Some of America’s leading public intellectuals, scholars and activists gathered at Tufts University April 16-18 for the fifth annual Barack Obama and American Democracy conference.
Author Michael Eric Dyson’s exhilarating opening keynote offered a rich intellectual and political framework for principled criticism of the Obama administration’s political and moral failures with a balanced appreciation of the president’s special relationship with the black community.
The next two days featured an assortment of panels that critically analyzed the pursuit of radical democracy in the age of Obama and current racial, economic and health disparities, as well as evening keynotes by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science professor Fox Harrell on race and digital media, and by Boston University sociologist Ruha Benjamin on race, crime and punishment in the 21st century.
Political change begins in your own backyard. Boston NAACP President Michael Curry and Barbara Dougan, the Massachusetts project director of Families Against Maximum Minimums, each spoke passionately about their local efforts to transform the criminal-justice system at the neighborhood level. Curry has helped revitalize the city’s once moribund NAACP chapter by focusing creative, innovative education and outreach efforts on troubled communities in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan in order to offer new avenues of opportunity and citizenship for poor black and Latino youths.
Dougan’s nonpartisan group boasts more than 3,000 local members, including the families of the incarcerated and ex-convicts advocating for an end to harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Ending mass incarceration will require robust political activism at the local and state levels to amplify the federal government’s recent commitments to more equitable criminal justice in America.
— The Obama administration’s most important legacy will be at the policy level. One of the conference’s most riveting panels featured legal scholar Jeremy Levitt, political scientist Ricky Jones and historian Jeremi Suri, all of whom examined the real-world impact of Obama’s policies at the local, national and global levels. Jones emphasized the need for policy at the municipal level to alleviate poverty, unemployment, youth violence and health care.