Never before has an African American won the nomination of either party for president of the United States of America. “Why now?” Vanderbilt University’s Lucius T. Outlaw Jr. asked the engaged audience in Albright Auditorium on Oct. 1. He called on the gathering of teachers, scholars and students to reflect on this important social and political event and try to understand what brought this about.
A professor of philosophy and of African American and Diaspora studies and associate provost for undergraduate education at Vanderbilt, Outlaw was the second guest of the 2008-09 President’s Forum lecture series, dedicated this fall to discussing the historic Presidential election. Outlaw has spent a lifetime studying and researching multicultural education in the United States. The topic of race in the 2008 Presidential campaign is vitally important, not only in terms of Senator Barack Obama’s campaign but also for the optimistic outlook it reflects on our educational system, he said.
Outlaw pointed out that one important factor in Obama’s nomination was the type of support that he received. “He wasn’t propelled into prominence as a political candidate by African Americans. It was white Americans and their support of Obama that presented him as a viable candidate. And that is significant.”
Another crucial factor was the population group that was most enthusiastic about his candidacy: young people pursuing secondary education and adults with advanced degrees, according to Outlaw. Obama’s campaign team also established dozens of offices in every state and fundraising efforts raised small amounts of money from a lot of people to successfully bolster his campaign chest.
Bringing all of these factors together, Outlaw asked his audience, “So why now?” His answer was that, “It has to do with race: why was Obama so heavily supported by white Americans so early on? I’m confident that the reason is that these white people, who identify as white, are educated enough to think of themselves and other people in this world in a way that’s unprecedented because of their education in colleges and universities, in high schools and middle schools – all with curricula conditioned through a multicultural approach to education.”
“The hard-fought battle in multicultural education battle has brought us away from that program of white supremacy in such a way that it is intellectually and emotionally impossible for us to go back.”
“That said, we need to keep on with that struggle, but never lose sight of where we’ve been,” said Outlaw, holding a pin that he received from Sankofa: The Black Student Union at HWS, which read “Looking back to go forward.” “If you don’t look back to see where you came from, any road will take you where you’re going,” Outlaw concluded.
Following the forum several attendees reflected on the discussion:
“His lecture was really unbiased,” said Kwame Lovell ’10. “He spoke his mind, and I felt that the overall content was appropriate for this setting.”
“I’m really glad I came,” said Assistant Professor of Education Helen McCabe. “Professor Outlaw’s talk was really interesting and surprisingly positive.”
“It was very thought-provoking. He really makes you look at the complexities of these issues and not just address them at the surface,” said Sankofa President Latiqua Washington ’09.
“This forum was an excellent conversation and discussion of blatant issues about race in this country, from both African American and non-African American perspectives,” said Instructor of Philosophy and Sankofa Faculty Advisor Rod King.
“Students need to hear this conversation,” said Instructor of English Mary Hess, who was the impetus for Outlaw coming to campus along with Assistant Professor of English Anna Creadick. “If a discussion of these topics isn’t truly engaging then students won’t care about it. It was both wanted and needed.”