The Obama Phenomenon

The Obama Phenomenon

THE OBAMA PHENOMENON: The Promise of a Restorative Justice Micro-Revolutionary Paradigm in Multiracial America

John H. Stanfield,II

PUC-RIO Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American Studies

Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Sociology, IndianaUniversityBloomington

Please do not cite without permission of the author. This paper is a forthcoming publication in the PUC-RIO Department of Sociology and Politics journal.

THE OBAMA PHENOMENON: The Promise of a Restorative Justice Micro-Revolutionary Paradigm in Multiracial America



In the early 1960s, M.I. T. historian of science Thomas Kuhn published a brief planning document for a course of research which would instead dramatically transform history writing and social scientific analysis in the history of science field.Specifically, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions dramatically transformed how historians and social scientists of science study how scientific ideas originate and change. The publication of Kuhn´s The Structureof Scientific Revolutions and it´s unexpected wide reception in and dramatic influence in American universities and universities in other parts of the world is certainly a profound example of how so often unintentionality and unanticipation and sometimes just stumbling are important ways in which academic discourses and controversies are begun and evolve.

Kuhn´s thesis would encourage a breaking away from the conventional tendency in historical studies of sciences to view the origins, popularity, marginality, and decline of scientific ideas as being natural products of rationality and logic and a turning to understanding scientific ideas and changes in such ideas as being the products of human constructs called paradigms. Paradigms to Kuhn were the conscious and more importantly, taken for granted norms, procedures, values, and traditions in which scientists of a particular scientific community were socialized to and adhered to as cognitive road maps. Such cognitive road maps embedded in the presumptive language and other traditions of a scientific community ran along smoothly on tracks until a problem, that is, an anomaly emerges or is otherwise encountered which the paradigm cannot address adequately. After much controversy and competition, through a revolutionary change, the old paradigm is replaced with a new one which adequately addresses the issues the old paradigm proved inadequate to effectively explain.

Over the years, the critics of Kuhn´s thesis and aspects of it, such as the concept of scientific revolution have been ample. One of Kuhn´s earliest critics was social philosopher Stephen Toulmin in the early 1970s. In Toulmin´s book, Human Understanding, Volume I, he argues that there is not actually a clean break between old and new scientific paradigms but are instead more gradual changes which involve the mixture and even the mutation of old and new ideas in the formation of what comes to look like a new paradigm. That is, there are micro revolutions, not complete revolutions in which over time certainly the new ideas may come to dominate over most of the old ones but there are still old ideas still lurking around in synthetic mutation with the old. It is like what historians have documented in the history of atomic physics. Namely, Einsteinian atomic physics is not a complete break away from Newtonian physics as seen by the continued embracing of the sacred physics belief in the atom. It is like what David Harvey says about how much though neo-Marxist reasoning in the culture of American urban social sciences appears to be an alternative to traditional functional and even evolutionary paradigms, in actual fact, one can see how so often American brands of neo-Marxism are mutated with more conservative elements of functionalism and evolutionary beliefs. It was the historian Carl Becker who many years ago in his account of the enlightment philosophers of the 18th century who in popular interpretation broke away from the grip of the church in their ushering in the epistemology of positivistic sciences with their secular value freeness were actually men of their times embedded in the theocratic culture in which they were reared resulting in these luminaries proclaiming the dawn of the age of human reason actually replacing the divinity of the God of the church with the divinity of science in society.

It would not be surprising to you that Kuhn´s concepts of paradigm, paradigmatic crisis, and paradigmatic revolution and Toulmin´s concept of micro-revolution all are applicable to how we learn and change our every day presumptions, assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, and lives. What we are, that is, is what we are socialized into beginning the day we are born and even before according to researchers of infant development and that socialization is embedded in the paradigms, that is, the cognitive maps which those who rear us in families, religious settings, residential communities, schools, media, government, and other socializing agency significant others give us. As much as we enjoy making breaks in our human development into these broad sweeping chronologies such as primitive modern, post modern, in actual fact, we are a mixture of all three chronologies as early 21st century Western, Westernizing, Eastern, and Easternizing people depending upon where we are on this vast globe in which we all reside. It is the same when it comes to centuries, I guess. As much as we like to say that we are early 21st century post modern people, those of us in the urban centers of western and eastern nations, in many respects and in some very distinct circumstances and situations, we are not only still quite 20th century obviously since the end of that century chronologically is still so recent but in other respects we are centuries old. Just go to church during a Sunday and see what I mean as we go through the rites and rituals of an institution which dates back to the third century after the death of Christ.

Within the context of this observation, we have to admit that when it comes to still embracing the concept of race, we are very much 19th century people. Even though there have been, since the beginning of the 19th century and even before there have been advocates for doing away with race as a dehumanizing tool to justify feelings of superiority to rationalize exploiting, enslaving, and exterminating others and to subject others to the dungeons of society, it still continued to root itself and normalize and routinize over generations.Even though especially during the past sixty or so years, there has been mounting evidence by reputable social and life scientists that race is a myth which creates a dehumanizedd society in which the human dignity and integrity is taken away and perverted by both those on top and by those on the bottom, our paradigms of everyday life in societies in which race remains central or has become central. It has even become acceptable in some quarters, such as post modern theory and identity theories which essentialize ethnicities, calling us people of color, what ever that means, to celebrate and embrace something which is really quite dehumanizing since positively or negatively there is the presumption that people who look the same real or imagined have the same cultural traits, intellectual abilities, and other human qualities which tend to be random in populations and societies rather than fixated in constructed categories. This dehumanizing way of presuming and assuming and thinking and acting on becomes like an addictive obsession and attraction in multiracialized societies in which so much energy is invested in presuming what people are or trying to figure out what people are so we can act accordingly.

But, it, meaning race, has proven to be immensely profitable emotionally as well as economically and politically as a short hand for deciding how to choose and how to act and for determining status and abilities no matter how erroneous the criterion is and so profitable economically and politically that our every day paradigms presumptions about the realness of race remain intact.

This has been the case in the United States until very recently and when I say very recently, I am referring to decades. The emergence of Barak Obama and the surprising reception he has been receiving with American voters, the media, and political and business leaders tells us much of a micro revolution which for decades has been excluded or marginal to the American mainstream which is beginning to become mainstreamed but of course, there is still very much of the old in beliefs still lurking around. What this means is that like in science, in public culture and in private lives, so often micro- revolutionary paradigms are actually the gradual acceptance of ideas, customs, norms, values, ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling which are excluded and then gradually marginalized and then gradually accepted as the mainstream through time due to the crystallization of societal conditions which make the micro-revolutionary paradigm. After all, for decades, indeed for centuries, evolution was a micro-revolutionary paradigm long repressed by the power of the church which would become a dominant paradigm in the late nineteenth century in the work of Charles Darwin’s The Origins of the Species due to the break down of church authority by that time, industrial urbanization, and the emergence of a secular economic elite in the United States which was much more embracing of the social interpretation of the evolution paradigm than their European counterparts.

I believe that no matter what happens to Obama´s candidacy, be it that he is actually elected or is not or does not even make it out of the national Democratic convention this summer, his presence is a symbol of a micro revolutionary paradigm which is beginning to dance around the edges of mainstreaming in American society. It is a paradigm of restorative justice that only a person with his demographic qualities and context of birth could articulate at this moment in American history. Be it as a candidate who does eventually get elected this time around or the next or becomes a catalyst who never wins the nomination, he has opened the door wider than any other public figure in moving towards a restorative model of the just American society which understands the dehumanizing stain of race and how distracting as well as destructive it is when it comes to bringing people together of all ancestries and other social backgrounds with common challenges in everyday life.


Restorative justice is the recovery of our humanity. Restorative justice as a national public policy was popularized in the early 1990s by the work of Bishop Desmond TuTu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the earliest years of Black Majority Rule in post-apartheid South Africa. But, more fundamentally, restorative justice is a community and a societal practice dating back to the ancient times of indigenous peoples around the world as a way of restoring human dignity after some thing terrible has happened such as murder or theft or war.

Restorative justice as a process of becoming human again through becoming transparent and authentic open human beings has begun to be written about extensively over the past several years as public policy alternatives in regions of the world such as East Europe and East and Central Africa as recent sites of massive genocide. In this emerging literature, on what restorative justice is as a way of living I dare say as well as a public policy as the process of becoming human again is seen as being rooted in the assumption that whenever some thing terrible happens socially which destroys human beings en mass, be it episodes such as genocide or slavery and their institutionalizations or routinized systems such as poverty, ageism ,racism, sexism, or anti-religiosity, it dehumanizes the entire community, the entire society. Such horrible human episodes and systems dehumanize perpetrators as well as victims. Indeed, in the restorative justice framework, all involved are both perpetrators and victims. This is why the labor intensive and deeply painful process of restorative justice involves perpetrators and victims sitting around the same table, so to speak, and taking turns in articulating memories of what happened, then going through the process of confessing they all had a part in the horrible deed in some shape or form, and then going through the phase of taking responsibility by apologizing and then going through a phase of asking for forgiveness, that is a request for understanding to at least co-exist and at best to embrace each other and live together, and then go through the phase of restoring to each other that which was taken symbolically such as names and materially such as land which represent human dignity, and then to enter the phase of a new way of living sustained through new support systems and new social circles which continue to confirm the humanity of those who I used to see as less than human. Thisintense process of becoming human again which takes so much humility and transparency makes restorative justice a very difficult perspective to grasp let alone embrace and implement in daily life and in public policy formation and implementation in societies based on cultures of retribution and cultures of blame and in cultures which place no value on self reflection and accountability. It is no wonder then that besides marginally in the area of criminal justice concerns, there is hardly any mention in the United States of restorative justice as a viable public policy alternative let alone as a way of daily life and as a type of valuation and even identity. And the same can be said of so many other societies which experience difficulty in acknowledging and working through pain of past wrongs which have violated the dignity of our fellow human beings which results in the dehumanization of all societal members.


This is why the 2008 election year in American politics and culture is so fascinating and so historically important.It is in so many ways a watershed point in a society which has engaged in an unintentional natural social experiment in restorative justice which in bits and pieces has appeared here and there in the societal landscape since the ending of World War I in 1918 and in some cases much, much earlier in American colonial and national history. The 2008 primary season in the United States has already gone down in American history as being the most diversified political season the nation has ever seen populated with leading candidates representative of populations historically excluded or marginalized in the race for the greatest prize in American and international politics, of course, the U.S. Presidency which has usually been restricted to White males affluent through inheritance or through mobility, married once or since Reagan twice, and Protestant or since Kennedy, Catholic as well.. The idea that a Mormon or a more than twice married person or a woman or a black person could be taken seriously as a Presidential candidate on either side of the Democratic or Republican political aisle was at best, until now a fantasy for novel writers or for the imaginations of film producers. But in 2008 it is happening. As well, no matter who wins in November 2008, there will be a President in the White House who belies conventional thinking about the cultural imagery and the cultural functions of the U.S. Presidency. And one of those new things is having a President who does not think conventionally about race not only for politically correct reasons in a society which demands that public figures put on good public smiles when it comes to saying the right things though, perhaps, privately being racially prejudiced but due to having certain beliefs derived from having value systems which come through the labor intensivepainful experiences it takes to understand the humanity of others and therefore your own humanity.

We have as the Republican candidate John McCain, a white male who is viewed as a maverick who lost his sense of gender privilege and the social privilege of coming from a distinguished military family as a tortured and tormented prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years. It was a kind of social death from which he was resurrected and once you die socially the way McCain did as a prisoner of war, there is nothing on this earth which can hurt you so you might as well be who you are. As is widely known, on numerous occasions, McCain has broken from his party and has disagreed with his party’s President on campaign financing reform, the tobacco industry, and on the Iraqi war which in other ways he supports.The Wall Street Journal editors reminded their readership soon after he secured enough delegates for the nomination that McCain may be a Republican but did not always line up with business as Republican candidates for the U.S. Presidency usually do. McCain’s socialstands havemade the evangelical and conservative wings of the Republican Party suspicious of him. One of those social issues which have not been fully expressed in the mass media is McCain’s views on race. He is a supporter of affirmative action though not of quotas. More than that, in the early 1990s his wife and he adopted a distinctly colored child from Bangladesh. Even though much has been made out of the how much the wealth of his wife and her family aided McCain in launching his political career what is not as well known to the American public is that the corporation from which his wife draws her wealth, Anehuser Busch Brewery, is well known in business circles as being an award winning corporation when it comes to diversity and inclusion policies. If you haven’t already, go to the John McCain for President website and read the speech he gave in honor of the 40th anniversary of King’s death. It is very interesting though telling that his spell binding words of admiration for King have not been publicized by a media which has much more difficulty with a white man than with a white woman or with a person of color irrespective of gender who dares to talk straight about race even to the point of apologizing for his own past errors such as voting against the effort to make King’s birthday into a national holiday early in his political career. And please realize that one of the candidates for the vice presidential spot on McCain’s ticket is a woman who he has called on more than one occasion a great American and seems to have no problem with her being increasingly mentioned as a possible choice for the vice president spot in the national media: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.