel united to all Americans, that he represents all Americans. And in that, the constituency of African Americans feel connected to other constituencies from whom they felt quite segregated and dispossessed.
BILL MOYERS: Obama himself once said he was trying to raise himself as a black man in America and, quote, "Beyond the given of my appearance, no one around seemed to know exactly what that meant." Have you given any thought as to why he chose to be African American instead than bi-racial?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: The word "choice" is probably a little bit overstated because I don't think that anyone really chooses when you are apparently—
BILL MOYERS: Right.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: -dark skinned. And at the same time, I do think that the question of African American manhood is a very freighted cultural identity. And I don't think it's just somebody with his background that struggles with that. I have a 16-year-old son who was struggling to understand what growing up as an African American man means. I wouldn't separate it from the general struggle of what it means to be, to appear to the world, in a particular way that, to which people assign, you know, extra cool or a particular way of dressing or a particular way of speaking. And I think it's quite complicated for anybody.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, there seems to be some evidence in the first autobiography, "Dreams from My Father", where he suggests that part of that choice has to do with angling towards being his dad, that that absent parent gave him something to which he was trying to aspire, that he'd heard lots of stories about what an enormous personality and an important man his father was. So I think part of the choice of blackness had to do with him trying to come into being like Barack, Sr.
But the real symbol that we see every moment is his choice of Michelle Obama. And in many ways, Michelle Robinson, who becomes Michelle Obama, is representative of a very particular choice on the part of Barack, that as a multi-racial, Harvard Law educated, African American man, those of us in the black community get what the choices for dating and marriage were for Barack.
And he chose a woman as tall as him, as smart as him, and black from a distance. She's a woman who is not someone who could have ever opted out of blackness. And here he is rearing two African American daughters, on the South Side of Chicago, with a smart, tall, fabulous black wife. And it, you know, it helps me forgive a lot of policy ills for Barack when I see Michelle, only in the sense that there is for me a sense, at a core level —that he sees me, that he sees my daughter, who's seven years old, that whatever our disagreements are, there is a fundamental goodwill around his sense of the humanity of African American women. And that is, I think, a very empowering connection back with African American voters.
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned policy ills. And this gets me to the question of governance. So what do you, as progressives, as liberals, what do you expect of him that will fulfill your hopes for him, beyond the symbolism into the actual world of policy and decision making?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: One of the images I've been using as we've been going around the country trying to place the King holiday in the context of a new Obama era is I've been using the image, iconic image of Barack Obama excuse me. Ah! Of Martin Luther King—
BILL MOYERS: There you go.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right. Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson together in the White House. And I say to people, okay, where's if you can superimpose Barack Obama's face onto one of these two characters, onto whose face would you project it? And most people say, "Oh, well, King." And I say, "No, no, no, no. Barack Obama's LBJ in this picture."
We've elected him to the U.S. presidency. So the missing image is who will play the role of King? Because, in fact, the president needs Kings. I actually think it's plural. It's not a single King. But the myth-
BILL MOYERS: You mean that they need agitators out there-
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That's-
BILL MOYERS: -who are pressing them to do the right thing-
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That's exactly right.
BILL MOYERS: -as Lyndon Johnson said to Martin Luther King go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: So what should you all be doing the next four years?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That's right. That's right. So Barack Obama needs to be our friend in the White House. He was a community organizer. Now he's the president. So the job now, I mean, I have a couple things I think are the most important. I think the recovery of New Orleans continues to be the central democratic litmus test of our time, that what does and does not happen in the context of recovery for the Gulf Coast tells us whether or not we value community, what we're going to do about environmental injustice, whether or not we're going to provide affordable, quality housing, and whether or not we truly believe that we are a racial democracy, one in which people of all races get to contribute.
So for me the recovery of New Orleans is central. The question of American racial health disparities and of poverty and income disparities in American health, it should not be in a country where we say life is a self-evident, inalienable right, that we, in fact, allow children to die from dental, lack of dental insurance because they have abscesses.
And the final is we've still got very serious basic civil rights issues. And among them is the question of marriage equality for gay men and lesbians. But for me those are some of the top three immediate issues that people should be organizing around.
BILL MOYERS: What about you?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I think that a lot of civil rights issues are coming up to the courts. The courts are largely appointed by Republicans over the last several years, many years, decades. I think that we are going to see somewhat of a rollback of civil rights enforcement through the courts, the conservative courts.
BILL MOYERS: The Supreme Court remains conservative, right? The majority remains conservative, Reagan and Bush appointees. So you think there will be an effort at the Court to sort of stifle some of this—
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I think cases are already coming up. And I think that, you know, this is unaffected at least until we have an appointment, a new appointment, on the Court that's basically insulated from the political progress made in Congress and the executive.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: What Barack Obama is going to, in these early years, do is hopefully build goodwill through what we would think of as consensus political issues. Rebuilding both sort of the infrastructure on which we drive and where we live but also the infrastructure of technology by laying out both new green technologies as well as the very thing that allowed him to get elected, right? These sort of internet technologies.
The question is whether or not in building these sorts of things that could potentially lift boats financially, put people back to work, provide housing for folks, that he can create a kind of consensus that will leave him some room to do the very basic civil rights work that we care about. My bet is that we're looking at really is the 2010 election. The issue is whether or not he's going to hold this Congress.
So this Democratic majority in the Congress, if he loses it in the way that Bill Clinton did in his first term, then he is in a situation of consistently fighting. If, however, he's able to build enough goodwill, keep his coattails long enough to keep Democrats in office into the 2010, redraw the districts after the 2010 census, then we have a president who can become the voting rights president. But my bet is it does not happen in '09. It happens late 2010.
BILL MOYERS: What's the significance of the executive order Obama signed this week suspending detentions and trials at Guantanamo for 120 days?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: The significance is that he wants to review the process. I think it is you know, it is for me a pending victory, shall I say? I think his review of the deprivation of adequate lawyering, the suppression of evidence that would be useful to defense in those cases, certainly the resignation of several of the prosecutors, I think that his ability to take that into account is, it's sort of a tip of the hat to what the attorney general will increasingly have to take over, possibly bringing those cases into the federal courts.
BILL MOYERS: What's at stake with this whole issue of the rule of law?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, if we are a country constituted, then the Constitution is the most important part of what binds us. And constitution of laws. And each one of those protections allow us to be legal subjects, allow us to be full human beings. If you know, the Fifth Amendment, for example, is the right against self-incrimination, really is related to the protection against torture because if you can be forced to incriminate yourself, it is literally, the torture comes from the word "to twist." You're literally twisting words out of the body.
And that was a very fundamental protection. Habeas corpus means the government is accountable for what is done with the body. If the government can come in and simply spirit you and disappear you, then what differentiates us as Americans from, you know, tin-pot dictators anytime in history from Nero? It's, it is the essence of who we are as a people. We view ourselves as a, you know, the land of the free, the home of the brave.
BILL MOYERS: But it is your contention that the rule of law has been significantly, radically transformed in the last eight years?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yes. Absolutely significantly, yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So what can Obama do about it?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, again, I think that, the first step he's taking is to close down Guantanamo Bay, is to review the secret CIA spiriting away of people, the disappearing of people, the detention or extraordinary rendition of sending people to other countries to do what is blatantly illegal, to recapture our vocabulary so that it makes sense. In other words, so that there's not something called "soft torture." To reconnect us with the Geneva Conventions.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that important, the Geneva Conventions?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Because it does have, I mean, there, it does have some of the basic rules of the law of war, about how we treat captives, about the process due even then, about the process due to non-citizens. And also it joins us to the international prohibition against torture, most importantly.
BILL MOYERS: This could explain, in part, why his first press dinner was with a group of conservative pundits, and he's reached out to John McCain and others consistently since his election, that if wants to go in the direction you've just said would please a liberal, he also finds himself meeting conservatives who've been concerned like Bruce Fein and Mickey Edwards and others
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: -who are concerned about the rule of law, right?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Absolutely.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I don't think this is a liberal issue. I think-
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, I agree. I don't think it's a liberal issue at all. And in fact, the very people, I mean, McCain is such a good ally on this question, particularly an awful lot of what you've been talking about is sort of our relationship vis-à-vis international law. And obviously, I mean, McCain, for whatever failings he had as a candidate in 2008, I do think of him at core as a citizen of honor and that part of what we think of in our military tradition that is valuable is the notion that our military continues to subject itself to civilian leadership.
As soon as that doesn't happen, as soon as we behave in a way as civilian leaders that would allow our military to believe that perhaps they could make better choices or better decisions, as you point out, then we become a different country altogether. So part of what Barack Obama has to do as commander-in-chief is to renew again a certain faith among military leadership that civilian leadership is appropriate, is doing the right thing, is sending them into harm's way only under the right circumstances, and is behaving relative to our, to the people we're engaging internationally in a way that protects our soldiers when they are captured. So I actually believe that McCain makes a, not just a sort of ally in terms of the press, but a very important political ally on this question.
BILL MOYERS: Last subject, everywhere we turn this week somebody was praying. I mean, I'm serious about this. What did you make of all the God talk all week?
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, I think that the, you know, appeal to greater power is perhaps a necessary deflection to the fact that we are a very religious country. I would hope, however, because, again, I speak as a lawyer. I am a deep believer in a separation of church and state.
BILL MOYERS: You've written a lot about it-
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I've been very distressed by the degree to which faith-based analyses of late have permitted the allocation of funds even to organizations that discriminate on any variety of bases. And I hope that this deflection that he has made is not something that carries over into actual policy if it's, you know, at you know, we can pray to the God of our choice. But, again, when he is actually governing, I hope that this takes very much a back seat.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: At the inauguration it was clear that the first prayer by Warren, Rick Warren was such an ideologically related prayer in the sense of a particular theology. This God who has created these things, who has made these things, and then ending with the Lord's Prayer. And the final prayer, Lowery's prayer, begins with James Weldon Johnson's poem, which is, yes, religious but is also a kind of civic religious prayer. And it ends with sort of, you know, a ditty from the 1960s about race.
And that, it was actually that more civically religious prayer that went over I think kind of more fully. And it was even the kind of artistic cultural prayers of that classical music, of that poem by Elizabeth Alexander. So I actually felt like there was sort of a balance between a particular claim towards a particular notion of the Supreme versus an idea of all of us as the magnificent thing that is creating this new America.
BILL MOYERS: Pat Williams, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, thank you for being with me again on the Journal.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.
PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Thank you.