Talking About Race In The Obama Era

We just finished a call on “Talking About Race In The Obama Era” organized by the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights, hosted by Cristóbal Joshua Alex and Tanene Allison, and featuring EJS president Eva Paterson and Opportunity Agenda executive director Alan Jenkins. I’m typing up notes from the call and will post here shortly.

UPDATE: Notes added below.

This call is the second in a series sponsored by the Rollback Campaign. The first was a call about messaging on affirmation action, marriage equality and immigration.

Eva began her remarks by highlighting the challenges we face — the delight and danger — in working with race issues in the Obama era, especially how we counter the notion that we’re in a “post-racial” America.

We begin with a pre-election perspective, she said. Eva and many of her peers were skeptical that America would elect a Black president; that in the end, the ugly side of our country would show. Many younger folks didn’t have that fear.

So in considering the different viewpoints, she asked herself if there’s something innate to the different generations that fueled the different perspectives. Did Obama run on or away from race and how the underlying rationales for that approach would factor into his governance.

She also mentioned the notion, which was told to Eva by someone else, that Obama’s approach to race in the campaign may have been fueled by the fact that he was not born from “slave blood” (his father being from Kenya). This question is not mention to challenge his sensitivities or understanding of our country’s slave history — Obama apparently gave one of his constitutional law classes a list of Blacks who were lynched after the end of slavery and had the class read details of the violent incidents — but to explore whether or not it factored into his approach.

What can we better understand about inter-ethnic relations based on the fact that Latinos, Asian Americans and indigenous peoples voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Eva posed this issue also in the context of how the media sometimes like to fan the flames of division.

The next thematic question posed by Eva was about asking ourselves how did this all happen, i.e. how did Obama get elected? Was it the fact that the Bush Administration created such a mess for our country this past eight years? Was it the result of America’s changing views on race? Was it the fact that Obama is such an exceptional leader? Or a combination of these factors?

Eva shared that Obama’s election has changed her views on how others see race. The fact that so many people of other ethnicities voted for Obama made her much more optimistic.

So what now, Eva asked. We need to fight the notion that we’re in a “post-racial” America — many, many people of color are still living in a world of hurt. Obama’s election has given us an opportunity to have a more meaningful dialogue on race.

We need to do our part to push administration appointments of people who gave progressive views on race as well as bring sanity back to judicial appointments.

We need to make sure that the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice advances civil rights rather than create problems on race issues. We may have the opportunity now to use Title VI without the “intent standard.”

Finally, we need to work collectively towards a common vision by getting out of our silos and picking a handful issues that we can all get behind initially. The Right was very good at talking about how bad government was, but the economic meltdown show how important government and regulation is. We have the opportunity to talk about ideology.

We’re in an incredible and remarkable time, said Eva. We may not win all the battles, but at least there are people in the administration who will listen.

Alan Jenkins of the Opportunity Agenda was up next.

Alan mentioned his organization’s work this year towards gearter and more equal opportunity — working on the ground in places like Iowa before the caucuses and Colorado before the Connerly anti-opportunity initiative — analyzing and deploying opinion research and media outreach. Our challenge is this, he said: for those people that we couldn’t convince of the need for more equal opportuntiy, how can we do it now with a Black president.

Alan shared with the call audience ten suggestions for talking about race.

1. Lead with shared values instead of dry facts and policies and rhetoric. Many of us have not internalized in our messaging the values of opportunity, community and equality. Leading with those values has proven in research and practice to be important. Alan also mentioned how Obama successfully used the values of opportunity and community during his campaign.

2. Frame issues thematically rather than episodically, showing the systemic barriers to opportunity rather than just the impact to individuals. Human stories are crucial, but we sould be more careful at picking stories that are better connected to broader causes, such as highlighting both the “enlightened insider” and the “change agent.”

3. Present solutions. Alan quoted Van Jones who likes to say that Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t give a speech about “I have a complaint.” We need to be better that stating what we’re for and not just what we’re against.

4. Over-document the impact of bias and the benefits of equal opportunity. Let’s talk about systemic problems and back that up with data — “over-document” meaning that we need more info that what you think would convince people. We also need create social maps and translate numbers into something that everyday people can understand.

5. Appeal to subsconscious attitudes about race. Negative subconscious attitudes are more damaging than the conscious attitudes. Our opponents appeal to the fears of our subconscious and we need to counter that.

6. Combining partipatory and disciplined messaging. We can’t expect to provide polling and research data and expect that our allies will be able to run with that. We need to help people craft messages that relate to the research. We also need to be disciplined in how we do that by investing the time in not only communicating the right thing, but the same thing — not in words, but in broader messages.

7. Acknowledge our progress. Many of us woke up the day after the election and felt like we were in a better country. We need to acknowledge that and connect our history to the future. When we speak about injustices like slavery, the genocide of indigenous people, internment, etc., we need to show how those past injustices matter today.

8. Media matters. We need to continue our outreach to traditional media, but understand and use new channels of communication such as online outlets — and show information in innovative ways, such as through Google Maps (see

9. Connect racial justice messages and solutions to other opportunties and issues. Racial justice is part of a larger agenda to achieve justice and opportunity.

10. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Our opponents have been successful at instilling notions of limited goverment, playing the race card and family values because they created a drumbeat of messages connected to shared values. We don’t need to imitate that strategy, but we should learn some lessons from it.

This is a moment for us to achieve structural change, finished Alan.

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