Connecticut College News
Obama will need to continue a policy of "progressive pragmatism," said Professor David Canton02/13/2009
(Left to right) Jay Levin '73, Ahmed Kanna from Trinity College and David Canton, assistant professor of history at Connecticut College, discuss the Obama presidency.
As the newest man to take the helm for the United States, President Barack Obama faces some tough challenges: a struggling economy, war, inadequate healthcare.
But experts at a recent panel discussion at the College said one of the hardest challenges he'll have to face will be to speak about change in a way that doesn't alienate and divide: black against white, left against right or democrat against republican.
"How do you create a language of discourse that's win win, not zero sum?" David Canton, assistant professor of history, asked at the packed panel discussion, "The Challenge of Change: The Obama Presidency."
Citing examples from U.S. history, Canton - who specializes in the study of 20th century American social history, the Civil Rights movement, urban history and hip hop music and black culture in post-industrial America - referred to a failed post-Civil War initiative called the "Blair Bill," which promised to extend educational funds to the poor illiterate south by the proportion of illiteracy of each state.
As a disproportionate number of blacks were illiterate due to the still recent downfall of slavery, whites rose up in disagreement, arguing that blacks would be receiving more money than whites. The entire initiative failed, and the money never reached the illiterate of the South.
"You can't be so committed to racism that you just let your own people suffer," said Canton, explaining that everyone loses when the country is divided.
In order to effectively carry out change, Canton said, Obama will need to continue a policy of "progressive pragmatism," sitting lawmakers, diplomats and other leaders down together at the same table for a discussion above solving America's greatest problems.
Ahmed Kanna, visiting fellow at the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity College, said that while outward racism is no longer acceptable, it is still acceptable to be classist, making it even more important for Obama to bring disparate groups together, rather than divide.
Attorney Jay Levin '73, who has been involved with governmental affairs and lobbying throughout his professional life, argued that while not as public, racism still exists in America.
"We are not yet in the post-racial discussion," he said. "There are still places where people unabashedly talk about how it's not okay to have an African American President."
The discussion was held during the campus' weekly common hour, during which the entire campus community is encouraged to come together to share in collective discourse.
The event was part of the Holleran Center's "Challenges of Our Times" series, which explores current issues facing the local and global communities.
For more about President Obama, check out an article by Rick Semiatin '80, assistant professor of government at American University, in the upcoming spring issue of CC: Connecticut College Magazine. He broadcasted live from Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day and will share his reflections.