March 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 3

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09mtgLooking Forward to the 2009
Annual Meeting in San Francisco

A New Politics of Community in Action?

A mini-symposium at the ASA Annual Meeting will explore the sociological significance of Barack Obama’s election as President.

by Patricia Hill Collins, University of Maryland-College Park

In 2007, when I first selected "The New Politics of Community" as the theme for ASA’s 2009 Annual Meeting, I had no way of knowing that the historical events of the past year would resonate so compellingly with it. I chose this theme, in part, to investigate how the term community permeates social policy, popular culture, and everyday social interaction in ways that generate dynamic social and political identities. The ideal of community also holds significance for quite different populations with competing political agendas—political groups of the right and left invoke ideas of community, yet have very different definitions in mind.

Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech not only imagined a future of a democratic, inclusive national community, it also pointed out the ways in which social inequalities undermined America’s possibilities. For example, the American dream of self-renewal reflects beliefs in America as a nation of immigrants, opportunity, and freedom.

In envisioning the 2009 Annual Meeting, long before the 2008 national election, I had hopes that The New Politics of Community theme might provide a forum for discussion, discovery, and debate, but I had no idea at the time about the fortuitously unprecedented set of events that would be presented for our discipline’s reflection. The historic campaign and election of President Barack Obama provides a compelling and timely context for examining the program theme. In response, the 2009 Program Committee and I have organized a mini-symposium, a meeting within the general meeting, which explores how the election of Barack Obama might signal a new politics of community in action. The mini-symposium consists of a cluster of sessions that are scheduled throughout the meetings, which examine how the 2008 presidential election engages the conference theme.

What Does Obama’s Win Mean?

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Barack Obama speaking at the January 18 welcoming
ceremony concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

A plenary session, titled "Why Obama Won (and What That Says About Democracy and Change in America)," anchors the mini-symposium. Barack Obama’s election often is described as a defining moment, one marking a fundamental change for American democracy. But what exactly has changed, or might change, and why? This session will explore how the election of President Obama catalyzes new thinking about the meaning of democracy and change in the United States. Our panelists will examine important factors associated with change, such as new forms of political engagement by youth, new immigrant populations, women, and similar populations; new ways of organizing democratic institutions that reflect a changing, heterogeneous American population; and the seeming commitment to community service and similar values thought to be associated with the revitalization of democratic institutions. This session takes up broader questions of what this specific victory says about communities and change in contemporary American society.

Panelists scheduled for this panel include Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Professor of Political Science at Princeton University. An award-winning author, Harris-Lacewell was a visible presence in diverse media venues during the Obama campaign, often commenting on the significance of Michelle Obama. Peter Levine, Director of CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), part of Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and author of The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens, which emphasizes issues of democracy. A philosopher, Levine will examine how the Obama campaign may signal a defining moment for youth and democracy. Jose Calderon, Pitzer College, has a long history of connecting his academic work with community organizing, student-based service learning, participatory action research, critical pedagogy, and multi-ethnic coalition building. He is the 2004 recipient of the Richard E. Cone Award for Excellence and Leadership in Cultivating Community Partnerships in Higher Education and was honored by The United Farm Worker’s Union for his life-long contributions to the farm worker movement. Lawrence Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, has published widely in the field of race and politics, most recently providing provocative ideas about the Obama candidacy.

The Role of Youth

The anchor plenary for the mini-symposium has two complementary Presidential Panels. The first, "A Defining Moment? Youth, Power and the Obama Phenomenon," will explore how Obama’s presidential campaign demonstrated innovative approaches to organizing new political communities, most notably youth. In essence, by encouraging young people from heterogeneous backgrounds to participate in something bigger than themselves, the campaign simultaneously politicized youth and helped construct a political community of youth. This session uses the construct of youth as a "community" of people to investigate two questions: In what sense did youth bring a distinctive generational ethos to questions of power, change, and democratic processes? And, in what sense have youth been empowered, changed, and engaging in new forms of civic participation in response to the Obama phenomenon?

The panel includes several esteemed panelists: Gurminder K. Bhambra, University of Warwick, whose works examine intersections of historical sociology and postcolonial theory, recently convened a British Sociological Association conference on "1968: Impact and Implications." Bhambra will discuss how global youth movements of 1968 might shed light on the contemporary Obama phenomena. Doug McAdam, Stanford University, brings considerable expertise from his theoretical and empirical work on civic participation, social movements, and social activism. Cathy J. Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, directs the "Black Youth and Empowerment: Sex, Politics, and Culture,"a national projectthat examines how the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior in critical domains such as sex, health, and politics. Enid Lynette Logan, University of Minnesota, directs the "Youth Speak!  Perspectives on Race and Gender in the 2008 Presidential Election" project. Drawing from this study, Logan will examine the significance of race and gender in the presidential election, focusing on the candidacy of Obama. Amanda Lewis, Emory University, is a respected scholar of youth, race, and education, will preside over the session and serve as discussant.

The American Dream

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A record-breaking crowd witnessed
the historical inauguration of
President Barack Obama.

A second Presidential Panel, "Through the Lens of Gender, Race, Sexuality and Class: The Obama Family and the American Dream," will explore issues of democracy and social inequalities. Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech not only imagined a future of a democratic, inclusive national community, it also pointed out the ways in which social inequalities undermined America’s possibilities. For example, the American dream of self-renewal reflects beliefs in America as a nation of immigrants, opportunity, and freedom. Yet, African Americans, women, sexual minorities, and the poor have pointed to invisible glass ceilings that have limited their dreams of upward social mobility and self-renewal. Traditional ideas about faith and family underpin the American dream, while those whose family structures and religious traditions stray too far from tradition encounter barriers. In essence, the American dream constitutes a curious combination of ideals that are refracted through changing social relations of gender, race, sexuality, and class.

The panelists of this plenary session will examine how Barack Obama’s election represents one historic moment in this core relationship between the American dream and ever-changing patterns of gender, race, sexuality, and class in the United States. Panelist Barrie Thorne, University of California-Berkeley, will focus on the sociology of gender; feminist theory; the sociology of age relations, childhood, and families, topics for which she is widely recognized. Other panelists include Alford Young, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who studies how low-income, urban African American men conceive of the world of work in modern society, what they believe is the ideal fatherhood, and how they conceive of appropriate mentoring for younger relatives and associates; Charles Gallagher, Georgia State University, who studies racial and social inequality by examining the ways in which the media, the state, and popular culture construct, shape, and disseminate ideas of race; and Cheryl Gilkes, Colby College, who studies African American religious history, gender, and race. Elizabeth Higginbotham, University of Delaware, a leading scholar in the field of class, race, and gender studies, will preside over the session and serve as discussant.

Thematic Sessions

Several thematic sessions round out the featured sessions of the mini-symposium. These include "Understanding Democratic Renewal: The Movement to Elect Barack Obama," organized by Dana Fisher; "The Future of Community Organizing During the Obama Presidency," organized by James McCarty; and "Asian-American Movements, Identities, and Politics: A New Racial Project in the Obama Years?," organized by Michael Omi. The sessions provide a closer look at specific themes associated with the Obama phenomenon, such as community organizing, community service, and grassroots community activism. logo_small

I encourage you to consult the "Meetings" webpage on the ASA website www.asanet.org for more detailed information on these featured sessions, for biographical material on invited panelists, and any additional events that may be planned as the meeting plans unfold. I look forward to seeing you in San Francisco!

 

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