Monday, October 6, 2008

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler Interview With YBW On Obama & "Post-Racial" America

Interview with Georgetown University dean and author, Dr. Christopher J. Metzler, by Tolu Olorunda.

Dr. Chris Metzler is associate dean at Georgetown University and the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post-Racial America. In his new book, Dr. Metzler makes the case that Sen. Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to political stardom is an inclination of racial progress, however, not an indictment on racism in the U.S. and beyond. Dr. Metzler is also a political analyst and a full time advocate for diversity at higher institutions and global organizations. I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Metzler on issues including diversity, the role of a disproportionately white media in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. Obama, and the concept of “post-racialism.” Dr. Metzler was poignant in dissecting the politics of “racial-exceptionalism,” which has aided Sen. Obama immensely in his historic bid for the White House:

Thanks for joining us, Dr. Metzler. Can you describe what your educational background entails of?

Well, I have a Masters degree in Human Rights from Columbia University, and a PhD in Law from University of Aberdeen. I am also a member of Oxford University and Kellogg College.

What preceded your deanship at Georgetown?

I was on the faculty at Cornell University for 8 years, and at Cornell, I headed the equal opportunity and diversity program. There, I did a fair amount of reach into issues of Human Rights, diversity and equal employment opportunity. At Cornell, I created the nation’s first certification program for diversity management professionals. In addition to academic, I also do a fair amount of work in the private sector.

Based upon your lengthy work in the field of diversity, do you sense a substantive improvement in diversity vis-à-vis College, Universities and the academic world at large?

There is an improvement, but I wouldn’t call it substantive. There is an improvement with regard to the number of students of color being recruited into Ivy League Universities. However, in some respects, a number of faculties still don’t know how to work effectively with students of color. A number of faculties don’t take enough time to think about having classrooms which are inclusive of students of color. So while I think there has been a numeric improvement, I don’t think there has been a sustained improvement.

In a recent interview, you said, “If diversity is the right thing to do, frankly everyone would have done it already… The difficulty is that we have not been able to define that with any specificity what we mean by diversity.” Can you expound on that?

In most organizations, there is a stated “commitment” to diversity, but for most of those organizations, that simply translates to activities centered on diversity; for example, Martin Luther King Holiday or Black History month – the shortest month of the year. Very few organizations want to actually focus on looking at the institutional racism, which is still rampant in these organizations, and address them. It is far easier to participate in activities, which don’t substantively change the organizations. Some of them now have a definition of diversity which is so broad that it makes it meaningless and, therefore, renders no one accountable.

What is incumbent upon the corporate structures as well as the peoples of culture to bring about that diversity?

Well, a number of things: First of all, an acknowledgement that we are not living in a post-racial America. We have gotten to the point where discussions suggest that racism is no more an integral issue in every organization in America. Secondly, as it relates to people of color in organizations, we must step up to the plate to speak on issues of racism/diversity in these organizations. In a way, we are complicit because we, often, don’t want to have that discussion. We would rather participate in these useless ethnic food and dress days. It’s what I refer to as “Taco Tuesday, and Soul Food Wednesday.” So we have to participate in a practical way. Thirdly, what we need from organizations is a demonstrated commitment to diversity.

In you new book, The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “Post Racial” America, you break down the dynamic of Race in an alleged post-racial America. How significant is that to the emergence of Sen. Barack Obama?

It is extremely significant for a number of reasons. First of all, what the book does is put into historical context the genesis of Race in America. We know that Race is not biological, rather social. So we have to ask ourselves this question. Does Race matter? It certainly does. So if we look at the number of caricatures of Race throughout our experience, we see that in the 60s for example, there were always two choices: Dr. Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. For a number of white Americans, the more palatable choice was Martin Luther King, because he was viewed as more “acceptable.” With regard to Sen. Obama, he is not the first Black individual to run for public office. Before him, there was Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm. But all three of them were considered, by a number of White people, to be “maddening” Negroes, while Senator Obama is a more “acceptable” Negro. And thus, they can consider themselves to be non-racist in voting for Sen. Obama. A number of people in the media have been silent on this issue because they don’t want to be viewed as racist, and also because they have neither the language nor the sophistication to talk about it.

Do you think that the media, being disproportionately white, makes them inept and devoid of the necessary intellectual faculty to deal with this issue proportionately?

Yes. Let’s look at who is covering Race in this election. You had Soledad O’Brien supposedly host this discussion about being Black in America. From my perspective, that was one of the biggest wastes of time – relative to race. The folks who she got to speak about race did nothing. The conversations were empty and did not advance the conversation in any way. Then you look at the political commentators. The vast of the American media does not have the language to talk about Race. They all want to speak of Obama as “transcending Race.” But how do you transcend Race when you live in a society whose very foundation was built on Race. So they then recruit a few Black Commentators to speak on Race. And, in fact, with a few exceptions, none of them have been able to talk about it in any significant format. So you might have Roland Martin analyzing the dynamics of Race, but he is clearly an Obama supporter, and that is identity politics. That only provides a reaction to Race, instead of an analysis of it. In my book, I also analyze the issues of White privilege because a lot of people (Black & White) have a problem discussing it.

There has been a lot of talk within the Black Community by Black scholars and activists – a la Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, and Earl Ofari Hutchinson – about Sen. Obama running away from his race, in order to appease white delegates. But it also seems inevitable when put in the context of our society. In your assessment, how do you analyze that dynamic, and what will be the outcome of this historic 2008 presidential race vis-à-vis Race vis-à-vis Black people.

It’s a catch-22, but I don’t think he had to do it, or be the messenger. I think he could have employed surrogates to act independently in analyzing the issue of Race. But he didn’t do that, and it ended up where he was the one essentially speaking out about it. I also think you’re right, because he boxed himself in, and at that point he could not be seen as the “Black candidate.” I have had White colleagues who admit to me that they would vote for Obama because he seems to transcend Race. What those white people don’t understand is that thinking that way exposes the fact that a number of white people are still trapped into the kind of racial thinking that got us to where we’re at presently. Now, there are a couple of scenarios. Number one, if he is not elected, we’re going to see a significant number of hand wringing in the Black Community; because, to them, if this “acceptable Negro” couldn’t even get elected, who can? So there might be a disengagement from politics for the Black Community. Number two, if he wins, he cannot be a “Black president.” He’s going to have a very delicate balance relative to how he governs. We have to ask, “What are the kinds of policies he puts forth that affect Black folks disproportionately?” He has already started talking about the issue of affirmative action in terms of a more class-based system. Also, if he wins, a number of White folks would begin beating the drum that suggests racism is finally over because of the fulfillment of a Black president.

And how do you suggest Black people ‘play the hand they’ve been dealt’ with regard to a potential Obama presidency?

Black folks of conscience must look at the policies he would be able to influence and figure out how they would affect people who have been historically disenfranchised (people of color). We must also figure out a way to advocate for the historically disenfranchised in such a way that the problems they are experiencing are alleviated in an Obama presidency.

This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for

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