5 Questions: Fredrick Harris on Race in the U.S.

Gary Shapiro
October 05, 2016

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, race has become a defining issue in this election year, and mobilizing the African American vote will be the key to winning the presidency, says Fred Harris, a professor of Political Science and director of the Center on African American Politics and Society.

Harris, whose scholarship has ranged widely over politics, race and religion, wrote the 2012 book The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Fall of Black Politics, and his commentaries have appeared in The Washington PostThe New York Times and the London Review of Books. In October, he is organizing a conference, Black Power at 50, with Barnard Political Science Professor Kimberley Johnson on the scholarly legacy of Charles V. Hamilton, who joined Columbia in 1969 as one of the first African American faculty members. The conference will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, which Hamilton co-authored with the late civil rights activist Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael). “The book defined a generation and is still used in African American studies and political science courses on race and politics,” said Harris.

Q. How has the African American electorate reacted to the candidates?

A. The response has been moderate enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton and disdain for Donald Trump. Only 2 to 3 percent of African Americans report that they plan to vote for Trump, a historic low even for a Republican presidential candidate. While African American voters are behind Clinton, it is still uncertain whether she will receive the same level of voter turnout as Obama. In 2012, for the first time in recorded history, black voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout. The group with the highest level of voter turnout was black women. If those levels are repeated, it will be because black voters are voting from a position of fear rather than highly enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton.

Q. What has Black Lives Matter added to the political agenda?

A. Black Lives Matter has done more to put issues of institutional racism and criminal justice reform front and center than a two-term black Democrat in the White House, the 40-plus members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and traditional civil rights leaders and organizations, combined. I don’t think that the protest activism of Black Lives Matter will translate into votes, however. Black Lives Matter activists have already won by pushing an issue that was dormant in American politics.

Q. What is the state of race in the United States?

A. Racial tensions have increased during the Obama era, but this has less to do with Obama than with the latent racism that already existed. Economic anxiety, particularly felt among working-class whites, has produced a greater acceptance of racism and xenophobia. Racial progress in the United States has been a pattern of one step forward and two steps back. As the Obama era ends, we’re in a mode of two steps back. Progress, though it can last for years or even decades, eventually leads to racial backlash. It happened during the late 19th century after the progress that had been made during Reconstruction. And again after the legislative successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the subsequent rise of law-and-order conservatism that challenged black progress in the courts and at the ballot box. Now it’s happening again.

Q. What do you anticipate will be Obama's legacy?

A. By default it will be that he was the nation’s first president of African descent. His crowning domestic policy achievement will be Obamacare, which has reduced the number of uninsured Americans. His legacy on race relations will be mixed, if not a disappointment. Though he was blocked by the Republican-dominated Congress and faced the rise of anti-blackness, xenophobia and general hate against “the other”—meaning those who are not described as white—Obama failed to use the bully pulpit to push back on this assault. He seemed to be pushed into addressing many of these issues—particularly institutional racism and criminal justice reform—in the last quarter of his presidency.

Q. You also study religion. How are politics and religion entwined today?

A. The religious right does not hold as much power as they used to in elections. They have mostly lost the cultural wars on issues such as marriage equality, though in states like Indiana and North Carolina those battles still continue. They will have to “hold their noses” to vote for a Republican presidential candidate who is not particularly religious and whose Christian beliefs are not as fundamentalist as the Christian right. On another matter, Islam is being used as a political scare tactic by the right who continuously link terrorism to the Islamic faith.