11/29/2012 03:44 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Race and American Politics

It's been just over three weeks since voters took to the polls, but here at the Library, one of the issues we've been discussing is how race played a role in this year's election and the future of American politics.

Although, many of the Schomburg Center's Junior Scholars aren't old enough to vote -- they are between 11 and 18 years old -- they have a deep commitment to civic engagement and were extremely interested in the results of the election. A recent poll conducted among the students revealed that more than 80 percent of the Junior Scholars watched the election night coverage and that they were inspired by the electoral process:

"I was excited to see so many blacks and Latinos at the polls. After the win, I was shocked to see so many white Americans at the Obama party on 42nd (Street)!"

"I just hope that no matter what color the president is, change will come."


The Schomburg Junior Scholars are excited to see what the future holds for them under the second term of President Obama and his successors. As the next generation of American voters, they desire to see positive change in the issues of economy, unemployment and education. But, perhaps more important to the Junior Scholars and America's youth, they see this year's election as an opportunity towards "making history, one step at a time."

Tonight, we'll get another perspective on the topic of race in politics when author Darryl Pinckney delivers this year's Robert B. Silvers Lecture, entitled "Blacks in American Democracy," at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. We asked the former Dorothy & Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers fellow to answer a few questions about this year's election and how it might change the future political landscape:

What are the most surprising ways that race played a role in this year's election?
The surprising thing about race in the 2012 election is that it hardly figured at all, or not to the degree it did four years ago when Americans were very proud of the historic importance of their having elected its first black president. Obama then went on to be the president of all the people, some would say, while others would argue that public reaction to some of his interventions on racial matters -- the Gates Affair; the Trayvon Martin murder -- indicate that white people are nevertheless anxious about what sort of Black Experiences their president is identifying with. In the campaign itself, the old racist images that for decades rallied the Solid South and sent it to the polls had no place. Obama's sheer presence made such images impossible to deploy or bring forth. Those who complain that Obama's blackness is largely symbolic might appreciate how powerful the First Family is as a symbol, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Do you think Obama's presidency will open the door to candidates from other racial backgrounds?
We may have to wait some time before there is another black president, but there is no question that Obama's presidency will lead to that of a woman and then a Latino. Obama's second presidential victory indicates that the coalition his campaign put together in 2008 has held and is an instrument that can be handed on. Moreover, the organizational advantage has shifted from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party because the information age is dominated by the young now.

How would you finish the following sentence: The ideal outcome that Obama's presidency could possibly have on race in American politics is...
That the mention of race won't put voters on the defensive or sound like special interest pleading.

Has Obama's Presidency created additional racial challenges/obstacles that might not have existed had he lost the White House?

Some black critics have argued that Obama's presidency has come at the price of an independent black politics, and that coalition politics in the end put black politicians in the position of not being able to advocate for black people. Had he lost, many would have felt it necessary to return to older models of black politics, because a Romney victory would have meant the return of modern white supremacy. The challenge for Obama is to prove to black people that they will not be lost in his coalition politics. Then, too, blacks are not the only ones in serious need of federal help. It's time to talk about class in America.

Additional reporting by Nora Lyons and Amy Geduldig