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Clarence B. Jones

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President Obama and the 2012 Presidential Election Provide a Unique 'Teachable Moment'

Posted: 05/16/2012 11:28 am

The reported resignation of JP Morgan's Chief Investment Officer, Ina Drew, following the bank's $2 billion trading loss temporarily overshadowed President Obama's public statement affirming his support for same sex marriage. The continuing ripple of effect of the president's White House interview, disclosing his personal "evolution" on gay rights, however, continues to receive media prominence. The current cover of Newsweek features Obama as the first "gay president."

In years to come, few will remember Ina Drew's resignation from Chase Bank. They may not even remember Facebook's initial public offering later this week. However, many will remember the president's statement about same sex marriage. Its impact is still causing reflection among several diverse communities throughout the United States.

A recent poll indicates that "most Americans suspect that President Obama was motivated by politics, not policy." This poll, released on Monday, suggested that the apparent unplanned way in which President Obama disclosed his views has shaped public attitudes." Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed by the New York Times and CBS News since the announcement said they thought that Mr. Obama had made it "mostly for political reasons," while 24 percent said it was "mostly because he thinks it is right."

Whether prompted by moral conviction or political expediency, the president's assertion that same sex marriage is entitled to all of the equal protection of our laws now accorded to opposite sex marriage has impacted a college course I am teaching later this year. His "evolving" opinion on same sex marriage and recent examples of his "style" of presidential leadership has caused me to also revisit and reconfigure a teaching syllabus I had developed as a first time Diversity Visiting Professor, next semester at the College of Arts Sciences, at the University of San Francisco.

Entitled "From Slavery to Obama," the class is an adaptation of a previous graduate seminar course I had earlier taught for two semesters at Stanford University's Graduation School of Continuing Education. Accordingly, commencing this August at the University of San Francisco, the course initially conceived and taught to graduate students at Stanford enrolled in a Master of Liberal Arts program, has been redesigned for undergraduate students in classes of 40-plus students. It will be taught in the College of Arts and Sciences over a period of 15 weeks at USF.

In explaining the goals of the course to prospective students, I quote Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin, two authors whose books are among those referenced in the course. Dr. DuBois, the renowned sociologist and historian, in his The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, commenting on the legacy of slavery in our country, said "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."

James Baldwin (whom I personally knew, and with two former law partners, David and Jonathan Lubell represented him in his business affairs) in 1962 in "Letter To My Nephew," wrote:

"Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you ... They are in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."

In my description of the course I remind prospective students that more than a hundred years after Dr. DuBois wrote those words, the celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in his epic PBS series on the Civil War said that "the racial struggles in the United States remain the most pervasive theme in our history. Slavery, the Civil War, and nearly a century of racial segregation stand as stains on the moral fabric of the United States." However, frank discussions on race and its impact on society have become taboo. This course is designed to enable honest and critical discussion of race in America.

"The readings and lectures will focus on those events and individuals that have decisively shaped and influenced America's efforts to abolish slavery and address its historical consequences and create a society based on values of racial equality and social justice."

The required reading list for the course includes references to only specific chapters in a book as well as the need to read an entire assigned book.

The list encompasses a variety of 30 or more authors and their works. These include, but are not limited to books by such authors as DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Kenneth Stampp's Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963), Tim Wise's Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (2009), Howard Fast's Freedom Road (1944), Barack Obama's A More Perfect Union: The Race Speech (Philadelphia, March 18, 2008) and Thomas C. Holt's Children of Fire: A History of African Americans, Manning Marable's A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X, Arianna Huffington's Third World America, Paul Krugman's, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks from her seminal work, Blacks and several other authors, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

The initially proposed "From Slavery to Obama," after the president's affirmation of equal rights for same sex marriage partner,s has now been amended. Failure to do so would be a disservice to students who have already enrolled or who may be considering enrolling in the course.

Regrettably, race, and now same sex love, remain issues which require serious open and public discussion. We have repeatedly written that issues like this can no longer remain the elephant in the living rooms of our nation's household which many people are uncomfortable to acknowledge and would like to continue to ignore. In our course we do not seek to proselytize a point of view which is the way in which a student must look at or conclude from the journey of studying and reading various authors included in "From Slavery to Obama."

The recent tragedy of the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL and the national media reaction thereto is a painful reminder how the single unresolved issue of race often dominates the racial, social and political landscape of American society. Hopefully, our course can provide some modest contribution to the current generation of college students as to how we got to be the country we are today.

 
 
 
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