BILL MOYERS: Has Barack Obama's election been a watershed moment for this country?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I think it's been a watershed movement for the world, as we've seen pictures come in from everywhere of rejoicing across the planet. And I think it has been a watershed movement also for the civil rights movement, which trajectory has been so marked by tragedy and trauma and by murders and murders. And this is one of the most significant moments for its sheer happiness, for its uncompromised ability to rejoice.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what do you think accounts for that catharsis that seemed to occur on Tuesday night?

ERIC FONER: You know there's a number of things that I think we would agree. I mean, particularly among young people, this sense that really change is in the air. And you know, the way both of us saw our students galvanized by —


ERIC FONER: — by this campaign. And I think that feeling just is so widely shared around the country that we really need a new departure, given what's happened in the last eight years.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And not to be ungracious, I do think it was the suspense of the last eight years. I think there was so much suspense around the conduct of the last two elections, the fear of voter fraud, the sense that this was very close, as it was really very close in the popular vote if not the Electoral College that the great suspense and the sense of two elections' worth of disappointment it was like uncapping all that champagne we were holding onto the last eight years.

BILL MOYERS: But your students were just kids in 2000.What was it that so galvanized them about this particular outcome?

ERIC FONER: You know, Obama's campaign is a 20th — 21st century campaign. And I think he represents something that is maybe more powerful to young people than even, you know, to our generation. The notion of a society that in which race is still an existent fact but is not the determinant of people's lives where people, you know, my daughter has friends of all different backgrounds and ethnicities, races. And it doesn't even matter anymore to them. And I think that, you know, that's a vision of the future of America. And I think young people really, really, you know, found that very appealing.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I have a slightly different take on it, which is that my students have tons of loans. My students are looking at a future burdened by a great deal of debt. They saw a very distinct crossroads with this election. My students and our students also live on colleges where the culture wars have been fought with great bitterness and in the language of tremendous division. And I spoke at a gathering of college students yesterday. And one of them stood up and said, "You know, I'm just exhausted by the language of — the divisive language of the culture wars." And Obama represented an inclusive language. It was a "we." Yes, we can. And it was a pluralistic we. And students, even those students who felt that the world has changed, it wasn't just a sense of change, it was a real response I think to the way in which campuses have been so divided and the right has represented those fights on campus.

BILL MOYERS: It was very interesting to me this election — fear mongering didn't work. Willie Horton didn't work. Polarizing didn't work at least on 53 percent of the country.

ERIC FONER: Well, I think the reason is, in a sense, what Pat was just referring to. And people are very nervous about the economy. And that really trumped all of this. And, I think as historians we have to remind ourselves that despite the watershed fact of a black president for the first time, race is not always and never has been the only determinant of people's actions, you know?

You can talk about Willie Horton. But when people are worried about their jobs, about their futures, about the economy, their retirement plans, that's not what's foremost in their minds. And so other considerations came to the fore in this election, which really made it impossible to play the old Karl Rove game of dividing people and appealing to these, you know, hatreds or competitions, et cetera. So, you know, it reminds us race is not the only factor in people's lives and never has been actually.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And it wasn't just that it was impossible to do because I do think that there was a way in which, you know, Barack Obama at the beginning of this was sort of the clean, articulate, you know, post-race, above-race, not having the baggage or whatever, biracial. I mean, people used all kinds of words to sort of mix him up. But by the end, we're all acknowledging he's a black president. So, I mean, there's a way in which he did get pushed back into the box. But I thought some of his rhetoric was really, really very interesting in terms of pushing that back in the customary ways.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: So, for example, he engaged the narrative of the migrant, of the immigrant myth. And the immigrant myth, throughout our political history, has been one of European possibility, coming and becoming Horatio Alger. Except in his case it was a black immigrant myth. And so he deployed it in a way that most African Americans could never. And it was a wonderful fusion.

He also really, you know, he kept referring to his single mother. And many people sort of had to blink and remember that this was not a black single mother, but this is a white single mother. And, again, there was a fusion that I think flummoxed the traditional tactics of boxing him one way or another.

BILL MOYERS: Is it true that he was your editor at the "Harvard Law Review"?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I submitted a piece that was published in Harvard Law Review back in the day. And he was the student editor for that. And, again, I've had many, many editors, professional and unprofessional. And I remember him so specifically. He wouldn't remember me, but I remember him very, very clearly because he was one of the most intelligent people I had ever met and one of the deepest listeners. And even then —

BILL MOYERS: Listener?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Listeners. In other words, he would you know, when I would say something, I wouldn't, you know, be very sort of quiet and, you know, as people have described, sort of laidback. And then he would come back with just amazing synthesis. He has an amazing ability to hear things at a very deep level, synthesize them and give them back. And even at that time, long before he'd written his books, he also had an ear for language that was very striking to me. And I've always remembered him and was delighted to see him reemerge in this way.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that if a black president doesn't deliver on some radical changes in a system that is truly broken, there could be a backlash against him and could race, again, play its hand?

ERIC FONER: I don't think Obama is going to be judged as a black president, at least at the start. He's going to be judged as a president, who, one hopes, can address in a bold, dramatic way the crisis, the economic crisis we face, the foreign policy, military problems we face. You know, that's how he's going to be judged. People are looking for solutions. And I think whether it comes from a black person or anyone else is of less concern to them than whether they get a sense that the country is beginning to turn in a new direction.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I think one of the changes he brought is this new coalition. He really did put a coalition across all kinds of boundaries, including a fragmented notion of race and ethnicity and really new discussions of linguistic groupings. And my sense is that there will be some backlash just because we haven't seen the bottom of this economic downturn. And history tells us that people are looking for scapegoats when they don't have jobs. And people will be looking for a scapegoat. And our favorite scapegoat in the United States has always been race. And so I think it's not just incumbent upon him but upon us as the new coalition and the sense of, you know, coming together that we as citizens resist that tendency to scapegoat because we are at a very important turning point. It —

BILL MOYERS: Is it a progressive moment?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I actually think that the architecture is there in place for a progressive presidency. But my greater fear about what stands in its way is, again, how we as citizens respond to this. So I think that we need to re-categorize some of the old divisive vocabulary. For example, progression — progressive movement is often associated with class or with the labor movement.

BILL MOYERS: And is often founded —

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And right now —

BILL MOYERS: — on race, right?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And exactly. And our vocabulary has reflected that foundering so that "underclass" is really a racial term. It's no longer a class term. It's exclusively about black poor people.

BILL MOYERS: So when people say —

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: White people — white poor people are working poor or the working class. There is no imagination when you say "working class" of a black working class. The term "middle class" is almost exclusively white and suburban.

BILL MOYERS: Suburbs. Yeah, that's right.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And — but the new black working class is literally any black person who has a job all the way up through Oprah Winfrey. And then upper class is almost invisible. We don't deny that there is an upper class. And that's why I think, you know, people like John McCain and George Bush can say that they are sort of Joe Six Pack rather than the true elites, I mean, in terms of — at least in terms of income.

And so all of that has very invisible weight to it. So that's why I think that, for example, Joe the Plumber becomes an icon of somebody who wants to buy a $250,000 business at least. But at the same time, really seems to have resented and denied the fact that he's earning $40,000 and has a lien on his house. So he's both the product of a kind of fantasy of what he ought to be and a deep resentment of where he actually is in the economic stratum. And that, you know, that resentment, the distinction between where he wants to be and where he actually is, you know, the emotional foundation of what I think we really have to work with to get people to come together.

ERIC FONER: I think in terms of progressive era, it's not a — I don't want to say he has the specific policy. But I think it's more an ethos of public life, a more communal one, one that looks after the common good not just individual self-interest as we've been ruled by for the last 20, 30 years that doesn't seek competitiveness as the sole, you know, the sole measure of a society. I think a turn toward the notion of a common citizenship, of course — Obama has talked about this a great deal. And the common good and economic security for people, not just saying the market will take care of everything. If those are the governing principles and I think you then move to specific policies whether on healthcare or the economy or race relations or immigration or other things. But if you have those governing principles, the society will move in a progressive direction.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And a reinvestment in public education, because I do think that part of the know-nothingism and the resentment of elitism is the fact that many people know how poorly our — their — this educational system has served them, whites and African Americans. And the resentment of elitists I think is also I mean, my own personal opinion is that there's a kind of envy, there's a kind of yearning not to be disparaged because of a lack of education but not really knowing how to get it. And in the last, you know, 50 years we've really disinvested in public education. And we had a very good public education system prior to the Second World War —

ERIC FONER: Well, that's part of the privatization of everything, you know?


ERIC FONER: And that I think does need to be reversed. The public realm is a realm that needs to be strengthened in this country, whether it's the infrastructure of our transportation and buildings and bridges which have fallen apart or the public school system, as you said. Or healthcare, which really is a public concern, not just an individual concern. And I think this combination of engaged citizens and presidential leadership, that's what really can move us in that direction.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: We have had eight years of a complete failure to govern, a complete failure to regulate, a complete failure to oversee. So this isn't just that the markets went awry or people got, you know — took out more money than they could pay back. This was also a refusal by the Bush administration to oversee everything from the FCC to the FDA to the infrastructure that, you know — up and down the Mississippi. It wasn't just levees in Mississippi and New Orleans. It was levees in Missouri and Iowa. It was bridges collapsing in — and this was because there was no oversight. It was packed with industry insiders or people like "Heck-of-a-Job-Brownie" who were completely incompetent. We've seen drug scandals. We've seen, you know, failure to check the quality of imports. It is not just about the financial collapse and lack of regulation. It's across the board. And so I think that one thing that will go a long way toward an initial movement is the reanimation of the agencies.

ERIC FONER: The people who are put in charge did not believe in what they were being asked to do. The regulators did not believe in regulation. And they just completely abdicated their responsibilities. So we need to be — we need to have and I'm sure Obama will put into place people who actually believe that the government has a responsibility to look out for the public good in this way rather than just stepping aside and letting private interests run amok.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you place Obama in the black struggle?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: He's both a departure and a continuation. And that's why I keep pointing to his rhetoric. I mean, he's part of a tradition of political orators who of great skill. And so he's clearly somebody who comes within the tradition of the power of persuasion that Martin Luther King brought to bear. I think he's also a speaker who draws upon the rhetorical traditions of everyone from, you know, the Puritan Jeremiah, John Winthrop, the first Puritans who came. And he employs the kind of speech that is like a sermon. But it is something which is very classical and familiar to the political ear. So I think he also draws upon the language of the Kennedys, of all the Kennedy brothers. And the part of Obama's persuasive power is to break through the category of just being a black candidate by making people listen to the contradictions of race. And I think, you know, last night I was debating somebody who was a great McCain supporter and was describing Barack Obama as somebody who just simply came out of nowhere — and then the next minute described Sarah Palin as somebody who was a fresh breath of fresh air.

ERIC FONER: That's right.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And who was a whole new phenomenon.


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I think that Barack Obama and the tradition from which he comes from and the kinds of ambivalent figures around race like Lincoln or even you know, people at various moments in the Deep South, you know, who could break through, could hear the contradictions of this, who could hear the racism that's unconscious in our vocabulary — and Barack Obama's ability to do that speaks to our better selves. He recognizes the complication of his grandmother, of a Reverend Wright but also of working-class people who say things like, you know, "I'm not really a racist but I don't want to vote for a black man." But at the same time, "I'm going to vote for him." And I think that is a product of his breaking through this divisive unconscious vocabulary and speaking to our better selves.

BILL MOYERS: Will he pay a price for not putting race on the front burner?

ERIC FONER: No. I don't think he will.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I think he did put race on the front burner.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, everybody's — so many people say he's post-racial, you know?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: I never heard him say that.


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And that's why I think that he spoke about it in a new way that people don't recognize. That's why I think that, you know, he was very clever at, you know, saying the immigrant myth is a black story for him.

ERIC FONER: Well, he redefines —


ERIC FONER: — what race is.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: He redefines what race is.


ERIC FONER: Well, in as Pat said, in other words, he's reminding people, something which shouldn't need reminding, that black people are part of America, you know? They're not just a separate group, that black people have shared in so many of the struggles and the gains and the aspirations of American society. His father was an immigrant. So he's part of the immigrant tradition in this country. It's not just people coming through Ellis Island who are the immigrant story. And his family, you know, of course, you know all the images that we hear —


ERIC FONER: — about the black family. His family is a pretty mainstream American family.

BILL MOYERS: And a very mixed family, too.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And I think he's really challenged the notion of there being a one black civil rights community.


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: You know, we have a new diasporic demographic in the United States. And it includes blacks from Africa. It includes — it's Latino blacks. It includes people of color who consider themselves black from South Asia. It consists of Hispanics who don't speak Spanish in New Mexico who've been there for generations but still identify with the linguistic grouping or the — and I think that he was very, you know, he represents, you know, I wrote once saying that I think, you know, we should really call him our first Hawaiian American President. Because he —


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: — represents — so much of the fragmentation of this solid block of white versus black is, I think —

ERIC FONER: Right. But he — I think he also identifies — you read his speeches — with the you know, the movements which are not racial, the Abolitionist movement, which was not a racial movement. It was black people — it was the first integrated movement in American history. People like Frederick Douglass who himself was biracial. He was born a slave. But, you know, Frederick Douglass didn't just talk about race. He talked about American society. He talked about making this a better place for everybody.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, you once wrote that almost every good thing that's come out of America in American politics came from the antislavery movement.

ERIC FONER: Well, they were the ones who really put the question of human rights, of individual rights, of what is justice, what is equality beyond race onto our national agenda. They really invented the dialogue of equal, you know, of equality not bounded by race. And you know, I really think the Abolitionist movement, their tradition is still alive in our society today. And Obama has talked about that. And it's not, you know — I think about the people like Douglass but also like Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens. You know, they're the ones I'd like to see alive today somehow to see this.

BILL MOYERS: All great orators, by the way. I mean, they —

ERIC FONER: Great orators.

BILL MOYERS: — command the English language —

ERIC FONER: But they —

BILL MOYERS: — marching, as you said.

ERIC FONER: They're the ones who really put into our national tradition this possibility of a nation not tyrannized by race.

BILL MOYERS: After we reached out to you, Pat, to join us today, I went back to your book based upon your BBC lectures some years ago, Seeing a Color Blind Future. Does Obama mean a color blind future?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: No. And the subtitle of that book is The Paradox of Race. And it — the paradox of seeing yet being blind. And I am not somebody who thinks that, you know, we really don't see race. And it's very interesting how people say, "Ah, we've reached the post-racial moment because we have a black President-elect." So we've both mocked it even as we're denying it. I mean, this is quite a conundrum, isn't it? I mean, that, again, he is black and, therefore, we are no longer seeing black. I mean, it —

ERIC FONER: That's right.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: — I think that this is, you know, this constructs one of the problems he's going to have to face, which is really dealing with the fact that we are still a very racially divided nation, that while it represents a success what has been accomplished in his election, we also have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world with — two million people in —

BILL MOYERS: Fifty-five percent of them are of color.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. And even more I think when you add in Latinos.

BILL MOYERS: What can Obama do for American blacks?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Well, I do think that, you know, everything we've talked about, the economy, you know, education, these are American problems.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: They're American problems. I don't want to understate this — the substantive job he has. But I also think that this is a very important symbolic moment, that he represents a new kind of cosmopolitanism around the question of race.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: He is somebody who has traveled, who connects to people around the world, who represents the hopes and aspirations of the American ideal. But that American ideal is now a very — it's a prism of color. It's a prism of color in his embodiment.

ERIC FONER: It's just not the white of the American dream.


ERIC FONER: I'll tell you what he can do —

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yeah, and that's why you had such dancing in the street in Harlem.


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Because people were dancing in Harlem. They were dancing in South Africa. And they were dancing in Indonesia.

ERIC FONER: And in Indonesia, too, yeah.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: And it was just —

BILL MOYERS: Yet just a few blocks, I mean, a few blocks downtown from Harlem, you had those great scenes at Times Square.


BILL MOYERS: I mean, it was an ecumenical catharsis.

ERIC FONER: I'll tell you one thing he should do which will address many of these questions which will run into a lot of opposition is to really take action to make it easier to form labor unions in this country.


ERIC FONER: Unions have been the most integrated institutions in this society. Unions are places where people of all backgrounds come together to work for common goals, regardless of race or religion. Obviously there's been racism in unions, there's been prejudice. But the whole premise of a union is that people have common interests which are not defined by their personal, racial, or gender or other characteristics. And it's the experience apart from the fact that unions will help black people and others. I mean, most people are working-class people, as you said. And they need the kind of support that unions have provided in the past. But it's more than that. It's an educational function. When people work together for common goals, their views expand. They become more cosmopolitan. They become more tolerant. And you know, I think the decline of the labor movement has been a tragedy for American democracy as well as whatever particular economic impact it has had.

BILL MOYERS: I'm told that the theme of Obama's inauguration will be "A New Birth of Freedom." Now, I didn't hear much about freedom in this campaign. What do you think he means by that?

ERIC FONER: We'll have to see. You know, neither — it's a good point that neither candidate talked about freedom in this campaign. I think President Bush, in an odd sort of way, has devalued the concept of freedom by the cynical and militaristic way he has employed it. Freedom meant invading another place and giving them freedom, whether they wanted our freedom or not. But I think Obama has a great opportunity to rekindle all other ideas of freedom which have existed in our history. Freedom as economic security, freedom as a sort of sense of dignity and empowerment for people who maybe have lacked that in the past, freedom as a collective sense of the society becoming freer, not just individuals So, you know, I hope he does reclaim the idea of freedom. Since the Reagan revolution, freedom has been — sort of dominated that idea by, you know, by the right wing. It means owning a gun, not paying taxes, demonizing government. But there are many other themes of freedom in our history, which I hope Obama can, you know, can pick up and utilize.

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think freedom has been really collapsed or restrained to a kind of arch libertarianism, which is deeply economic. So freedom is really a free market. I mean, it's sort of been conflated with the free market, which is not to say that it doesn't have something to do with the free market. But the other larger constitutional definition of freedom is dependent upon things like due process. It is dependent upon the, you know, the amendments to the Constitution. And those have been given very short shrift in recent years. And so the re-acquaintance with you know, our Bill of Rights as a foundation of freedom without a price tag of freedom as a notion of the beloved community is something that I think hopefully we'll see more of.

BILL MOYERS: Pat Williams and Eric Foner, thank you very much for joining us on the Journal. I've truly enjoyed this conversation.


ERIC FONER: You're welcome.

The Obama Election’s Historic Implications

November 7, 2008

The special significance of the 2008 election to a nation that has journeyed from a founding constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person to electing a black president was not lost on even President-elect Obama’s political opponents. In his concession speech on election night, Senator John McCain said, “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” As did President Bush, in remarks following the election, “They chose a president whose journey represents a triumph of the American story: a testament to hard work, optimism and faith in the enduring promise of our nation. Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day. This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes and four decades later see a dream fulfilled.”

In his own victory speech, President-elect Obama also put historical context to the moment, as seen through the life of one of his supporters, 106-year-old African-American woman Ann Nixon Cooper. Cooper was born one generation away from slavery, and lived through the century that saw the Jim Crowe south, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Bill Moyers sits down with Columbia University professor Eric Foner, who specializes in political and African-American history, and Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, to discuss the historic implications of electing Barack Obama.

Professor Foner’s publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political and social history, and the history of American race relations. His best-known books are: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of The Republican Party Before The Civil War (1970; reissued with new preface 1995) Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976); Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (1983); Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) (winner, among other awards, of the Bancroft Prize, Parkman Prize, and Los Angeles Times Book Award); The Reader’s Companion To American History (with John A. Garraty, 1991); The Story Of American Freedom (1998); and Who Owns History? Rethinking The Past In A Changing World (2002). His survey textbook of American history, Give Me Liberty! An American History and a companion volume of documents, Voices of Freedom, appeared in 2004. His most recent books are Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation And Reconstruction (2005), and Our Lincoln: New Perspectives On Lincoln And His World (2008), an edited collection of original essays. His books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Italian, Japanese, and Portugese.

About Eric Foner

Eric Foner is a winner of the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates (1991), and the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University (2006). He was named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities in 1995. In 2006, he received the Kidger Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship from the New England History Teachers Association. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy, and holds an honorary doctorate from Iona College. He has taught at Cambridge University as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, Oxford University as Harmsworth Professor of American History, Moscow State University as Fulbright Professor, and at Queen Mary, University of London as Leverhulme Visiting Scholar. He serves on the editorial boards of Past And Present and The Nation, and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review Of Books, and many other publications, and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Charlie Rose, Book Notes, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and All Things Considered, and in historical documentaries on PBS and the History Channel. He was the on-camera historian for Freedom: A History of Us, on PBS in 2003. He has lectured extensively to both academic and non-academic audiences.

About 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 We Are Not Married: A Journal of Musings on Legal Language and the Ideology of Style. In 1993, Harvard University Press published Williams’ 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 Lesson and The Search For A Room Of My Own (2004.)

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