This piece publishes remarks delivered at a symposium organized by the Albany Law Review and the Albany Journal of Science and Technology exploring the definition of race. The topic, “Defining Race,” is related to the recent presidential election and, in particular, to Barack Obama's successful candidacy to become the first black President of the United States. Rather than deconstruct, redefine, or explore the definition of race, these remarks explore briefly whether race relations in the electoral arena have changed to such a degree that race and race-based remedies are no longer needed, and what evidence from this presidential election would allow us to measure that. Prof. Nelson posits that an appreciable amount of the excitement about Obama's victory and his candidacy overall is fueled by the implicit hope that his election will have far-reaching effects on the state of race relations and inequality in the United States. For others, Obama's win is a unique phenomenon—an aberration—not symbolic of any permanent shift in racial or electoral politics in America. There are even concerns that Obama's success may harm the interests of African-Americans because it will obviate the discourse on race. Prof. Nelson explores the somewhat conflicting implications of Obama's electoral success by focusing attention specifically on the growing number of electoral successes of African-American candidates in at-large elections in majority white—or at least not majority black—contests, and focusing on what these successes might mean for challenges to the path-breaking legislation that helped to set that entire trend in motion: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prof. Nelson begins by briefly recounting the modern narrative of Voting Rights Act successes and situating the Obama candidacy along a broader continuum of black elected officials. She then explores the predicted impact, if any, of Obama's success on the continued protection and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by using two recent federal court challenges as a frame.
Nelson, Janai S., "Defining Race: The Obama Phenomenon and the Voting Rights Act" (2009). Faculty Publications. 28.