Professor of history and American racial and multicultural studies Michael Fitzgerald, professor of history Karlos Hill and professor of political science Dan Hofrenning participated in the panel, answering questions and provoking discussion.
Co-sponsored by the Diversity Awareness and Civic Engagement Honor Houses, the discussion centered around questions of race, class, gender and multiculturalism in the upcoming elections. Adam Dodge '08, president of the Diversity Awareness House, introduced the speakers. "Issues of diversity and multiculturalism are being thrust to the forefront in America," he said.
Each professor came to the discussion with a unique perspective on the issue. Hill has studied African-American history, focusing on protest politics and lynching as his areas of scholarship. Fitzgerald, who has been at St. Olaf College for twenty years, also specializes in African American history with a special focus on emancipation. Hofrenning specializes in American politics, and will lead a hands-on interim program this January, during which students learn about the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
Panelists were asked to compare the current political atmosphere to political climates in the past. In particular, the panelists focused on Hillary Clinton's position as a female candidate and Barak Obama's position as an African-American candidate. Hill said that although Shirley Chisolm, who became the first African-American candidate for president in 1972, "made a significant impact on electoral politics" along with later candidates such as Jesse Jackson, those candidates were not likely to win the election. "The difference in this election is that [these candidates] have proven themselves viable," Hill said.
Fitzgerald agreed. "It's utterly unique," he said. "Obama is the first African-American with a significant shot at the presidency. Hillary is the first woman with a significant shot at the presidency."
When asked how media coverage and constituent reactions have revealed the attitudes and beliefs of U.S. citizens, Hill said that the Obama and Clinton campaigns have had to fight racist and sexist press coverage. "People automatically lump [Obama] into 'he's the black candidate,' but at the same time his black authenticity is questioned. It reveals how most Americans are stuck in a racial binary." Fitzgerald said he expected "the tone of the campaign is going to change when we get a nominee."
A question about how diversity among the candidates and their constituents interacts with policies such as immigration and social security reform provoked discussion between panelists and attendees. Both Fitzgerald and Hofrenning remarked that all candidates want to broaden their voter base and get 51 percent of the vote, and must therefore aim their stances on issues to appeal to many groups of people in the United States. Hofrenning commented on Clinton's stance on immigration policy. "A little vagueness goes a long way in getting 51 percent of the vote," he said.
The three professors were also asked about how they think candidates are navigating the growing religious and linguistic plurality of the United States. Hofrenning mentioned that Democrats have touted religion more than Republicans at this point. "Clinton is Methodist and Obama is more pluralistic, but he talks a lot about faith in his book. But Romney won't even talk about religion," he said.
Hill said that candidates are avoiding contentious issues such as religion at this point. "They're running really cautious campaigns, media campaigns, in order to win that 51 percent," he said. He added that candidates have been avoiding other potentially polarizing issues such as affirmative action. "Race, class and gender are at the heart of these issues," Hill said, "but they're draining issues out of the campaign."