Talking Obama | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Talking Obama

A professor and a student discuss America's first black president

Early in January, TC faculty member George Bond and doctoral student Ricco Wright sat down to talk about the election of America's first black president; about the parallels between Obama and Martin Luther King; about the future of American education, and more. Joe Levine of the Office of External Affairs sat in.

Bond, age 72, is TC's William F. Russell Professor of Anthropology and Education and chair of its department of International and Transcultural Studies. His work focuses on the creation of black intellectual elites in society, both in the U.S. and in nations in Africa. Wright, 27, is a student in TC's Mathematics Education program and is also President of the TC Student Senate. Both men are African American, but as the following transcript of their conversation shows, in America, identity is determined by circumstance and choice.

Joe: Gentlemen, thank you both for doing this. I'm going to ask a few of the questions I've sent you, but mainly just as a means to get things started, because this is really meant to be a conversation between the two of you.

For starters: Did either of you think you'd ever see a black president in your lifetime?

George (turning to Ricco): Before I answer that-'"where are you from, if I may ask?

Ricco: Oklahoma.

George: Ah, Oklahoma. Are you then, part of the group that moved there after Emancipation?

Ricco: I want to say yes. We were there when the 1921 Tulsa race riots broke out. My grandmother was born shortly afterward. We didn't own a business on that historic Greenwood Street. What grew out of that was the question of reparations. Even today, Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School and his team are working on that. Still, there's not much talk about it.

George: And are you part Native American?

Ricco: I am a small percentage of Native American blood Cherokee.

George: So were you part of the Trail of Tears?

Ricco: I didn't get reparation for it.

George: So you selected a particular cultural identity? As an African American?

Ricco: Yeah, I guess you could say that. My selection grew out of conversations with my mom and other members of my family.

George: Because you could have easily claimed a Cherokee identity as much as an African American one.

Ricco: Yes, I've thought about that a lot.

George: Like Obama who has selected to emphasize his identity as an African-American.

Ricco: I have more African blood, whereas he's more split down the line.

George: We don't actually know that. But you've selected, as he has.

Ricco: There's a story of how my grandfather was so light-skinned, people thought he was white. Light-complected folks were thought of as mulatto.

George: So that's the choice that you and Obama have made. But the flexibility, the opportunity for choice, is greater now.

Ricco: I grew up in a poor black neighborhood, so my immediate sense of identity was as a black person. I don't recall seeing many white people, except on TV-'"PeeWee Herman and so on-'"until we moved out when I was five years old.

George: I'm really just trying to contextualize our discussion. Because there are ranges of selectivity of political and cultural identity, most blacks have made a set of choices related to differing circumstances. Black ethnic identity was and still is a constant creation. And those blacks who went to Oklahoma were creating something new and different related to identity and education.

Ricco: Yeah. There are all these all-black towns in Oklahoma. Over 40 of them.

George: The Muskogean speaking peoples are part of the Trail of Tears, of which you are also part, but don't claim. As Obama you emphasize your ethnicity selectively related to the context and the situation.

Ricco: That's from familial traditions. No one in my family would put "Indian" as our identity. But that's partly because of how society sees us.

George: Yes, it puts constraints on your choices.
Ricco: I have to think about that. When it comes to identity, I really have to ruminate. There are times when I never mention being part Indian, except for my hair.

George: And Obama is capable of presenting multiple identities. Through marriage to his wife. His father was Kenyan. His mother was of European descent and his step father was Asian.

Ricco: So he has a plethora of identities

George: So he's truly American, as it were-'"because that's what Americans are. And in contextualizing, let's return to the first question: Did you ever think you would see a black president? Well, I think it has to do with location and experience.

Ricco: Tell me this first: Where did you grow up?

George: I'm a Southerner. Our records go back to the 1680s, as slaves. My grandfather was a slave, but also a Creek and a Cherokee. In addition to African, Cherokee and Creek flows through all our lines, a typical feature of southern blacks.

But Obama transcends all these regional categories, and I'd argue that that's why he was able to advance.

Ricco: It was one of the reasons, certainly. Many people saw something in him they hadn't seen in any race. Even the independent voters rallied to him because they saw something different in his politics, which maybe even he hasn't yet actualized. He ran on a campaign as himself.

A lot of people up north are seen as black, but actually they're Haitian or from somewhere else outside of the country. So they identified with Obama. That's what sold him: his story. He's been through so much, he's worked so hard to become a senator. His story resonates with people.

George: Did you think you'd see a black president in your lifetime?

Ricco: I figured I would, though not necessarily at the age of 27. More likely at the age of 72.

The moment I heard of Obama, I wasn't too thrilled. When you've seen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton run for president, you think he's just doing it for show. But when I saw the type of campaign he ran, I knew it was possible. And when he won in a landslide victory, I phoned my grandmother, who's never up at that hour, and she said, I'm just waiting for him to speak before I go to bed. And I'm wondering, What does she think of this? She grew up during the Great Depression, raised by a single father. She walked miles to school and received only a very basic education. She was impregnated at an early age and raised 14 children. So she grew up never having a sense that someone of her same skin complexion would ever become president. And I wondered, was she having flashbacks of all that?

George: And what was she thinking?

Ricco: I didn't ask her-'"she was very emotional, and I got teary-eyed. She just told me how significant it was. She's 84, and she definitely didn't think it would happen in her lifetime. The number one thing she appreciates about Obama is his work ethic. She worked hard, and here's this individual who did, too. Who didn't inherit much except his brilliance. And I think that's across the board with a lot of people.

George: I thought I'd never see a black man or woman in my lifetime as president of the United States. I used to talk with my fellow graduate students like David Levering Lewis about this. David, now a distinguished historian, had a much more optimistic view. David thought we'd see the collapse of segregation, but not necessarily a black president. This was in the 1960s. There were four or five of us, all from southern backgrounds-'"David (in history), Preston King (in political philosophy), William Shack (in anthropology) and Walton Johnson (in anthropology) at the University of London-'"we all knew each other, because there were so few American blacks who had the opportunity to study overseas.. And we used to discuss American politics and the position of blacks at the time-'"would there ever be a black president? So I shared the view of your grandmother-'"there was not that expectation, though I always hoped that there would be a black president during my life time. I also shared the view that ethnic politics would not be successful. Blacks made up just one tenth of the population, so to build ethnic politics would be divisive. This was all during a time of very heated black nationalism.

We also wondered what the black Muslims were going to do-'" what would their position be; they were very much a force at that time. Would leadership come from the NAACP? Was it going to be an emotional, celebratory politics residing in the church? Or a secular, rational, analytic cool-headed view of what would happen. Obama has straddled the two, and thus, he becomes more acceptable to the intellectual elite of this country. But he can also connect with the greater black population.

Still, one hopes we will not get lost in ethnic politics, because there are fundamental problems that we all share, even if blacks are at the bottom of the heap.

Ricco: I have to think of other issues Obama's dealing with-'"the economy, foreign affairs, taxes-'"he's dealing with so many issues that you stop thinking about race and instead of the job to be done. But it's good to know he's there, to speak out if race is an issue, which he did during the campaign when he gave a public speech.

Ethnic politics? That's interesting. We just heard of Burris's appointment to the U,S, Senate as the only African American. So what role does he have to play in his job, and what commitment must he have to his race? There's more to Burris and Obama than just, -'Oh, he's black'-'"so much more to their identities, so many other identities they comprise.

The people who aren't in office want to talk race, social equality-'"and when you have only one member of the U.S. Senate, it becomes puzzling-'"are we not preparing enough African Americans to run for office?

So I don't know whether ethnic politics is the game. We have to span the spectrum. Obama has learned to work with Republicans and Independents-'"that's the key now, doing that, you can find common ground in morals and values. It's not always about where you grew up.

Now, Obama went to Harvard and Columbia. Do you think that's important? Part of why he made it?

George: No. But it's extraordinary that you mentioned Jackson. There's a seriousness there, a building toward Obama, acclimatizing the populace to having someone of African descent running for president.

And the appointment of people like Clarence Thomas has brought about a recognition in the public eye of a black man situated in a decision making role of importance. The same applies to Dr. Condoleeza Rice.

Ricco: And Colin Powell.

George: Yes, and even if one doesn't agree with them-'"as I don't; these were very cynical appointments-'" the appointments had unintended consequences.

But back to your question about Harvard. Yes, there's an element of privilege involved, as with Thomas. But I'm not sure why, at this moment in history, Obama was able to pull this off. What came together to provide the opportunity for this African American man? Sure, it was all the negatives-'"the economy, and so on-'"but it has something to do with a change in our national character, as well. And with the man himself.

Joe: When I was a journalist, I wrote a piece about the columnist Murray Kempton as he covered the 1988 presidential primary here in New York. And he felt that New York was Jesse Jackson's Waterloo. That up until that point, he was someone that many whites-'"liberals, at least-'"were taking seriously as a candidate, and then, as Kempton put it, he revealed "a certain truculence"-'" he made his "Hymies from Hymietown" remark-'"and that was it. He'd drawn a line, and people weren't going to cross over it. Those are fears that Obama has been able to transcend.

George: Yes. Jackson wasn't in control of himself-'"that's the flaw of ethnic politics that it does bring out comments like the Hymietown remark.

But it's essential to have people like Jackson pushing, doing their job-'"but then they must hand it over to the future. Many older African American leaders haven't yet done that. And you saw it with Jackson's tears on election night-'"he is gradually relinquishing leadership and passing it on to another generation.

And there's no shortage of highly qualified black men and women ready to handle anything given to them. Like yourself. I assume you are considering politics as a career?

Ricco: Yes. And I was even before Obama. But it's been inspirational to see him go through it. The path has been paved for us, even unto how to run successful campaigns. How to fund-raise at the grassroots level. How to mobilize people who are really seeking change-'"the people you hope to represent. It's not just Hillary Clinton's way of going after the big donors.

Obama got connected with people and churches when he was an Illinois legislator. And as a presidential candidate, he galvanized all the preachers to get out the vote.

He also used the Internet as no one before him had. YouTube and Facebook-'"imagine all the students on those sites seeing a message from him every day!

And the Hip Hop generation, one of the most cynical groups about American politics, but now there are all of these concerts being dedicated to Obama.

So you have all these people embracing him, from oldest to youngest. It was quite amazing-'"and that's something Jesse Jackson couldn't do. He didn't have the respect of the African American community as Obama does. And then there was the story of his having a child out of wedlock, which there's no doubt, the media used to destroy him, as they did with Michael Jackson. Wacko Jacko. To plant that doubt of whether he really could be president, the chief executive of our country. So that's a key difference between Obama and Jackson, the different morals by which they live.

George: You've spoken of the different technology used by the Obama campaign, and spoken of the moral and ethical issues -- can you go into greater detail about your expectations of Obama?

Ricco: At this point? It's for unprecedented transparency.

George: What do you mean by that?

Ricco: I think that Bush knew about 9/11 before it happened. There was a particular silence there. Meanwhile, Obama has been giving weekly addresses, even as president-elect. He just gives me a sense that he is honest. And that the people he's selected to serve would be of the same caliber -- that's why he's appointed them. He believes that if we continue to be honest with the American people, we can achieve much. With Bush, anything we learned about what was going on came not from him or his administration, but from the media.

George: How does that apply to your own political ambitions?

Ricco: With the Student Senate, we've got our own YouTube-'"so now I have to be more accountable about actions we're taking. And a leader doesn't always show emotions -- in the past, that might have been a concern, but maybe that's OK, to show that now.

Obama embodies that. He is concerned about the economic situation; he is concerned that his stimulus package might not get passed. So he's learning more about what the Republicans want, and he's sharing it with all of us.

I didn't see that with President Bush. And Obama's using his team to send his message. I've seen his appointees on YouTube, taking questions from people. I've never seen that in American politics.

George: What do you think he'll do in terms of education?

Ricco: Well, he's against vouchers to private schools -- he wants to get rid of that. I think he'll get rid of NCLB and implement something else. He seems interested in improving public education-'"I don't know about private-'"by improving buildings, preparing more high-quality teachers, especially in low-income areas.

And having him as president -- look at the kids walking around Harlem with Obama buttons. You never saw that before, kids interested in politics.

He's looking to focus on early childhood education as never before. He's recognized that's the place to focus -- breakfast, better textbooks. And it seems that Arne Duncan has the same philosophy, the way he transformed the Chicago schools.

The question is, Where does education fall in his priorities? Some people say it's number five or number six, and that's probably the case, given the economy and such.

George: Let's hope he learns from history. When you mention ensuring that kids have food in the morning, and clothes, and so on -- this is what the Rosenwald Fund was all about when it came along and funded -- when it contributed to creating -- the black elite. There was a tremendous outpouring of this coming out of Chicago to meet the conditions of Southern blacks. Head Start had its tradition with the Rosenwald Fund.

Joe: George, maybe you can give us some additional background on the Rosenwald Fund.

George: The Rosenwald Fund was begun by Julius Rosenwald, an Eastern European Jew who was one of the founders of Sears Roebuck, and who also was the grandfather of one of TC's current Board members, John Rosenwald. Together with Carnegie and Rockefeller, it essentially enabled virtually every major black intellectual you can think of from the 1930s and 40s to obtain a Ph.D. -- including my father and my uncle. There were 5,000 Rosenwald Schools, and they were all concerned with the things you are mentioning.

So hopefully Obama isn't forgetting history. Dunbar High School, in Washington, D.C., also created the elite. They had a policy of largely open admissions -- they took large numbers of people from poor backgrounds, but involved people fromHoward. I hope this is remembered, because education, from my viewpoint, is fundamental to any society. Why it's not at the top of the list is beyond me. Other countries have used to achieve economic and technological goals and to uplift their downtrodden-'"but once again it probably won't be given a high priority. So, you're right. Now, why is that? You're going into politics. You're our future. Tell me.

Ricco: That's the million-dollar question. At Teachers College, if we keep putting the right research in Obama's hands, keep showing the need for early childhood education, or the impact of breakfast or better teacher training -- and if we can show it over 15 or 20 years, that kids who went through schools with this did better, then maybe we can convince people that all schools should have it.

This is what I think Duncan is interested in. He wants to see evidence of a system in place to be emulated. That's what he did in Chicago, and it transformed the entire public school system.

But there are so many issues -- disciplinary ones, for example; that a misbehaving student put in a remedial class, he's not dumb -- you're just putting a band-aid on these issues. So, iwe should minimize this, we should concentrate on the curriculum. And the drop-outs -- have they been surveyed to see why they're dropping out? Is it because their families are in dire straits and they get caught up in working?

For us, as TC, having the researchers we've have, the galaxy of faculty we have -- if we produce something ultimately that touches on every facet of education -- then perhaps that's what we can contribute to his administration. If we can show this -- especially through longitudinal studies -- that can be our contribution.

Other schools do produce it in fields like defense. But in education, it's not always requested. But are we able to work across departments to get it done? Are we using our students? Are we accepting that type of task?

George: Should we, then, invite Obama to give an initial address here -- his views on education? To outline what he plans to do? And to undergo the critique of researchers here? Is that at all possible?

Ricco: Yeah. And I think across the field of education, his respect would grow. If he himself were to come to TC, where there's so much history. And it could transform TC. It would have a drastic change on our behavior here, with Harlem next door.

Joe: What are your worst fears about Obama? Either in terms of skepticism you might have about him or else in terms of what he's up against? The odds he faces?

Ricco: As with JFK, what I fear most is an unforeseen assassination, and how that would result in despair across the world. I fear that, for so many generations to come, if he were to be assassinated, people will be worse off than if McCain had been elected. Especially depending on how he would be assassinated and by whom. If it were one of those cases where years and years were to go by without our finding out who the assassinator was, you would have so much despair, people wanting to leave the country or just not live here anymore. For many children, seeing their first black man as president, seeing that void filled-'that's Martin Luther King all over again.

Joe: I'm glad you said that. I think most people are afraid to even say it.

Ricco: I'm afraid for it to happen more than I'm afraid to say it. But I do like the seriousness with which Obama has operated. I like the security that's in place. Obama understands that he's an icon.

George: I think you're absolutely correct in enunciating that particular fear. You have to bring it out into the open. Its consequences would be absolutely dire, the assassination of, number one, someone of his caliber, and number two, his ethnicity, and number three, with his stated vision for the future. He's surrounded himself with quite brilliant people.

But another aspect, having to do with your future, is that hopefully society has generated leadership that can step into the breach if something were to happen. If something happens to him, who will take charge? It falls to your generation. That's why you're so important to us, and I don't mean that condescendingly. I grew up where we, as young lads, would listen to our seniors discuss things. It was a legacy -- would we go on to do the kinds of things they were talking about? And we did.

Also, there's the fear he'll be trapped -- by the technocrats around him. Let's hope he's able to transcend this, to give concrete meaning to what he enunciates as change. Right now it's only a slogan. In education -- what's he going to do? The simple-minded categories that have been established -- reformist, non-reformist -- can he collapse them to get to what's best? Bush was trapped by 9/11 and could not ever get out of it because of the people around him. Let's hope Obama won't be trapped as Bush was.

George: For example, he hasn't, thus far, chosen to investigate his predecessor.

Joe: Is that good?

George: That depends whether you mean politically or morally. But he's very astute. And he hasn't closed out the possibility. He's left himself the option, but he's saying, not right now.

My fear is that the expectations of him are so great that he will not be able to fulfill them. He has the opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents, if he solves the problems facing us, or one of the worst if he can't solve those problems, which are not of his own making.

We have to moderate expectations of what he can do. I think if he relates the economy to education -- I mean, every president says, "I'm the education president" -- and they haven't done doodily squat. But the economy rests on education, you can't sustain a democratic society without it. So, will he look at the churches, the domestic units -- not just schools -- where people gain training? I use blacks as my example because they are so much at the bottom of society that they've produced these institutions to survive. If he gets to training and education, they will survive and succeed. There's Groton, Andover, Dunbar, Central High School in Louisville -- they've all produced highly successful graduates; there's no mystery about how to provide people with an education that will enable them to achieve t. The constraints are in the society and the economy. If we had a Groton, these folks would succeed. Most of us -- black folks -- had to work while finishing school. I worked to get through, my father certainly did -- and you no doubt have, too. But if you go to Groton or Yale -- you don't have to work.

Joe: Let me ask about a different kind of concern. Do you have any fear that, when all's said and done, Obama might turn out to be just a politician? Someone who may have run a brilliant campaign but who not just because of the odds he faces but, ultimately, because of a failure of imagination or desire, can't match his deeds to his words? I'm playing devil's advocate -- I don't think, from what I've seen, that that will turn out to be true -- but do you worry about that?

George: It depends on him. [Points at Ricco.] On him and his generation using the Internet to hold him accountable. Sure, he has to be a politician. He wouldn't be there if he weren't one, and one of the most brilliant of our generation. But how can he break loose and does he want to? We assume so, up to a point.

Ricco: It's definitely a concern -- will he transcend the common politics. I think he has, to an extent, already. He's shown his true colors. If he doesn't succeed, at least people will have seen him trying. And let's remember, because the House and Senate pass bills, it's up to us to hold them accountable. It's not just one person shaping this country, that's not how our American politics works. But usually the finger is pointed at that one person.

That might be the legacy of Bush -- that he did so many unpopular things, people are now really paying attention.

So I think he's shown his democratic values and what his plan is. And the way he's gathering his economic team while not yet speaking out, recognizing that there's only one president -- you can't help but be hopeful when you see that, and his desire to provide some comfort for the average person sitting at home watching things on CNN.

I'm more reassured now. I'm not as concerned that my grandma's social security is going to disappear. I don't know how long this economic crisis will last. As Obama said, our country is sick right now. But I think he's already shown a different type of politics. I think Washington has already changed. But it's hard to know who's really running things, and you don't know whether someone else is writing all his speeches -- whether there's another voice there. But he doesn't seem like that kind of guy.

George: I think he recognizes the complexity of U.S. politics and is thus able to maneuver in a more effective fashion than Bush. The question that always arises is how much one gets trapped by the bureaucracy that one surrounds oneself with. And as you said, he's shown himself to be good at that.

But he does face daunting odds. I can't think of another president who's come to office in such a climate, having to face two wars --

Ricco: Roosevelt.

George: But Roosevelt wasn't at war yet.

Joe: He was trying to get us into the war. And the war helped him economically, whereas the war in Iraq is killing us now.

George: But Roosevelt was brilliant. He put people to work with initiatives like the Tennessee Valley Authority. Whether Obama will do it -- but can he do it? He's apparently a man who can listen to his advisors, but say no to them, too.

Ricco: You have to look at Obama's campaign to see how he'll do. Appointing Biden as his running mate because he recognized that foreign policy was his weakness -- but also recognizing that he needs Hillary and her relationships with all these leaders around the world. Unlike Bush.

George: However, one does expect accountability on his part. We've got him walking on water, and no politician does. This generation knows the technology to get to him, they supported him, they've got to hold him accountable. If he's going to have an impact on the nation -- schools of education are at the center of training the youth. Can we not put his feet to the fire? Have the students here put him through his paces and make him be a real, honest human being accountable to the electorate for his policies, especially those related to education?

[Turns to Ricco] This has been an excellent discussion. The informality of it, without the hierarchy of professor and student: We need to do more of this kind of thing.

Ricco: I agree. Thank you.

Joe: Thank you, gentlemen.


Published Monday, Jan. 19, 2009