By Julia Bunte-Mein
Less than a month away from Election Day, many are taking time to reflect on President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, a time that has been marked by radical change and new beginnings. Although the implications of Obama’s legacy are contested, it is clear that the nation he is leaving us with in 2016 is, in many ways, starkly different from the one he inherited in 2008. The conversation on Obama’s legacy is complex and multidimensional, and it is strongly related to the contextual societal issues that came to underlie his time in office.
This conversation around Obama’s legacy, while surely occurring in millions of homes across the United States and abroad at this time, was had in a public setting on October 12, 2016 at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Three prominent voices from different political spheres came together to discuss Obama’s legacy in relation to the issues of race and justice: Paul Monteiro, Acting Director of the U.S. Department of Justice, Brittany Packnet, education executive and activist for racial and social equity, and Avik Roy, Forbes opinion editor and healthcare writer. The discussion was moderated by Professor Leah Wright Rigeur from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Obama’s presidency brought the conversation of race in America to the front of the table, not just because of his own history-breaking election to office, but also as a result of the wave of social movements regarding criminal justice police reform that arose during his tenure. Liberal and conservative movements alike, ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to the Tea Party movement, were strong voices in politics that both heavily influenced, and were influenced by, the Obama administration. As Monteiro explained, Obama responded to the increased agency among the population, leaving space for people to get up and speak out, including those that disagreed with him. Overall, Monteiro believes he “has made the most of his moment.”
The social movements that have defined the later years of Obama’s presidency involve many competing parts. As Packnett so accurately explains, “We can’t talk about issues in isolation;” criminal justice police reform is also a conversation about mass incarceration issues, and similarly, the war on drugs. And although polarizing, these arguments are the foundation of what the United States stands for; thus, they are opportunities for collective communication and progress. In Monteiro’s words, criminal justice police reform is “a pro-liberty issue... an opportunity for bi-partisan collaboration.”
Ultimately, this forum event— which provided both liberal and conservative perspectives on race and justice in the age of Obama—is symbolic of the kind of conversation our nation needs. Monteiro, Packett, and Roy, economist, activist, and department of justice director, each highlighted critical points regarding the key challenges and successes of Obama’s presidency. In this exciting season of political change, we should use this multi-dimensional discussion on Obama’s legacy as a model for future conversations regarding the untold implications of the next, non-black president on race and justice in America.