by Jennifer Arruda and Laura Mortkowitz
Through psychology and political science, Unity Day’s keynote speaker, Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell discussed the upcoming 2008 presidential election on Tuesday, Oct. 9.
“Unity is infused with rich cultural diversity,” said Don Brown, director of the center for multicultural affairs and community service, in his introduction. “No person roams these hallways as a stranger. We celebrate our differences for they are our strength. We are many cultures and one student body.”
Harris-Lacewell, an assistant professor of African American studies and politics and social and clinical psychology at Princeton University and author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, discussed the problems facing front-running Democratic presidential candidates and the lasting effects of Hurricane Katrina on voters.
She explained that the 2008 presidential election is historic because a white woman and a black man lead the Democratics, and a Mormon and a Catholic lead the Republicans. The Democrats would have the most problems come election time because Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are so different from the concept of president, Harris-Lacewell said.
“Is Barack Obama black enough?” she asked. “Why don’t people ask if Mitt Romney is black enough, or if he would represent black interests?”
The problem revolves around the country’s schemas, or the pictures in people’s heads of how things should be, she said. In an example, she tested the audience, asking them to close their eyes and picture the first thing that came to mind when she said certain words. At the word “president” people picture someone like President John F. Kennedy. A white man.
“The schema of the president is racialized and gendered,” Harris-Lacewell said. “The fastest route to presidency is to conform to the well-worn schemas. [Obama] has, because of racial schemas in America, a very particular work to do that other candidates don’t have to do.”
Race enters this election in many ways because Hurricane Katrina will set the stage by reopening conversation on the racial gap in American political attitudes, Harris-Lacewell said.
“There’s a group of people who believe that their government will leave them to die,” she said. “There was a citizenship crisis about our government and how it cares about us.”
The racial gap, a deep and persistent gulf in public opinion between whites and blacks, is a great problem, she said. A poll given after Katrina showed that people believed the government response would have been faster if the victims were white. After Katrina, people started criticizing the government again, and black voters “displayed exceptional partisan loyalty” during the 2006 mid-term elections
Uchenna Duru, a senior Human Resource Management major and Global and Multinational Studies minor, agreed with Harris-Lacewell.
“I believe her opinions are on point because there are so many differences in people’s views on the 2008 political election,” Duru said. “The U.S. has always had an idea of what the president should be, which is a Caucasian male.”