Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Scholars descend on law school to debate the ‘Obama Phenomena’

More than 100 scholars and students from around the country rolled into Denver as the Democratic National Convention was pulling out Aug. 29, ready to dissect Barack Obama’s rise to power and four days of history at the DNC.

At an all-day conference at DU’s Sturm College of Law titled “Obama Phenomena: Facets of a Historic Campaign,” multi-generational, non-partisan panels presented thoughts on the forces at play as a junior senator from the Midwest rose to become the country’s first African-American to earn a major party’s presidential nomination.

Frank Rudy Cooper, co-organizer of the event and associate professor of law at Suffolk University, said he was working with DU associate law Professor Catherine Smith in June when they came up with the idea for a scholarly study of Obama’s rise. He said they were surprised to find how few academics were studying the politics at play.

“What might this all mean,” he asked, as he pondered Obama’s popularity. “That’s what this whole conference is about.”

Smith, who delivered a talk, “Race and the Obama Phenomenon: Change We Can Build On,” said she’s been looking at how race is playing into politics. People tend to move in social groups, identifying themselves by race, gender, sexual orientation or other element, she noted. Obama, she said, is subtly addressing those groups and triggering approval in many of them.

“He’s the Tiger Woods of politics,” said Camille Nelson, professor of law at Saint Louis University, presenting her talk, “Examining Our Post-Racial Selves: Obama as a Balm for What Ails Us.”

She was referring to the African-American golfer who is dominating the largely-white professional golfing tour and winning fans across all races.

Other talks included examinations of the Internet’s role in politics, the role of Obama’s wife, Michelle, tax and race, and the role of religion in politics.

Harvard University law professor and prolific author Randall Kennedy delivered the keynote address, “Barack Obama and the Optimistic Tradition in American Racial Commentary,” probing the attitudes and tone of the Obama candidacy.

Obama, he said, has chosen to look at race relations in America through a positive lens, seeing progress made and envisioning continued improvement. His mission, Kennedy said, is to press beyond those who seek to undercut hope with pessimism, and he radiates that optimism.

“Obviously, he has to believe in his bones that it is possible for him to prevail,” Kennedy said.

Sturm College of Law Dean José R. (Beto) Juárez said recent talk of politicians courting the “New West” plays into not only the Rocky Mountain region’s history of pioneering new lands, but also into how the Obama camp came to Denver to pursue new ways of doing things.

“There really is the opportunity here to do new and different things,” he said. “That’s what this conference is about — this idea that we don’t have to fit into the old paradigms. We have broken molds out here for a long time.”

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