Transcript

Racial Identity with Tim Minchin

12 September 2008

Dr Timothy MinchinDr Timothy Minchin
Email: t.minchin@latrobe.edu.au

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 10.1 MB].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it does all depend on where you're standing. If I could have a very warm round of applause for my guest today it's Tim Minchin! Thank you for joining me, Tim.

Tim:

Thank you.

Matt:

You're here to talk to me today about the history of race relations. America is currently at the point where history and politics are very intertwined. We not only have candidates who both have admirable qualities but are on opposite sides of the racial divide. Do you think this is going to be a factor on how the election is decided later on this year?

Tim:

You mean the question of racial identity candidates? Yes, I think it will be an issue in the election, and the difficulty is it's very hard to gauge exactly how that will play out because I believe that a lot of white Americans, there is an issue with them voting for a black man, but it's hard to gauge that in terms of conventional opinion polls because it's not something a lot of voters would admit to an opinion pollster. So I think it's going to be very fascinating to see what actually happens because when they actually get in that booth and have to make the choice will they actually do it? I don't think any of us really knows for sure. That's the big question, we'll find out what happens.

Matt:

What do you think the catalyst has been for modern America to get to this point?

Tim:

Well I think there's been a lot of positive changes going on with race relations, going back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s which addressed some of the major problems through legislation and allowed for the integration of higher education and that's something that's allowed someone like Barack Obama to come through. He was able to attend prestigious universities and had the opportunity to launch his career. He's come out of a generation where blacks are able to get political office although not yet at the very highest levels. So in a sense he's the culmination of a historical development where African Americans are gradually working their way up the political ladder.

Matt:

But in the scheme of things it's an amazingly short amount of time that this has happened. I mean really, when he was a child is when all the racial tension was starting to heat up and come to front. He's a relatively young man still, definitely as far as a President would be concerned, he's a young man.

Tim:

Well I think as I said there has been a lot of progress. But it still remains to be seen whether he can actually get over the line. My own feeling is that I still have doubts whether he can actually win, personally, because I feel that if you had a white candidate with his qualities…a great speaker, charismatic…a great fund raiser, at a time when the existing administration is highly unpopular…I think if you had a white candidate with those qualities in that situation he would be a lot further ahead in the polls than Barack Obama is. If you have a look at the polls now he's got a very slender lead in a lot of the key states. There's even some evidence that his lead is slipping. In that sense I think race is a factor, if you had a white candidate with those qualities in that situation he or she would be a lot further ahead.

Matt:

Do you think Americans are obsessed with the idea of race?

Tim:

Well I think it's always been a major theme in American history and a major part of American identity and it is a powerful dividing line. I think there has been a lot of progress made but it is still a major fault line in American society that is there. I do think it will have some impact on the bearing of the election.

Matt:

In your opinion do you think if Barack Obama is elected he would be more of a transitional President?

Tim:

Well I think a lot of his appeal comes from the strong desire for change….A lot of the reason he's done well is the desire for change and the existing administration is very unpopular and one of the keys to his success is to link McCain to the existing administration, which he's trying to do as much as possible, so that the voters will see McCain just as a continuation of the same policies. I think the desire for change is a big part of the appeal but at the same time he's got a lot to offer. He's a great speaker, he's organised a wonderful campaign given that Hilary Clinton was the clear favourite going into the campaign, so he's clearly got a lot to offer. I think there's a danger that people overseas like us can see his election as almost automatic, but you get a slightly different picture when you're in the US.

Matt:

Yeah, and I guess we're seeing a lot of what the media wants us to see over here, and that probably has a lot to do with how we perceive it over there.

Tim:

Certainly when you're there you get a sense of how conservative a country it is that you don't get the same way when you're outside the country.

Matt:

If Martin Luther King was to enter politics today, do you think he would be met with success?

Tim:

It depends which part of Martin Luther King's career you look at, I mean one of the interesting things is that in the last few years of his life he became increasingly radical and he talked about the redistribution of income, he opposed the Vietnam war at a time when it was still popular. A lot of his ideas really shade into socialism, and that part of his career is not really well known or celebrated. Those ideas would probably not be as mainstream even today, so it's hard to say, it depends which Martin Luther King you look at.

Matt:

What about when he was at his peak, when he was giving the ‘I have a dream' speech, when he was at the height of his popularity.

Tim:

Well I think his abilities would translate to this time now because in many ways he was a wonderful media politician and leader, emerging at a time when television was still very new. One of the most talented orators and television figures of the time and I think that those abilities would stand up even today.

Matt:

What if he were running against Barack Obama though?

Tim:

You mean within the democratic party?

Matt:

I don't know, would Martin Luther King be a democrat? He would be, but I suppose if it was Barack Obama and Martin Luther King instead of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton running against each other.

Tim:

In a sense I think Barack Obama has some advantages in the fact that he's of mixed race background. He's able to try and appeal to both whites and blacks and bridge the racial divide through his own identity, which is what he's trying to do if you look at the speech he gave on race in Philadelphia. So he's able to go to black audiences and say ‘I understand what you feel' but also say to whites ‘I understand your frustrations as well, my mother was white, I was raised by white grandparents and I understand how you feel as well.' So he's able to use his mixed identity to be able to appeal to both groups.

Matt:

And I think a lot of people forget that he is half white as well as…

Tim:

Yeah, and whereas someone like Martin Luther King came out of the African American community, he wouldn't be able to do that in the same way, although…a lot of his success was articulating a message that appealed to a lot of whites as well as a lot of blacks. But Barack Obama has been able to take it a step further. I think it's a fascinating election and it's a great thing to observe, I think so many of the recent elections have featured a lot of apathy and indifference from both abroad and within the US, people have said the candidates are so similar, what's the point in being interested or what's the point in voting, but in this case you've got a clear contrast in age and race and a lot of policy positions, and I think it's a fascinating situation to observe and see how it unfolds. In particular I think the role of race is very hard to gauge because there's that unknown factor of how many white voters are disillusioned with Republicans will actually stay with the Republicans or not vote, or will they actually vote for Obama and will it be enough to get him elected? It will be very interesting to see how that plays out and see the data that comes in and study it and draw lessons for it.

Matt:

We don't have long to wait at this point, do we?

Tim:

No, it's only about three months now…

Matt:

Is it? I tell you what, it's been the longest election…

Tim:

Because of the nature of American politics, you mean a long campaign to get the nomination, yes, that's right.

Matt:

Dr Tim Minchin, thank you for your time.

Tim:

Thank you.

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