On 12th October 2012, Bright Ideas Nottingham and the ACNA centre hosted a talk by Professor Matt Whitaker from Arizona University, as part of his UK tour to discuss Obama’s administration and campaign, and race issues in American politics. Below we have the coverage from the event and details of Matt’s talk.
We’re here at the ACNA centre ready to welcome Professor Matt Whitaker, who’s come all the way from Arizona in America to talk to us today about Obama and race issues within American politics. He’s currently doing a tour of the UK and after Nottingham he’s heading to London. We are very privileged to have him here today.
Lisa is kicking off the event by giving us a quick run through of Matt’s itinery:
We’re now hearing from Professor Dino Kritsiotis from The University of Nottingham, who’s giving us Matthew’s biography.
Matthew is a Professor of History at Arizona State University, as well as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is also the author of a number of books, including one on Hurricane Katrina and has an upcoming title ‘Over Jordon’ about the history of black Americans. He is a very inspirational figure. Matt is currently touring Ireland as well as the UK.
Lisa is now introducing our co-host, Julie Cassidy-Gossling – a very inspirational woman! Julie has been involved in community development work for many years and has also been the chairperson for Nottingham Irish Centre. She is also the founder of FIANN- ‘Friendly Irish Advice Nottingham and Notts’, which helps members of the Irish community who are living in Nottingham.
Julie is talking to us about an article she read on slavery. She is now reading us another article on white-supremacy. It is clear that the Irish suffered great racism at the hands of the British, who viewed them to be inferior. This racist viewpoint also affected other groups like African Caribbeans and Native Americans.
Julie offers Matthew an ‘Irish Welcome’- “Come right on in and sit down by the fire.”
We’re now hearing from Matthew himself.
Matthew has wanted to visit the UK and Ireland for a long time and feels blessed to be here.
When Matthew was younger, he always wanted to know the context of the things people were saying. “In our society we get soundbites without knowing what they are attached too… This only causes more frustration.”
Matthew’s parents separated and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.
His mother was a teacher- “We never had much of anything but our house was always full of students… I grew up with diversity.”
Matthew comes from a very diverse family- many of his cousins are half Mexican.
He was very much influenced by the hard work his mother and grandmother did. He noticed that his grandmother, who was black, was cleaning the houses of white people and they treated her differently. This led him to begin to ask questions- “Do we come out of the womb with a predisposition to wealth?”
Matthew felt a strong desire to help people. He finished his BA and then decided to become a social worker. However, he found that he couldn’t help people as he was fighting a fixed system. He could only put numbers into a computer and provide handouts, but that wasn’t what people wanted.
Matthew went back to education and studied history- “How did we get here? Where did we come from?”
Matthew decided to become a teacher.
Matthew tells us about the problems in Arizona with inequality and prejudice views.
Currently, 62% of the USA are white but estimates suggest that, over the coming years, this will drop to 42%. The percetages of people of colour will surpass the number of white people. These statistics scare people and fuel conflict.
People are asking the questions- ‘What is an American? What do they look like? How do they speak? What music do they listen to?’
Matthew feels that the image of what it is to be an American has been controlled by middle class white Protestants, who rule the country disproportionatley.
Matthew feels that Barack Obama’s presidency is a great shift for America. It is a remarkable feet.
Matthew remembers being taught at school, in the 1970s, that America was progressive but then watching riots on TV and seeing African Americans abused.
When it became clear that Obama stood a chance of being elected, racism was unleshed.
When people realised ‘This could actually happen’, fears began to bubble over.
Since Obama’s election, Matthew feels that “The office is seen to be tainted”. People aren’t resepcting the office now because of the person who’s in it.
The expectations for Obama, both in the USA and abroad, were “too astronomically high for him to achieve them”, but the whole message behind Obama’s campaign was ‘Change’. This made people think that America had reached a level of racial harmony that it hadn’t.
The hostility towards Obama has been seen through the fact that everything Obama has suggested has been opposed, no matter what the idea was.
95% of African Americans voted for Obama, as well as large numbers of Latinos, Gay and Lesbain groups and other minorities. “He’s let some of these people down but we mustn’t forget he’s a politician.”
Matthew questions ‘What are Obama’s prospects for being re-elected?’
“Before, we voted for the symbol but now, we’re voting for the man.” Matthew feels that Obama will definately secure the African American vote again.
Now, before Matthew says any more, it’s question time…
First we’re hearing from Councillor Eunice Campbell.
Eunice had a dream that Obama won the election in the United States the first time round and he did! Eunice doesn’t feel that Obama has let people down but that he had a tough job to fix everything.
Eunice went to visit the USA, including New York, to see projects that were going on there.
Her question is- ‘What challenges do you see coming up for Obama this election?’
Matt praises Obama’s original election campaign, including the use of social media and short campaign slogans.
After Obama was elected, he disappeared from the public eye, but Matthew feels that was because “he inhertied a capsizing ship” and had a lot to deal with. “The nation was defaulting left and right… we were going bankrupt…People were asking ‘What about gays in the military?’ just weeks into his presidency, but he had much bigger issues to deal with.”
Proffesor Kritsiotis adds that he feels that, during his campaign, Obama didn’t yet know the limitations of his office. Professor Kritsiotis asks- “Does Obama need to re-capture his 2008 passion?”
Matthew says- “Yes, he needs to prove to folks that he still has the fire in his belly.”
Matthew points out that, whilst Obama has the pressure of running the country and an election campaign, all Mitt Romney has to do is point out Obama’s weaknesses.
Recently, Obama did not do well in the first debate but Matthew says- “Regan did horribly in his first debate but then he came back and dominated.”
Matthew believes that Obama will come back in the next debate and that we’ll see a different side to him.
Another audience member asks a question- ‘Why didn’t Obama sack that commander in Cuba who failed to carry out an order?’
Matthew says- “Before he was elected, Obama believed that dealing with Guantanamo Bay would be easier than it was… He made a calculated choice which many of us didn’t like.” Matthew thinks that Obama realised early on that he wasn’t going to win on this issue, so he gave up.
Question- “What would be the impact on African Americans if Obama wasn’t elected?”
Matthew says- “I feel he has secured his place in history just by being elected… I think what his election has done is acted like an astrigent and sucked all these issues to the fore… Even if he’s not re-elected, his election has inspired a conversation on how far we have come…. Most black youths in my generation have been taught that we have to be better than our white peers because it’s so much harder for us.”
Question- “In the community we’re always looking for leaders. In terms of looking for the next leader, the next Prime Minister, should we be making a comparison and looking for a black Prime Miniter here?”
Matthew says- “I was asked the same question in Arizona…Should we have a black leader here?…but Arizona is completely different to Chicago. Not everywhere has the ability to support a candidate like Obama. The question is flawed. There are plenty of black people who are movers and shakers behind the scenes. By telling people to follow Obama’s path, we’re assigning our youth to boxes- ‘If you want to be succesful, you have to follow Barack Obama’s path’ but not everyone can follow that path…”
Matthew talks about how some of the things Obama says are purely political. For example, when Obama said “America’s relationship with Israel is sacrosanct”, many African Americans said ‘Why can’t he says that about us?’, but Matthew feels that Obama only said this statement to try to keep the peace.
Question- “…I worked at a hospital and saw pateints having to end their treatment because they couldn’t pay. We are moving towards private healthcare. I have heard that there are things Cameron has put in place that cannot be reversed when he’s left office. When Obama leaves, will his health changes stay in place?”
Matthew believes that, even if Obama stays in office, people will try to undo his healthcare changes but this will be difficult. “By and large it’s gonna be with us for quite some time… If you are at the poverty level or below there are subsidies to help you.”
Shad Ali is now talking about the number of wars that have started under Obama’s presidency, as well as environmental problems.
Matthew responds by talking about Obama’s belief that America is “a magical place where anything is possible”, as mentioned in Obama’s book. Obama believes in American power. Matthew thinks that Obama does not believe that American Imperialism is a bad thing- He feels he is doing other countries a favour by bringing them American democracy. However, Matthew does not feel that the system in America is a true democracy. Matthew talks about the disappointed that was felt amongst those who had voted for Obama when he did things that they did not agree with, leading them to question “What sacrifices do black people have to make to have that kind of power?”
Question- “Did America just elect Obama to look good to the rest of the world?”
Matthew feels that there were a lot of Americans who felt unhappy with the way that America was portrayed / perceived to be by the rest of the world and these people did want to change these perceptions. “Obama’s predecessor (George Bush) couldn’t have done any worse for the global image of America.” Some people voted for Obama to try to earn back America’s respect.
“Obama doesn’t represent the changing ideals of America but the changing face of America…It’s a baby step,but it’s a step.”
Matthew’s mother would tell him when he was a child that he could be anything he wanted, including president, though she admitted to him since that she didn’t really belive it but when Obama was elected she felt that now it had become true.
Question- “Why wasn’t Obama ‘shot down’?”
Matthew says- “The attempts on Obama’s life are seven times greater than his predecessors…In Arizona, where I live, anyone can carry a weapon, even an assault rifle…Under that context, Obama’s demonstrated a lot of courage- he’s a strong man.”
Matthew is now talking about how one Governor came up to Obama and physically pointed her finger in Obama’s face. In the past, this would have been unheard of but a lot of people have disrespected the president and his office since Obama’s election. The far right have even produced offensive newspaper cartoons of Obama as a monkey or a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. The left haven’t really got that involved because the right are already attacking Obama so badly.
In his lecture tonight at 5:15pm at The University of Nottingham, Matthew will be talking about the ebb and flow of progress.
Question- “Can one man solve the world’s problems? What about those around Obama?”
Matthew says- “I agree that people have underestimated the power of presidency…The average citizens are electing congress…It’s their responsibilty to veto….Obama could have made better choices about his cabinet members. He bought in cabinet members who were known to have said racist and sexist comments. He started off surrounded by these people!”
Final question- “What do you want us to take away from this discussion?”
Matthew says that he wants us to be more connected to our political system and how we can influence it / have a say by talking about these things and having discussions like this!
Thanks Matthew for a very enlightening discussion.
We hope to see you all tonight at 5:15pm at The University of Nottingham for Matthew’s lecture! We can’t wait!! 🙂