Award-winning author, lecturer, freelance journalist and professor at American University, Clarence Lusane, discussed the current socioeconomic condition of African Americans under the Obama administration in his lecture titled Little Hope, Little Change: African Americans and Their Discontent in the Age of Obama at the MultiCultural Center Theatre last night.
The lecture drew focus to the current state of racial politics in the United States, as well as to the long history of race-related American policymaking that has played a major role in sometimes combating — while other times allowing — ongoing socio-economic inequalities. In particular, Lusane discussed the presidency of Barack Obama, speaking about the obstacles and political resistance the president has faced in addressing racial disparities, and how he can be criticized for his lack of progress. A professor of political science at American University, Lusane holds a Ph.D. in political science from Howard University and has made media appearances on the television channel BET, the Oakland Tribune, Washington Post, BBC TV (USA) and Miami Herald, amongst other outlets.
Lusane is also the former chairman of the Board of the National Alliance of Third World Journalists, as he has reported from countries all around the world such as Cuba, South Africa, Egypt, North Korea, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Mexico and Italy.
The talk began with a recount of the tragic, Depression-era lynching of a 37-year-old man named Reuben Stacey in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Lusane said the event was motivated by economic jealousy from poor whites and was underscored by the passage of two pieces of legislation that year: the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act in 1935, both of which excluded “domestics” and “farm workers.” This occupational category is the same one that applied to Stacey and an estimated 90 percent of African Americans living in the south at that time, making them unaided even by new, progressive legislation.
“This had consequences that would last for generations,” Lusane said. “All of these policies would evolve and — ultimately, I would argue — all the way up until the Obama era, would have a repercussion.”
However, according to Lusane, there is still little incentive and scant support for direct intervention by the federal government to alleviate the economic plight he said many African Americans face due to racial discrimination.
“So there is still a lot of issues related to racial discrimination that have to be addressed,” Lusane said. “Simply having a black president or having a black secretary of state or having an African American on the Supreme Court or having billionaires like Oprah doesn’t address those issues.”
The lecture then transitioned to the post-New Deal era. Lusane said that while the New Deal was “groundbreaking,” it did not benefit most African Americans alive at the time and led to persistent disparities in wealth, income and unemployment rates for African Americans, as compared to whites during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Lusane concluded his talk with his take on the “opportunities” Obama has missed during his presidency as well as the challenges he said the president faces in addressing contemporary racial issues. According to Lusane, it has been difficult for Obama to challenge racial disparities due to the considerable political opposition he faces in Congress. He said there has been popular resistance from a “significant number of whites” that Obama could not persuade, in addition to a cautious black community in America that “would not mobilize.” In fact, Lusane said Obama had a filibuster-proof Senate for about three months during the first two years of his presidency to push for legislation addressing racial issues. Overall, Lusane said Obama has certainly not had all the cards in his favor.
“In terms of political opposition, you got to give Obama a break,” Lusane said. “He just did not have the numbers.”
Rachel Scarlet, outreach chair of the Black Students Union—which cosponsored Lusane’s talk—said she wanted students to attend the lecture and learn about what could be expected of Obama and how those expectations have or have not been met.
“It’s beneficial to just start a conversation about the president and his administration and what we would have liked to see out of him and what was the reality of what came out Obama’s presidency,” Scarlet said.
Third-year sociology major Miguel Poblete, who attended the talk, said Lusane led a well-balanced lecture that led to stimulating debate on a topic not necessarily talked about.
“It fostered a good discussion that really got people thinking and got me thinking,” Poblete said. “I think Clarence has an interesting perspective and informed us a lot on specifically the historical perspective of racism in America.”
Yesterday’s talk was sponsored by the Black Student Union, the Center for Black Studies Research, the UC Center for New Racial Studies and the Political Science department. The hour-long talk was followed by a 30-minute question and answer session with an audience of mostly students, and it kicked off this quarter’s Race Matters Series, a set of MCC lectures aimed at promoting discussion of current issues related to race in a local, regional or national context.
MCC director Zaveeni Khan-Marcus and former KCSB director Elizabeth Robinson established the Race Matters Series a decade ago to “create a forum” where issues pertaining to race, class and sexual orientation can be examined closely.
“It is a way of pushing boundaries,” Khan-Marcus said. “It’s trying to draw students engaged in the discussion so that you facilitate the expansion of horizons. When you debate and talk your mind expands and you learn more … The Race Matters Series is a very important one because it engages the learner deeply.”
A version of this story appeared on page 1 of Wednesday, February 5, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.