Conversations on Race: Associate Dean Paul Butler
(1) Hello Professor Butler. Thank you for taking the time to complete this interview about Civil Rights, Race and the American Presidency with Nota Bene. Would you tell us about your role here at GW Law?
I have been on the faculty of GW Law since 1993. Last year I became the Associate Dean for Faculty Development, which means I help to advance the faculty's teaching and scholarship agenda, by organizing works-in-progress, teaching and scholarship seminars, and other activities.
(2) What does the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States mean for the Civil Rights movement going forward?
I think it is a moment of great opportunity. The term civil rights movement implies that there is still a movement. Since the 1960's I think the civil rights movement has been dispersed, so there have been micro-movements in areas like affirmative action and criminal justice, but it is hard to think of one organized and popular movement. I am not sure that the election of Barack Obama will change that, and I do not think it will reinvigorate the civil rights movement. I am concerned that the election will create the perception that racial justice has been achieved.
(3) Has the election of President Obama changed the way that American society views Black Americans in general?
I do not think that there was one perception and I am not sure who American society is. Some African Americans have reported that they feel as though they are perceived more favorably, however this is only anecdotal. It is difficult to predict whether there will be some kind of permanent effect.
(4) Will President Obama's minority status influence the Supreme Court's perspective concerning affirmative action policies?
No. It won't.
(5) Would you mind elaborating a bit?
I do not think that the election of President Obama provides the Justices with any information that they did not already have. For Justices that do not believe that affirmative action is constitutional, the election of Obama will not change their minds because they already have carefully considered opinions. Justices who believe that affirmative action is constitutional and required for racial justice may think of the election of Obama as an affirmative action success story.
(6) What is the most controversial legal issue you foresee arising during the Obama Presidency and why?Race conscious remedies like the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, and school desegregation will all be important legal issues. It is not as if these issues arose during the Obama administration, but they will be important legal issues that the President will have to address.
An extremely important human rights issue that I hope the President addresses is mass incarceration and the expansion of the police power in the United States. At this point there is not much political pressure on the President to address those issues, but they are inextricably tied to civil rights and even to the economy. I hope that President Obama, unlike some other Presidents, has a more progressive view of criminal justice and takes steps to make the system less oppressive. This is one of the topics that I explore in my new book "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice" which will be out in May in fine bookstores everywhere.
Thank you Professor Butler.