10 Questions for Political Science Professor Robert Smith
Your new book argues that conservatism and racism in America have always been one in the same. Why do you say that?
Conservatism in any given point in history has always been about resistance to change in defense of the status quo or tradition. Black people have always been interested in change -- ending slavery, ending segregation, using the government to bring about a more egalitarian society. Conservatives stand against [that], not because they're racist but because they're conservative. But the effect is the same. Ronald Reagan opposed civil rights legislation not because he was anti-black but because he thought the government had no business bringing about that kind of change.
Some might say it's outrageous to equate the two.
I think the record speaks for itself. Conservative opposition to black civil rights has been well documented.
You're researching Presidents Kennedy and Obama in the context of a broad look at Irish Catholics and African- Americans in American history. What similarities do you see between the two?
They're both charismatic, and they both refused to wait their turn -- they were men in a hurry. Obama ran just like Kennedy, who said, ‘I'm not the Catholic candidate for presidency.' Obama said, ‘I'm not the black candidate for presidency.'
And some major differences?
By the time John Kennedy was elected, Irish Catholics had been fully integrated into American society. The exact opposite was the case when Obama was elected. That's the paradox of the Kennedy-Obama comparison. Kennedy became the first Irish president because the Irish were no longer a quote-unquote problem, whereas when Obama was elected, blacks were still a quote-unquote problem.
President Obama recently finished his first 100 days. What do you think so far?
The economy needs to make a turnaround within a year, and whether Obama's policies will do that, we just don't know yet.
You've been teaching black politics for 20 years. How
has your curriculum changed?
It has not, in fact. The effort to create a society where race does not predict one's place in society -- who will be a senator, who will be healthy, who will be in prison, who will be unemployed, who will live in suburbia -- those fundamentals have not changed.
Have your students changed?
In some of my earlier classes, all the blacks would sit on one side, the whites would sit on the other, and the blacks would shout at the whites and whites would shout at the blacks. That has pretty much over the years disappeared.
I'm guessing here, but two things: Students at SF State -- how should I put it -- are more receptive to the argument that there is still a problem of racial oppression in the United States. Second, the class has increasingly had students from other parts of the world and I think their presence bridges the gap.
As a country, are we as racially divided as ever?
I think so, yes. Obama is kind of a temporary -- good and positive -- exception to the general rule of a racially polarized country.
Are you at least hopeful?
I'm a pessimist. But you always have to put it in context. De Tocqueville, who wrote the best book on American democracy ever, was absolutely convinced blacks and whites could never exist together in the same country on the basis of equality. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, neither believed you could have a viable interracial democracy in the United States. Just in my lifetime -- and this is ultimately symbolized by the election of Obama -- we have made more progress than de Tocqueville, Lincoln or Jefferson would have ever thought possible.
Professor Smith's book on conservatism and racism in America will be published by State University of New York Press later this year.
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