For Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, running for office in the 1980s was “all about representing race.”
Discussing the intersection between race and politics is “potentially dangerous” in today’s political culture, the 1979 Wharton graduate said.
There were initially 28 students in the Bodek Lounge audience to hear “Race in the Political Arena: The Role of Race in an Obama America” Monday night — also the one-month anniversary of the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. An additional 30 students came to hear the lecture after returning from a march to LOVE Park for Martin.
Nutter and co-panelists Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and Penn Political Science professor Rogers Smith took a significant portion of the hour to agree that race still plays a role in politics today, though it has come a long way in the past decade.
Nutter, along with Sanchez — the first Latina serve on the Philadelphia City Council — took time to reflect on obstacles they experienced when running for office.
In the 1980s, Nutter recalled, “I had no union support, no big name support.”
When he knocked on people’s doors during campaigning, he imagined voters to think, “Who is this African-American man standing on my doorstep?”
Contextualizing these barriers of race in politics, Smith cited recent, racially charged policies such as felony disenfranchisement laws that have resulted in disproportionate impacts on blacks and Latinos found guilty of nonviolent crimes.
Despite these policies barring equal treatment irrespective of race, Smith suggested that neither political parties seem to be willing to discuss the very social issues fueling them.
“Democrats are not as committed to discussing race as they should due to the predominately white electorate,” while Republicans “engage in colorblind policies,” Smith said.
Nutter, however, said that realistically, such discussions are “dangerous territory,” adding that racial issues are still a dangerous topic for President Barack Obama.
“What you worry about is getting tagged as playing the race card — you will spend all of your time digging your way out of a hole that seemingly has no end,” Nutter said.
While the panel was thorough in its recognition of the obstacles race presents in politics, there was little discussion, and even less consensus regarding ways to move forward to engage race in current political discourse.
Sanchez suggested giving more access to minority groups and setting up a base that does not isolate them.
Nutter mentioned the need to recruit minorities to run for office and stressed the importance of voting.
“We do more promotion of recycling than we do voting,” he said.
The panel seemed to agree that there is a long way to go.
For College freshman Nathalie Figueroa, legislative director of Penn Democrats, race relations have evolved over time, but she also recognized the need for more critical conversation.
“As a campus we need to have these conversations,” she said.
The event was co-sponsored by Penn Democrats and many other minority organizations on campus. Figueroa said this event was a push in the right direction.