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The First African-American President? An Interview with Professor Michael B. Katz

May 29, 2008

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and a Research Associate in the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a resident fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies (Princeton), the Russell Sage Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Education, National Academy of Social Insurance, and the Society of American Historians. Professor Katz is considered one of America’s leading experts on the history of social welfare, poverty and inequality. In 2006 he co-authored, with Professor of Social Welfare and History Mark J. Stern, Co-Director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, the book One Nation Divisible, a sweeping history of twentieth-century that weaves together information from the latest census with a century’s worth of data to show how trends in American life have changed while inequality and diversity have endured. Professor Katz spoke with Valentina Pasquali about the issue of racism and how it might affect the 2008 presidential bid of Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

Valentina Pasquali: There has been much talking recently about Barack Obama’s problem with white working class voters. Do you think that this is true at the national level or are his difficulties with this particular constituency regionally-based?

MK: My sense is that it may be a problem in general with white working class voters but I suspect that it is more extreme and regionally concentrated in some areas, such as rural areas and Southern states. Basically we are talking about those places with a history of slavery and confederation, where I think racism lingers, especially among less educated people.

VP: How much do you think these problems could affect the general elections and the race against John McCain? Is it something the Democratic Party should seriously worry about? And could it be an issue that might convince super-delegates to endorse Clinton against the results of the primaries?

MK: My suspicion is that if Obama wins the greater number of delegates, the majority of leaders and officials of the Democratic Party will move behind him and mobilize in those areas where he has been weak. In the cities this would be easier to do because there are more established Democratic machines and voters could be rallied more easily.
As far as white working class voters that seem hostile to Obama, their influence in the general election will depend on the state where they are located, what percentage of the population they comprise and if they will turn out to vote. In the last analysis, these people will really have to ask themselves if they want to vote for a Republican, considering the state of things now, between the Iraq war, the economy, gas prices, and the housing crisis. I think it will be very hard for them to make such choice.
Then there is the other side of the issue as well, or the disgruntled Republicans. Yesterday I read an interesting piece on The Nation which pointed out that in a number of primaries, Republicans chose to vote in the Democratic contest and over 70% of them cast a ballot for Obama.

So, I think these will be very complicated elections; on one hand there will be white working class Democrats that could go Republican. On the other, there could be those frustrated Rockefeller-type Republicans that might go Democratic.

And, we should consider that there might be a slight decline in white working class voters’ turnout, but other than that there will be a huge participation among African Americans and young people. Obama has this way of mobilizing people that is incredible.

VP: What kind of an African American would you say Barack Obama is? How black is he?

MK: It is not a question of how black he is; it is a question of how street he is. And he is not street. He is a highly educated, articulate, handsome, presentable American and, let’s put it this way, I think that most Americans that would be uncomfortable with Jesse Jackson would be comfortable with Obama.

VP: Considering his peculiar profile and personal history, do you think Barack Obama should be viewed as a symbol of real change in America, of the end of an era of segregation and discrimination? How much instead is he just an exception?

MK: I honestly think that his candidature is a momentous development because, it is true, he does have a white mother and an unusual upbringing, but he is cast in the mind of the public as an African American, that is how people look at him. The fact that an African American could very well be the next President is unprecedented; something that ten years ago I would not have imagined could happen in my lifetime. But it can only be an African American who has Obama’s characteristic, well spoken and highly educated. It could not be someone like Al Sharpton.

VP: Because of his mixed racial heritage, his international background and his degrees from Ivy League universities, would you say that there could be doubts about Barack Obama within the African-American community itself?

MK: There was some discussion of it earlier, about the fact that Obama wasn’t black enough. But then people have come around. The African-American population in general has a very mixed background, and the homogenous view that is normally cast is simplistic and racist. Obama falls within this group.

VP: In conclusion, what do you think will be the biggest challenges for Barack Obama in running for President of the US?

MK: I do share the worry of many people that he might be a target for assassination. This is true for Hillary Clinton too. I think every President is, but there are hardcore racist people and hardcore misogynist people. I don’t think that this should stop him from running or people from supporting him. But I hope his security is well taken care of. Just think about those doctors who perform abortion and how heavily they are targeted by groups of extremists.

Secondly, he will have to unite the Democratic Party. He has to win over the people that have been Hillary Clinton supporters and he has to make them enthusiastic and get them to work for him and to go vote. I think Clinton will come around and she will support him wholeheartedly.

In the end, the two elements that will decide the race are, on one hand, the attraction for Obama, which is very great. On the other, there is the repulsion for Bush. So the next thing to watch in this election is how successful John McCain will be in distancing himself from Bush. But Republicans have a terrible record right now.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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