Professors talk race with Dems

With four weeks until Election Day, professors David Blight and Elizabeth Alexander joined the Yale College Democrats on Monday night to discuss the effects of racial politics in the presidential race.

After thanking the Yale College Democrats for their efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates, Alexander began the conversation in the Branford College common room by talking about how voters can be “better readers of racial codes.” She said academic skills can be useful for “decoding” the racial subtexts in messages conveyed by President Barack Obama and former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney in their contest for the presidency.

Alexander also described the challenges Obama has faced during his tenure in an office that has historically been dominated by Caucasians. While she said that Romney “stands in as the white father of the heteronormative nation” in photographs that juxtapose him with his running mate Paul Ryan and their families, Alexander noted that the current First Family has had a difficult time defining itself as “the American family.”

At the same time, Alexander said Obama has had to avoid becoming “the spectacle of black male rage.” When he reaches out to black audiences, Alexander said, Obama’s language must be subtle when “calling up the specter of righteous black males.” Alexander also noted that such subtlety has deep cultural roots — historically, “smart black people get killed.”

Blight, the director of the Gilder Lehrmann Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, criticized the large-scale lack of youth participation in politics. “16 million Americans turned 18 since 2008,” he said. If half of them voted, “Obama would be elected in a minute.”

Blight began by explaining past Republican efforts to appeal to minority voters, which he said ended during the 2004 campaign to re-elect George W. Bush and his 2006 speech at the NAACP. He said the Republican party’s base lies with predominantly white, middle to upper-middle class Americans who “are not even close to a majority.” Blight added that since 2008, the Republican party has said “‘forget black and brown people.’”

But Blight broke with Alexander on how Obama should engage Romney on the campaign. Asserting that the Republican party “is suppressing the vote of black people, brown people, poor people,” Blight said he thinks “Obama’s got to wag his finger in [Mitt Romney’s] face, and make him answer this.”

Because of Democratic party timidity, no one is pointing out the racist nature of voter ID laws except left-wing blogs, Blight said, mentioning Obama’s performance at last week’s debate in particular.

“That’s like motherhood! Apple pie! The right to vote!” Blight said. “Obama didn’t even bring [voter ID] up.”

Yale College Democrats membership coordinator Lincoln Mitchell ’15 commended the speakers, noting that “hiding from the angry-black-man stereotype can at times be crippling, because you need to be confrontational.”

Tyler Blackmon, a freshman in Jonathan Edwards college, said he enjoyed the talk, which was attended by roughly 20 students. He noted that while race is sometimes a sensitive subject of discussion, it is a central issue in the 2012 elections.

Alexander wrote and delivered a poem at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.

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