It was billed as a public forum on race, gender, age and religion in the 2008 election, but right from the outset it was clear that one of the four topics would dominate the discussion held before a huge crowd of more than 900 people at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.
From the film screened beforehand, Before They Die, a documentary about the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riots, to the photo montage which preceded the panel discussion, with its images of black oppression from the slave boats to the abandonment of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, to the hand-clapping rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing, this gathering was overwhelmingly about one topic.
And that was race.
To the extent those other issues — gender, race and religion — were canvassed, it was only in the context of how they might impede the election of America’s first black president.
The event was organized by the Charles Hamilton Houston’s Institute for Race and Justice of Harvard Law School. Moderated by professor Charles Ogletree, the provocative 10-member panel was mostly black, speaking before a mostly-black audience. But that did not make the views unanimous.
What chance an Obama victory? To what extent did his campaign have to acknowledge the views of white women voters, embittered at Hillary Clinton’s loss in the primaries? What role would “Islamophobia” play? What role would the Jewish vote play? The white female vote?
Perceptions of experience? And could he bring real change, if he won? Opinions differed, sometimes quite sharply.
The very first panelist, professor David Gergen, sounded a warning: an Obama presidency is far from assured.
Regardless of what the polls showed, he said as many as one in 10 respondents are possibly lying about their voting intentions and many, once in the privacy of the polling booth will not be able to bring themselves to vote for a black man.
Indirectly, he seemed even to challenge the usefulness of such forums, suggesting the more talk there is about racism and sexism in politics, the less likely victory.
Mr. Gergen said such issues are best left unexamined until after the election, for they only play into the hands of Senator Obama’s opponents.
He said there are legitimate questions about sexism in the media, but “if you’re a Democrat and you have any interest in Democrats winning, those questions ought to be discussed after the campaign.”
He was promptly contradicted by the next interlocutor, Howard Manly, executive editor of the Bay State Banner, who flatly declared Senator Obama will win.
He cited his own media experience to make the point. He said he puts Senator Obama on the front page at every opportunity, specifically in photographs before the American flag, engaging with American troops. Whether this is for propaganda or circulation reasons he left unclear. He noted Obama covers made sales.
But he also noted a disconnect between national politics and stories about what he called on the ground issues like jobs, housing and prison reform. His publication got more online hits for such issues.
Nonetheless, he said the mere fact of the Obama candidacy has already changed the nature of racial dialogue.
Broadcaster Roland Martin picked up on the theme that Senator Obama already has brought change. The mere fact that he was running, he said, had forced the nation to confront issues of race and sex that it previously had avoided.
He said he has “never seen so many blacks, hispanics and women” featured as commentators on television panel discussions.”
Mr. Martin, 39, was the first to talk about age, or more specifically generational change in politics. He said Mr. Obama is the first representative of the post civil rights generation.
This presents a challenge.
“My generation has talked a whole lot of crap for a long time but has never walked the walk,” he said.
Whether the electorate would take the chance of putting the reins of the country in the hands of this generation was a major question.
Civil rights lawyer and scholar professor Lani Guinier also saw generational change as a big factor in the coming election, and she disputed Mr. Gergen’s suggestion that hard discussions of issues like race and sex be out of bounds until after the election.
“Because if we wait until after the election it will be too late,” she said.
That is because the need is not just to change leadership at the top, but change the “conversation we’re having about leadership at the bottom.”
She said that means things like pushing the media to play a more honest role in providing relevant, timely and educative information.
“If we allow the media to define this election, even if Barack Obama wins, we lose,” she said, adding:
“Are we prepared to change our views of who is entitled or prepared to be a leader? Are we prepared to have someone who comes not just from the black tradition but from the immigrant tradition leading this country?”
Harvard business professor and author Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who noted at the outset she was aware of being the only white woman on the panel, said Barack Obama has excited people, but she believes more people need to feel ownership of the campaign.
“My current worry is that there’s one group not feeling excited and mobilized right now and unfortunately that’s people who look like me,” Ms. Kanter said.
She said white women are solid Democratic voters and need to be engaged, because if they continue to feel left out, they could sit out the election.
“They are mourning, they need to be healed, and they shouldn’t be taken for granted,” she said.
Hers was a lonely voice.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a veteran of the civil rights movement and himself a former presidential candidate, suggested that blaming sexism for Senator Clinton’s loss was an oversimplification.
He also said Senator Clinton’s candidacy and her future role is complicated by the fact that she is Bill Clinton’s wife.
“It’s not just as easy as saying Hillary and Barack. You’re talking about Hillary, Barack and Bill,” he said.
Reverend Sharpton also drew a distinction between the role of a political leader and an activist for blacks. “Barack Obama is running for president; he is not running to be leader of blacks,” he said.
Dr. Johnetta Cole also opposed the idea of keeping the hard issues under wraps. There is too much denial in American society, she said; politics is too much about denial.
No one can deny the importance of gender, she said. But equally, “some of my white sisters have got to stop denying the existence of women of color.”
Likewise, it was Dr. Cole who spoke of the “width and breadth of Islamophobia in America.”
Regardless of how people felt about Senator Obama’s former preacher, he spoke to part of the black experience in America, she said.
The central problem, she said “is not our differences; it is our silence about our differences.”
Perhaps the most overtly partisan appeal for support of Senator Obama came from a white, Jewish panelist, law professor Alan Dershowitz.
He decried the influence of religion in modern American politics, saying Thomas Jefferson would be turning in his grave at the way it has infected a supposedly secular process.
But he also said he understands why, given persistent false rumors about Senator Obama’s Muslim faith, the candidate felt the need to assert his Christianity so often.
Mr. Dershowitz said this election presents a great opportunity for Jews and blacks to come together, as they had when they marched together during the early days of the civil rights movement.
But his strongest appeal was to young people.
“What frightens me more than anything is young people who scream and yell and complain 364 days a year and stay home on election day,” he said.
“Don’t you dare; this is an election you must vote in.”