Race and Justice in the Age of Obama

December 2, 2016
Leah Wright Rigeur
HKS Assistant Professor of Public Policy Leah Wright Rigueur, an Ash Center faculty affiliate, speaks to the conference.

In October, as part of its Race and American Politics seminar series, the Ash Center collaborated with HKS Assistant Professor of Public Policy Leah Wright Rigueur, an Ash Center faculty affiliate, to organize a Conference on Race and Justice in the Age of Obama. Attended by over 300 people over the course of two days, the event offered a unique and important opportunity for scholars, journalists, and public officials to debate President Obama's impact on race relations in the United States during his eight years in office.  

The conference was co-chaired by Wright Rigueur and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at HKS and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Joining the event as cosponsors were the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy; Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy; and Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, as well as Harvard Kennedy School student groups including the Black Student Union, the Black Policy Conference, and the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy. 


We thought it was important to really think about what the impact was of this historic time when President Obama concludes his term in office,” reflected Wright Rigueur“We had such a diverse set of perspectives and opinions, and we saw a really broad ranging discussion of the last eight years. They're not always easy conversations, but they're important conversations nonetheless,” she added.  


The conference kicked off with a discussion in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on the evening of October 12, moderated by Wright Rigueur and featuring conservative commentator Avik Roy; Brittany Packnett, a community activist and cofounder of Campaign Zero, which works to prevent police violence; and Paul Monteiro, acting director, Community Relations Service at the US Department of Justice and former Obama White House staffer. In his welcoming introduction to the packed Forum audience, HKS Dean Doug Elmendorf emphasized how critical this topic was to the HKS community by noting, “The Kennedy School is an outward facing placeAnd, we address public challenges, not on our own, but by engaging with people outside the school, across the country, sometimes across the world who are addressing those same challenges.” 


As an activist concerned with police violence, Packnett offered a unique perspective on the Obama administration’s track record on race and justice. She recounted a meeting at the White House with President Obama and his senior staff. “It was all black and brown folks in that room, including himself and [senior advisor] Valerie Jarrett. It was clear that we were part of something historic and part of a conversation that, had someone else been president, we would not have been invited into that space. 


Those sentiments were echoed by Monteiro who began his career in government in the office of then-Senator Barack Obama before following the senator from Illinois to the White House in 2009. For Monteiro, Obama’s legacy of “intentionally giving young folks like me chances to work at a federal level in the administration” will have a tremendous impact, as an entire cadre of young Obama staffers will continue to work in and influence government for a generation to come. 


Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship and HKS Academic Dean, opened the following day’s series of panels, which included reflections on Obama’s legacy on key issues including economic opportunity, inequality, civil liberties, civil rights, and voting. The conference’s afternoon panel, meanwhile, focused primarily on policy prescriptions and recommendations for the next administration.   


In closing, Professor Muhammad lauded the event for engaging scholars, experts, and activists in a dialogue both about the challenges of race and justice as well as the significance of Obama’s presidency. But he also expressed being “left with a sense that indeed there was a missed opportunity” and that the president was ultimately too worried about “using the language and aesthetic of a community activist against himself.” Some panelists criticized the Obama administration for not seizing the political reins in the president’s first term when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and for not taking greater action in tackling income inequality or targeting greater assistance to African American communities hit especially hard by the recession. However, many were in agreement that Obama’s term in office had a significant impact on the political consciousness of younger people who have largely known no other president than Barack Obama.  


Speakers participating in the conference included Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, History, and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania; Callie Crossley, host, Under the Radar with Callie Crossley, WGBH; Josh Dubois, founder, Values Partnerships and former Head of White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro, deputy vice president, Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation, National Council of La Raza; and Ron Sullivan, Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School. 


For Glendean Hamilton, a second year MPP student and co-chair of the HKS Black Student Union, the conference was an important opportunity for the Harvard community to host a conversation about race. “Using our platform to really call attention to the issues of racial injustice in the United States is so important because it adds power to the movement, it adds power to struggle of so many, whether they're here in Cambridge or whether they're in other cities across the world or across the country.”  


See also: Ash Features, 2017