Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Obama’s Election and New Possibilities

BOND: At a dinner party last night, I got into — I listened to a debate by two people, two psychologists, who have studied whether or not there’s an Obama effect. And the Obama effect, if there was such a thing, would be a diminution of racial prejudice — not a disappearance — diminution. And one of them said, "Of course there is and I can measure it and so forth and we’ve taken surveys and I can demonstrate it’s true," and the other one said, "Of course, there’s not, I’ve measured it and there’s no such effect." There’s only the slightest bit of difference among people who harbor racist feelings and so I wonder, are you suggesting that one of the confluences that’s occurred is the Obama election and therefore that opens the possibility for people thinking, because these two people, one of them thought, "Yes, there is a chance now to do things we couldn’t do before," and the other said, "No, we’re the same people that we were before."

DAVIS: Well, I would actually agree with both of them. We are the same people we were before. The problem still exists but there is a different kind of hope, the emergence of new possibilities. My evaluation of the Obama election is that it tells us more about who we are as a nation than it tells us about Obama, so the fact that it was possible at this moment to elect not simply an African American president but someone who identifies with the radical — black radical tradition of struggle, that to me is what is most important and I do think this has generated a sense of hope that did not exist during the Bush administration. The fact that young people played such an important role using the new technologies of communication in this campaign tells us something else. I don’t think we should get into the situation where we say either everything has been achieved by this election or nothing has been achieved. It seems like the two psychologists were having that kind of a debate.

BOND: Yes, they were.

DAVIS: But rather, let us think about it as announcing new possibilities and creating new terrain which we can use if we are able to do the work that is required to build movements for change.

BOND: At the same time, it’s distressing to me that after eight years of just an awful president, an awful administration, that it took this extraordinary person — and I think Obama is an extraordinary person — it took this extraordinary person to turn the tide. And extraordinary people don’t come along that often, in my experience, and so I wonder about the future, if we’ll slip back into our old ways.

DAVIS: Well —

BOND: I mean, I’m willing to do everything I can to make sure we don’t, but I’m fearful we might.

DAVIS: But, you see, my position is this. Yes, Barack Obama is extraordinary. It’s absolutely amazing, but he has a lot of problems and I’m very critical of him —

BOND: I'm sure.

DAVIS: — around a number of issues as well, but we would never have gotten to know this extraordinary person had not it been for the work that was done in organizing the campaign, so that is where I see the hope for the future. I think that in this country we have a tendency to alienate our own power. We like to give it up. You know, we like messiahs. We like leaders in that sense of the word and we fail to take responsibility to finish what we start and so my argument would be this is precisely the moment when we have to build another, you know, vast movement for change. This is precisely the moment to begin to talk about prison abolition. It’s the moment — it’s an auspicious moment to begin to talk about the crisis of imprisonment which has not really been on the Obama agenda in very visible ways, at least not during the last period.