April 7, 2010 — Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an MSNBC commentator and Princeton University politics professor, compared President Barack Obama to an Apple computer in her keynote speech at the University of Virginia conference, "Media, Democracy and Diversity."
She had asked the audience to think of an apple, and then asked if they thought of a red one or green one – or that different apple, the Macintosh computer. She pointed out that 35 years ago, no one would think of a computer, because the Mac didn't exist.
Similarly, the American public hadn't imagined a black U.S. president before Barack Obama. The only idea Americans pictured was an older white gentleman, she said. That doesn't mean people didn't want someone black or brown or female to become president; it just wasn't a picture that matched what people knew.
New social media, such as Facebook, helped changed that picture during Obama's presidential campaign.
"I believe our political imaginations are severely constrained by our schema, by our conceptions – the pictures in our head about the way the world is and should be," said Harris-Lacewell, who grew up in Charlottesville.
The April 2 interdisciplinary conference explored the media's impact on issues of identity, inclusion and citizenship. Among the topics were media representations of Haiti before and after the earthquake, the influence of a Jewish scholar on African-American self-identity, and racial stereotypes of Middle Easterners in film.
The conference was hosted by U.Va.'s Office for Diversity and Equity in collaboration with almost two dozen entities around Grounds.
Dr. Marcus L. Martin, interim vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, conferred a new award at the conference, the University of Virginia Diversity-Equity-Inclusion Leadership Award, upon its first recipient – U.Va. President John T. Casteen III.
"As University president for the past 20 years, Mr. Casteen has provided strong and consistent leadership in creating an environment that fosters diversity, equity and inclusion," Martin said.
In political media, Harris-Lacewell said, diversity and inclusion create new lenses – or "apples" – through which political leaders are viewed, which "starts to alter the possibilities of who counts as citizens and who actually has the right to speak on what our country is up to."
"We also begin to imagine the possibility of new 'apples' that might look on the world through new sets of eyes," she said of media representatives. "... That a lesbian and a black on TV could talk about American politics is an indication of new possibilities in media," she said, referring to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and herself.
She said new media have created a political landscape in which traditional reporters and commentators must find their place. It had been important to conform to schema we know. Media pundits would say someone appears or looks presidential, or behaves presidentially, she said.
The Obama campaign had to figure out how to help citizens imagine a president who was black. As a commentator, Harris-Lacewell said she found herself explaining what Obama's race meant in American politics and culture.
One thing media representatives and commentators have had to learn is how to translate the new political reality of the growing diversity in politicians besides Obama.
"It was a border-crossing election. Both parties were doing things they didn't normally do," she said.
Obama might be a role model now, but that's not going to keep young black men out of prison, Harris-Lacewell said. It does, however, create a shift in what is possible because the picture has been changed.
New technologies have changed what media is, she said. Now there's easy access and a two-way intimacy, and it's more democratic. Information passes through new media forms, not from traditional media sources necessarily, but because people online send links and opinions.
"It changes in a fundamental way how people think about what media information is. It creates a participatory media culture," Harris-Lacewell said.
Facebook, for example, provided a place where people could say what they felt, whether they were objecting to or agreeing with something, and that kept them engaged and part of the coalition, she said.
People could signal their support by identifying with Obama through social media: people took his middle name, Hussein, as an act of solidarity. They used Obama pictures as their own profile pictures; the red donation button became an immediate way to say, "I support this candidate."
She objected to the idea that Obama's election signified an end to racism in America.
"It's not so much that the election of Barack Obama inaugurated a new racial moment as a culmination of a racial history. His election was only made possible by a struggle that extends back at least 100 years to the struggles of African-Americans to find a place of equality in a context of racial inequality," she said.
The task now is to continue to create media that will allow people to imagine a world that looks different than our world right now, Harris-Lacewell said. She called for planting a new orchard in public discourse, one that imagines the possibility of equality, bringing down structural inequalities, imagining the creation of change and translating what those changes mean.