We Must Not Turn Back the Clock on Sexual Assault

The following is cross-posted with the Washington Post.

When I was a student in the 1970s and 1980s, it was not uncommon for male professors to use their classroom authority to initiate sexual relations with their students. Of course, teachers didn’t see it quite that way, thinking their evident charms just encouraged their young charges to act on their desires. But once activists and authorities put these abusive relationships in the spotlight, it became clear that the sexual attention from those with power to grade them could be an important restriction on students’ educational opportunities. Sexual pressure from those in official positions on campus was often a type of harassment, and in its most blatant forms a civil rights issue.

Building on this activist work, one of the Obama administration’s most significant legacies in higher education was its use of Title IX and the Office for Civil Rights to deal with sexual harassment assault on campus, especially by other students. “Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn,” Vice President Joe Biden declared in the spring of 2011. “That’s why we’re taking new steps to help our nation’s schools, universities, and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus.” Three years later, President Barack Obama made this work even more personal in launching notalone.gov, a website to help survivors of sexual violence: “We need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.”

The Trump administration has made no secret of its disdain for strict prohibitions on sexual assault and harassment. As President Trump famously said, “when you’re a star … you can do anything.” Such an attitude coming from our national bully pulpit, combined with a blanket critique of campus disciplinary proceedings, threatens to undermine much of the progress of the last decade. There is, of course, room for improvement in campus proceedings, and strong criticism may be warranted in the handling of particular cases. Many have questioned the lower evidentiary requirements for finding someone responsible for assault (“preponderance of evidence” rather than “clear and convincing”). Although this standard of proof parallels requirements in many civil cases, it can be problematic when one considers the profound effects of a false conviction.

At my university, we regularly review procedures to ensure that adjudication is supportive of those who come forward with reports of being attacked, and that the process is fair in assigning any responsibility to a particular individual. We will pay close attention to the reports filed with the Department of Education in the coming weeks, and we hope to learn from them. It is clear that universities must continue to protect the presumption of innocence and due process for anyone facing serious allegations, even as they protect the rights and well-being of those who have been assaulted.

Of course, easier said than done. Given the ambiguity that often exists around consent, some critics claim that colleges and universities would be better off not dealing at all with the sexual behavior of their students. But what happens when that behavior becomes violent? For many critics there is a basic bottom line: sexual assault is a crime. Use the criminal-justice system and not the code of student conduct, they say, to determine if a crime occurred and what the consequences should be.

This criticism is simplistic and out of touch with the realities of student lives and the criminal-justice system. At Wesleyan, we work closely with local law enforcement so that if a survivor of sexual assault wants to pursue a criminal complaint, she or he has a clear, workable path to do so. But those who point to the criminal justice system as an arena of fairness for rape victims are at best being naive. Cooperating with the criminal-justice system should in no way ease the burden on colleges to create a more equitable campus culture. Federal officials in the Obama years were right to remind us of this burden in case the voices of often vulnerable student groups were not coming through clearly enough.

Adjudication guidelines and the spectrum of a college’s responsibility in regard to sexual harassment and assault will doubtless continue to evolve, but it would be a huge setback if new policies discouraged victims from reporting and schools retreated to smug satisfaction about the lack of sexual assault complaints on their campuses. Colleges should make it easier for students to report assaults and to have confidence in a process of adjudication.

Higher education must not be allowed to return to a time when schools could turn a blind eye to sexual assault without fear of consequences. As survivors came to realize that they “are not alone,” they forced colleges to take sexual assault seriously as a civil rights issue. Part of this was just shining a bright light on the problem — for example, requiring the publication of assault statistics. At my own university, there was a sharp increase in the number of reported sexual assaults. This is a painful, painful process — but a necessary one. Colleges that have few to no reported incidents of sexual assault are today viewed not with admiration, but with suspicion.

The Obama administration was not “authoritarian” in insisting that colleges and universities have a responsibility to try to correct abusive aspects of student culture that often prevent women (and members of LGBTQ communities) from having access to the same benefits of higher education that most men do. Accusations of overreach should remind us of complaints decades ago about the federal government’s so-called excessive role in promoting desegregation, and they dovetail alarmingly with pleas from today’s polluters (and their new friends at the Environmental Protection Agency) who grumble about the government’s “overreach” in trying to combat climate change.

Clearer expectations and better disciplinary procedures are being developed at many universities, and we must calibrate campus disciplinary proceedings so as to protect the innocent. But we must also resist the urge to turn back the clock to a time when those who were raped were greeted with mistrust and worse. Lately the public has been treated to a litany of cases of men whose parents complain about their innocence, of sexually detailed stories of murky encounters that are subsequently recoded as assaults, and of tribunals that use murky pseudo-science to understand trauma and memory. These stories should not obscure the fact that sexual assault destroys lives and undermines a university’s ethical obligation and educational mission. We in higher education must protect the rights of the accused without relaxing the civil rights imperative to eliminate sexual assault as a part of campus culture. It’s our job.

We Can Stop Violence Against Women

As I concluded my time in Washington D.C. this week, I was impressed to see the following statement released by the White House. First, it quotes Vice-President Biden:

Freedom from sexual assault is a basic human right.  No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman for any reason — any reason — other than self-defense.  He knows that a nation’s decency is in large part measured by how it responds to violence against women.  He knows that our daughters, our sisters, our wives, our mothers, our grandmothers have every single right to expect to be free from violence and sexual abuse.  No matter what she’s wearing, no matter whether she’s in a bar, in a dormitory, in the back seat of a car, on a street, drunk or sober, no man has a right to go beyond the word “No”.  And if she can’t consent, it also means no.  That too makes it a crime.

President Obama then went on to say:

It’s about all of us — our moms, our wives, our sisters, our daughters, our sons.  Sexual assault is an affront to our basic decency and humanity.  And for survivors, the awful pain can take years, even decades to heal.  Sometimes it lasts a lifetime.  And wherever it occurs — whether it’s in our neighborhoods or on our college campuses, our military bases or our tribal lands — it has to matter to all of us. ….

So sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals.  It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country.  It tears apart the fabric of our communities.  And that’s why we’re here today — because we have the power to do something about it as a government, as a nation.  We have the capacity to stop sexual assault, support those who have survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice. …

Today, we’re taking another important step with a focus on our college campuses.  It is estimated that 1 in 5 women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there — 1 in 5.  These young women worked so hard just to get into college, often their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it.  So when they finally make it there only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families, it’s an affront to everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve.  It’s totally unacceptable. …

My hope and intention is, is that every college president who has not personally been thinking about this is going to hear about this report and is going to go out and figure out who is in charge on their campus of responding properly, and what are the best practices, and are we doing everything that we should be doing.  And if you’re not doing that right now, I want the students at the school to ask the president what he is doing or she is doing.  And perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted, you are not alone.  You will never be alone.  We have your back.  I’ve got your back.

I applaud the president and vice-president for taking on this crucial issue. In a blog over the summer I wrote that “violence of any kind has no place on our campus, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it plays on social stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. We applaud groups active across the country, like Know Your IX, which are calling on students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with our mission to promote progressive liberal arts education for all.”

I know that we can constantly improve our practices and policies for dealing with sexual violence on campus, including violence against gay, lesbian and trans students. We do this not out of an effort to appear to have the correct politics or to avoid bad press and law suits.  We do this, as I’ve said before, because freedom from gender and sexual violence is essential to our mission as a community of learning. An inclusive learning community is one free of violence, and that’s the kind of community all of us — students, faculty and staff — work to build at Wesleyan.

The Obama administration is right to call attention to this vital issue. If anyone at Wesleyan has ideas about things we can do better in this area, please let me know. By eradicating sexual violence, together we can make our campus more inclusive and equitable.

Moving Our Campus Community Forward

Today I emailed the following message to Wesleyan students:

As I sat nervously watching election returns Tuesday night, I wondered how the country would digest the outcome, whatever it turned out to be. This election cycle has been so bitter and brutish, would representatives be able to work together to get things done? Would we find ways to tackle the important problems that we all know are undermining our economy and our culture?

In his victory speech, President Obama evoked the spirit of service that he also spoke about in his Wesleyan Address at Commencement in 2008. He talked about the sacrifices that people make for one another in tough times, and about the shared hope for a better future that he believed would overcome our differences. “The task,” he said, “of perfecting our union moves forward.”

At Wesleyan this year we have seen our fair share of differences on issues ranging from teaching loads for visiting professors to the possibilities of building a small cogeneration plant for backup power in the event of emergencies. The most important issue that has sowed divisions has been our decision to allocate a defined amount of the budget for financial aid, which we expect will mean we are “need-blind” for about 90% of the entering class. I think this will allow us to meet the full needs of the students who are here, preserve diversity, and keep our debt levels low while restraining future tuition increases. Others think we are abandoning not just a technique for achieving diversity but a key principle. We have our differences.

We have been discussing these issues with students, faculty, alumni and staff, even as we try to raise more funds for financial aid. For the first time in its history, Wesleyan is entering a fundraising campaign whose highest priority is endowment for financial aid. I have been traveling around the country seeking support for this campaign, and alumni and parents have been responding with great generosity. Last year we secured more than 60 million dollars in gifts and pledges, and we are keeping up that pace this year. I believe that supporting financial aid is more important now than ever, and on this, I think, we agree.

Debates about financial aid have exposed divisions within our campus community. To ensure a sustainable economic model, some think we should raise tuition more aggressively, others think we should lay off staff or faculty, while others want to cut programs they deem less important to the student experience. I’ve been listening to and participating in these debates, and I’ll continue to do so. We have significant financial resources, and we have enormous talent on this campus. We will continue to energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience while working within a sustainable economic model. We have our differences, but what unites us is far more important.

In a far uglier vein, recently some have tried to exploit or create divisions in our campus community by appealing to racism and hatred. In anonymous posts on websites known for their vulgarity, homophobia and misogyny, there have been racist comments posted about Wes students and Middletown residents. They are hurtful to students of color and to all who value diversity and inclusion.  I have not spoken out on this until now because I think such comments are beneath contempt.

Students have also raised concerns about recent campus security alerts that used racial identifications in describing alleged perpetrators. Were these more hurtful than useful? I have also heard complaints from students of color who feel marginalized or intimidated by certain aspects of our campus culture. We must make diversity meaningful on campus by creating a culture of inclusion. There is work to do.

On Monday night in Beckham Hall at 7:30 pm students have organized a forum to discuss issues of race and inclusion on campus. Sonia Manjon will moderate a panel on which I will participate with student and Public Safety representatives. I hope there will be a good turnout so that we can have a frank conversation about how we can create a campus climate in which all are treated with respect. More than that, we want a campus that builds on acceptance, creating bonds of affectionate solidarity.

The project of building this community is ongoing, and I am eager to help lead it. I want students to know that I am available to meet with any group, formal or informal. I have regular office hours on Monday afternoons, and scheduled sessions with the WSA, and Argus editors during the semester. I frequently meet with student groups at various times throughout the week. The open forums I’ve held with students have been candid exchanges, and I’ve learned much from them. I’m happy to hold additional meetings of that kind. I am eager to hear your views and find ways to join forces to enable our school live up to our aspirations for it.

I am continually inspired by the talent, energy and purpose of Wesleyan students – on stage, in athletic competitions, in classrooms, studios and research labs. We are not, to paraphrase President Obama, as divided as our politics sometime suggest. We are brought together in shared hope to ensure that Wesleyan will be a champion of progressive liberal arts education for generations to come. Together, we will move our campus community forward.

Our Desperate Need for Honest Leadership

This past weekend I posted the following on the HuffingtonPost, and it provoked a fair amount of comments. I cross-post it here, though it is somewhat more directly political than what I usually write for this blog. I won’t use this blog to support specific candidates, but from time to time political issues are so relevant to educational ones, and I do write on a variety of topics...

What a week it has been! On Monday the New York Times‘ conservative columnist, David Brooks, was criticizing the Republican Party in the harshest terms. On Friday, the paper’s liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was attacking President Obama for adopting the conservative fiscal agenda and betraying his core progressive creed. What’s going on?

For Brooks, we are faced with what he called “the mother of all no-brainers.” We now have broad agreement in Congress that we must deal with the long-term deficit, and this itself is a victory for the Republicans. They control the political discourse, and they can achieve many of their economic goals. But in a move that recalls the Dems’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Republicans refuse to make a deal that would reduce the deficit by trillions.

Brooks is scathing:

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

And he goes on:

Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

He concludes that if the talks on the debt ceiling fail, it will be clear that the Republicans are not fit to govern.

Krugman is just as exercised by what he sees as Obama’s failure to apply either progressive values or sensible economic principles in his approach to dealing with the Republican deficit hawks:

But let’s be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth.

For years, Krugman has viewed Obama’s compromises as an abdication of his responsibilities, and he speculates that the president is trying a Clintonesque maneuver that may have political sense but is an economic disaster. In a period of anemic job growth, Obama’s channeling of Herbert Hoover’s economic philosophies will only prolong the experience of dire recession for millions of Americans.

Brooks and Krugman both see that the Republican Party has been enormously successful in focusing attention on fiscal responsibility, which is resulting across the country in massive cuts to spending. These cuts will necessarily cause most pain to the most vulnerable — those who depend on government services. If the GOP were really serious about fiscal responsibility, its members would complement the cuts already won with increased revenue from those who have reaped the greatest rewards from our economic environment. This is what a political party ready to govern should do.

Meanwhile, we have an epidemic of unemployment, and nothing that the government is now doing is addressing this issue. Where is the enormous intellectual and political energy that Obama’s team displayed in preventing a banking system collapse, and that saved a large segment of the American automobile industry? Why has the president not had the courage of his convictions? Can he really believe that an imaginary bipartisan political pragmatism will trump economic realities?

Sensible government seems to have become a contradiction in terms. Democratic leaders have no ideas of their own, while Republican leaders are dedicated to protecting the rich — not to fiscal responsibility. Republican “non-starter” talk about additional revenue is an ideological fixation, not an economic theory. Democrats pandering to their base with calls to maintain the entitlement status quo won’t produce a sustainable health care system.

Protecting the least vulnerable remains the Republican’s highest priority, while protecting their political future seems to be what concerns Democrats. Where can we find honest leadership worthy of the name? We desperately need it.

Dear Mr. President…

I sent the following letter to our 44th President a few days ago.

Dear President Obama,

I write just a few days before your Inauguration to send you my congratulations, best wishes, and deep hopes as you begin your tenure as president. The impact of your Commencement Address at Wesleyan University in the spring still echoes on our campus, and although we know that college students everywhere identify with your message of hope and change, we at Wesleyan feel a special kinship with you.

In a recent video communication you call on Americans to step forward in service to our communities, our regions and our country. This is a call that resonates powerfully with the Wesleyan family. For generations our students, faculty and alumni have connected their education with making a positive contribution to the world around us. We have long believed in the power of a liberal arts education to help one not only to live a more reflective and considered life as an individual, but to enable one to engage with one’s community in an effective and generous way.

In response to your call Wesleyan will strive to reinvigorate the public service dimensions of the education we offer. You have inspired us to find “our moon, our levee, our dream,” and we will set our goals and work together to accomplish them.

From the same marble terrace from which you delivered your Commencement Address, Martin Luther King Jr. told our students that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” Like you, he knew that we must join forces to realize the potential for justice in our country, in our history. Mr. President, I pledge that we at Wesleyan will do everything we can to help you in this endeavor.

Congratulations on your inauguration. With your leadership and our joint service we can make substantial progress in achieving our goals.

Yours sincerely,

Michael S. Roth
President

Congratualtions, Mr. President

click photo to enlarge

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Hope and Purpose

Last night I went to sleep after knowing that all the networks had called the Western states for Barack Obama (Hon ’08), ensuring his victory in the election. We’d spent much of the evening with colleagues and friends watching the electoral map turn blue, but it was late and Sophie had school in the morning….

photo by Jessica Brownfeld '10
photo by Jessica Brownfeld ’10

Sometime after midnight I awoke to hear more than the usual roar from outside our windows. I regretted that I hadn’t gotten over to Usdan earlier in the evening, and I lay in bed thinking that this was a campus celebration I shouldn’t miss. Throwing on some clothes and a Wes softball cap, I headed over to the University Center and saw folks dancing, cheering and chanting. Students who had worked hard on campaigns, and others who had just invested their hopes in Barack’s message of change were out in force on the terrace of Usdan, sharing in this historic, glorious moment. We waved an American flag, and I marveled at the feelings of hope and enthusiasm that were rippling through this Wesleyan crowd.

photo by Jessica Brownfeld '10
photo by Jessica Brownfeld ’10

I have been proud of the efforts of our students, faculty and staff as they have registered voters, organized neighbors, and articulated fundamental issues. As our president-elect said last night, we have a long road ahead of us, but if we can work together with a spirit of optimism and purpose, we have an opportunity to improve our country. Let us seize that opportunity!

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Great Day for Wesleyan

Sunday’s Commencement Ceremony was a wonderful conclusion to my first year as Wesleyan’s 16th president. The graduate students and the class of 2008 received more than their diplomas on Andrus Field. They were able to listen to one of America’s most eloquent speakers reflect on the call to service that characterizes the Kennedy legacy, and renew that call for this generation of students. Senator Kennedy’s family helped make this happen, and we are so grateful to them. Senator Obama energized his audience not with a partisan political message, but with a challenge to us all to live up to our best selves by connecting to a larger purpose. We are deeply grateful to Senator Obama for “pinch hitting” for his friend, and we extend to Senator Kennedy our heartfelt best wishes as he confronts his health issues in the coming weeks and months.

The Wesleyan staff worked continuously to ensure that Commencement and Reunion Weekend was a success, and I was so impressed with the effort, their good cheer and their talents. Thanks to all – student workers, public safety, volunteers, faculty and staff – for making our Commencement memorable and enjoyable!!

Senator Obama’s speech and my own remarks can be accessed via our homepage, or at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/newsrel/announcement/rc_2008

The campus is almost empty now, and the crews are taking down the tents. I’ve said my goodbyes to the many seniors I got to know this year, as they packed up, vowed to stay in touch with friends, and headed off into life after college. I told them all to come back to campus often, and I look forward to reminiscing with them about the great 2008 Commencement when they return for their own reunions!

PS HERE IS A FINE SET OF PHOTOS VIA THE LINK

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Friendship

It has been a very moving and intense few days. We were delighted to be hosting Senator Edward Kennedy as this year’s Commencement speaker, and then deeply disturbed about his hospitalization and cancer diagnosis. Our hearts go out to the Kennedy family. Senator Kennedy, a Wesleyan honorary degree recipient, has great family ties to our school. His son, Ted Jr., graduated 25 years ago, and his stepdaughter Caroline is in this class of 2008. Senator Kennedy has been one of the great supporters of higher education during his many years of public service. His dedication to civil rights, to labor, to health care, and to a pragmatic and principled politics, has made him one of the most productive legislators in modern American history.

When news of Senator Kennedy’s medical condition became widely known, his family assured me that they would see to it that if he were unable to deliver the Commencement address they would suggest a suitable alternative. Among those asking the Senator what they could do to be helpful, was Barack Obama. “Ted and I talked about me filling in for him at Wesleyan University earlier this week. Considering what he’s done for me and for our country, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. So I’m looking forward to standing in his place on Sunday even though I know I won’t be able to fill his shoes,” Senator Obama said.

Senator Obama’s speech to our graduates this Sunday is an act of friendship, and friendship is one of the defining features of our Commencement. The graduate students who have finished their degrees and the class of 2008 will be leaving Middletown on Sunday afternoon, but they will be taking with them relationships that will last a lifetime. As I meet with alumni across the country, a common thread in their description of why Wesleyan is important to them is that they developed relationships here which last a lifetime. The devotion to alma mater is also a devotion to the friendships forged in study, or in sports, in the arts, or in civic engagement.

We will see that devotion in these days leading up to commencement. Alumni from more than fifty years ago, and alumni from our most recent classes are coming back on campus for the weekend. My own class, 1978, will be celebrating our 30th reunion, and I look forward to seeing many friends as they re-discover their old homes, dorms and classrooms.

Senator Obama’s willingness to “stand in his friend’s place” on Sunday is not a campaign event but a poignant expression of friendship. There will be many other such expressions occurring all over campus as we welcome a new group of Wesleyan grads into the alumni family.

P.S. Please remember that Commencement is not a grand public occasion but the culmination of the Wesleyan experience for the graduates and their families.

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Back in the Swing of Things

Our students have come back to Middletown, and those who have been here all along (internationals, thesis writers, athletes, and yes, graduate students) are realizing that now there is just one long sprint until the end of the semester. There is almost a frenzy of activity from now until Commencement. This week the letters from admission go out announcing who will be admitted to the Class of 2012. Meanwhile, seniors are busy finishing their projects and, in many cases, looking for jobs that begin post-graduation. Midterms and research papers are being prepared, and faculty are busy grading. The easy rhythms of spring break are already distant.

From my office window I see the athletic grounds crew preparing the baseball field for upcoming contests. Men’s baseball and women’s softball are returning from trips to sunnier climes, and this week we have games but we also expect a little snow. Men’s and women’s lacrosse have already been busy after their spring break trips, and the tennis teams are also in full gear. Our student athletes add a great dimension to our campus, and there will be many great opportunities to cheer on the Red and Black.

In addition to their normal duties, several faculty members are working in small committees to refine ideas for curricular innovation that I wrote about in a previous entry. I am so impressed by the professors’ willingness to consider how we integrate the academic and the co-curricular, and to think creatively about what interdisciplinary study will mean in the future. From creativity to civic engagement, our teachers find ways to integrate their own scholarly and artistic work into a vibrant undergraduate curriculum.

Over the break there was a controversy on campus concerning whether Wesleyan should post on its Web site an op-ed piece published in the Hartford Courant by Melanye Price, an assistant professor in our Government Department. We publish links to many popular press articles by Wesleyan people, but we are specifically forbidden (because of our not-for-profit tax status) from participating in election activity in support of a candidate. Would posting a link to Professor Price’s op-ed piece, which is very sympathetic to Barack Obama, violate this IRS rule? Or would we just be providing a link rather than an endorsement? Surely, we also could post a link to another article by Wesleyan faculty backing John McCain or Hillary Clinton.

Our legal adviser thought we shouldn’t post a link, but some faculty wondered if we were avoiding politics in ways that distort who we really are as an institution. The IRS rules have to do with candidates during an election year – not just taking sides on issues. We didn’t post the link on the home page, but I am not confident that we shouldn’t have done so. Here’s the link to Professor Price’s interesting article You can decide for yourself.

[the link is now down, so here is the article from the Hartford Courant, March 16, 2008, downloaded the text from Lexis-Nexis.]

WHAT OBAMA MEANS;
DARING TO HOPE: CANDIDATE POSES STARK TURN FOR PERCEPTION OF RACE IN
AMERICA

BYLINE: MELANYE T. PRICE

Media pundits and supporters claim Barack Obama is at his best when viewed in person, so I went to the recent Obama rally at the XL Center in Hartford to see for myself. Ultimately, I came away convinced that Obama actually could succeed. I found myself both embracing and eschewing the conflicting meanings of an Obama presidency.

The most audaciously hopeful aspect of an Obama rally has to be the attendees, who represent every demographic imaginable. Waiting with me were professors, white suburban mothers, Obama gear-clad teenagers, an older African American couple, and a group of young black and Latino men.

As we waited with thousands, we became unlikely allies, holding places for bathroom breaks, scouting the best entrance and seats and discussing Obama’s appeal. Were we a “grand coalition for change” as Obama suggested? Moreover, could he translate our differing versions of change into coherent policies?

Seeing the diversity of people gathered had a strong effect, which was augmented by the fervor of his youngest supporters. When the rally began, I cheered for them as much as for Obama. Their enthusiasm made his success more urgent, if only to sustain this youthful energy and burgeoning community. In one sense, Obama was right: America’s promise is the potential for citizens to unite across differences.

Despite this, I was plagued by the precariousness of having Obama become the definition or model of black behavior for African Americans and ultimately all Americans. His is an engaging and captivating message, but not the only one that other blacks would deliver.

At the rally, a young black girl wore a button with Obama dressed as Superman that read “Super Obama.” This image resonated with me because like the comic book hero, Obama comes with his own Kryptonite. First, like other contenders, Obama cannot be all things to all people when concrete policies supplant grand concepts. More disturbing, however, is my fear of what Obama’s candidacy – win or lose – means for race in America.

We saw in Iowa how self-congratulatory many whites were of their ability to overcome America’s racist history to endorse an African American. Obama’s initial success signaled to many that the racism of the past had greatly dissipated. Should he actually secure the nomination or the presidency, would it provide conclusive evidence that the nation has finally entered a color-blind future?

This is the danger of a deracialized (or “transcendent”) campaign strategy. While racial inequality remains a central feature of American life, black candidates who directly attack that inequality are sure to repel many white voters and candidates like Obama will be more successful.

Likewise, protest-oriented (read “angry”) black grass-roots advocates may find it difficult to gain political traction in post-Obama America. If Obama is the new prototype for black political activity – less focused on race, less angry, more hopeful, “clean, articulate” and so on – what will this mean for focused efforts to combat racial inequality?

Furthermore, listening to Obama, I wondered if the greatest danger for me and other blacks is that if he loses it will confirm enduring fears that despite public rhetoric, when the votes count, whites will not endorse or accept blacks as leaders. If the most hopeful and non-angry (and maybe the most educated and prepared) African American candidate cannot crash the privileged gates of political power, who will? Put simply, I am not sure that blacks can take this kind of rejection.

That little girl with the Super Obama button cannot, and I fear for others. Blacks are told “no” in myriad ways in life, and it would be especially painful to have Super Obama rejected as well. This is an implicit concern, I believe, of many blacks, which explains increased black support for Obama after Iowa. Many blacks withheld judgment and support as they waited to see whether Obama could truly attract white support in sufficient numbers.

In the same way, the Clintons knew repetitive emphasis on his blackness could hurt his potential with many white voters.

Leaving the XL Center, I was afloat on the crowd’s enthusiasm, the community it embodied, and partially Obama’s words. I also remembered the power of hope. Not hope for an Obama presidency. Not even Obama’s brand of race-neutral, bipartisan hope.

Instead, I remembered the hopes of voting rights advocates, the freedom riders, and my own single mother at the bus stop too many cold mornings. I remembered that blacks have lost over and over again, but they got up and kept moving. I thought about how we might have described other ragtag coalitions like those in line with me. Only these coalitions were facing bigger odds – slavery’s abolition or Jim Crow’s defeat – and marshaled varied and unusual allies.

I could not be complicit in the loss of hope or reinforce the jaded expectations. I could not let past losses rob them or me of this victory. I knew when I entered that arena that I would be voting for Obama, but when I left I knew with greater clarity why.

Melanye T. Price is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University.

Copyright 2008 The Hartford Courant Company
All Rights Reserved

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