By Geoff Elliott
It was at a seminar in the late 90s when Glenn Loury espied Barack Obama taking a keen interest in how new media and technology could be used to organise political campaigns.
Loury, one of the US's most influential African-American public intellectuals and a distinguished economist on race and inequality, was attending a conference led by Harvard professor of government Robert Putnam, known for seminal and controversial work on "social capital'', charting what he says is the collapse of civil society in the US.
Loury, who is in Australia and will speak at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney tomorrow night and, like Obama, a Harvard alumni, remembers Obama attending breakout sessions on politics and technology.
"It was a seminar on different aspects of civic engagement and Obama attended some of those sessions back then in the late 90s,'' Loury tells Media.
"And one of them was out at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles on technology and politics. It was a little bit of a forecast of the possibility of getting masses of people together and on the internet then, and social networking, was not really what is today.''
At the time, Obama was a state legislator in Illinois.
Now, of course, he is the US President and, as is well known, Obama's campaign smarts and use of new media in the presidential election helped him first vanquish the Democratic political establishment's Hillary Clinton and then overcome the Republicans in the 2008 general election.
Obama's use of these new campaign tools appears to have been "a game changer on how things will be done,'' Loury says.
But the mainstream media helped too, he says.
"I thought Obama got an amazing free ride during the campaign,'' Loury says. "They were in the tank for Obama, I think that was largely true, certainly during the Democratic primary campaign.
"(MSNBC host) Chris Matthews would be an extreme version of the kind of thing I'm talking about. Everyone was so excited about it and so many questions were not asked and that I thought should have been approached more critically.''
Loury is joined tomorrow night by one of Australia's foremost scholars on US affairs and history, former NSW premier Bob Carr and Waleed Aly, lecturer in politics at the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. It's not so much new media and technology that Loury will be addressing, but the issue of race in the US and Australia. ``The election in 2008 of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations were watersheds in the history of race relations in both countries,'' the event's invitation notes.
"But political and policy tensions continue to surround African-Americans and indigenous Australians in both countries and race relations in Australia and the US span broader issues in both societies including multiculturalism, immigration, security and inequality.''
A key to the debate in the US, Loury says, is the dramatic demographic shifts under way in the US with the Hispanic population booming and now surpassing African-Americans as the largest minority in the US. Meanwhile, he warns of a permanent black underclass in the US.