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Inauguration and Democracy in the Balance: Graduate Center Faculty React to the Swearing in of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris

President Joe Biden (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. president and Kamala Harris as the first woman, first Black, and first Asian-American vice president in an inauguration ceremony made even more momentous by the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol. Graduate Center professors, including experts on international relations, 19th century history, U.S. politics, immigration, and economics shared their reactions. 

Van TranVan Tran
Professor of Sociology,
The Graduate Center
Deputy Director of The Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research

“This inauguration is the dawn of a new era. In this historical moment of enormous crises, today’s ceremony seeks to renew hope, restore unity, reaffirm diversity, repair democracy and revive the promise of America. In rejecting the Trump legacy of racism, nativism, and extremism, President Biden reasserts the core American values of opportunity, liberty, equality, security, and dignity.

This unified vision for the country stands in stark contrast with the anger, division, fear, hatred, lies, and resentment over the last four years by reuniting the American people and reestablishing American leadership in the world.

Beyond its symbolic significance, today marks a drastic shift in policy. A hallmark of the Trump administration was its anti-immigration agenda, which Biden’s first executive orders to be issued today seek to reverse. The new administration has also signaled its commitment to bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform — a policy priority to closely watch during the next 100 days.”

Michael FortnerMichael Fortner
Professor of Political Science,
The Graduate Center

“The inauguration was a beautiful ode to pluralism. The president is Catholic. The first lady has a Ph.D. The vice president is a woman, Black, and Asian. We have a second gentleman, and he’s Jewish. Jennifer Lopez, a Latina from the Bronx, sang Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Still, I was reminded that troops were needed once more to safeguard this multiracial democracy. I was also reminded that we don’t have symbols or ceremonial flourishes representing our struggle for economic justice. JLo skipped this verse: ‘In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple; By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?’ As the president begins his war against authoritarianism and white supremacy, I hope he also wages a fierce battle against economic inequality and precarity.”

Gunja SenGuptaGunja SenGupta
Professor of History, The Graduate Center and Brooklyn College 

“Today’s inauguration spelled redemption. The redemption of our collective experiment in democratic pluralism and the promise of progress. The young poet Amanda Gorman’s invocation of ‘The Hill We Climb’ recalled our long, often tortured path of struggle leading up to this moment of triumph which raised a woman of color to the vice-presidential perch of the most powerful nation on earth. Being American, the brilliant bard sang, “is the past we step into” — a past paved with the work of our civic ancestors to resolve the historical tension between liberty and equality in the American experience. 

Inauguration Day 2021 made me think of enslaved rebels and interracial abolitionists, of suffragists and civil rights activists, of the young people who marched for freedom this summer and the tireless campaigners who never stopped trying to register people to vote. And I was moved.”‚Äč

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman
Distinguished Professor of Economics,
The Graduate Center
Distinguished Scholar, Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at The Graduate Center

“I’m not a sentimental type, and years of watching U.S. politics and policy have made me a world-class cynic. But that inauguration was like a dream of who we should be — decent, truthful, committed to justice, unified in diversity. Wow.

What struck me about Biden’s speech was that he combined calls for unity with what was implicitly a strong progressive agenda; the sad truth about where we are is that denouncing lies, condemning white supremacy, talking about the environment, and declaring that we must act are, in effect, partisan statements. But in a way that’s good: Biden can be a rhetorical unifier while also being strongly proactive.

Very soon — like, this afternoon — we’ll be focusing on pandemic control, fiscal policy, and all that. And much of it will involve political trench warfare. But let’s cherish this moment, with its vision of a better America.”

John TorpeyJohn Torpey
Presidential Professor of Sociology and History
Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The Graduate Center

“We came very close to the brink, very close to breaking.  But the institutions of American democracy, with all its imperfections, staved off a sustained challenge from within the Oval Office itself.  We now have an opportunity to repair all that was broken in these past four years of division.  President Biden said it best before he left Delaware for the capital last night: ‘These are dark times, but there is always light.’  As guardians of enlightenment, we at CUNY have our contribution to make to rebuilding the country and the body politic in the next four years.”

Carla SheddCarla Shedd

Professor of Sociology and Urban Education, The Graduate Center

Like many Americans working and surviving an unprecedented global pandemic, I witnessed the 46th presidential inauguration while multi-tasking. I was cleaning morning snack dishes, preparing lunch for my two Zoom elementary-age school children, and supervising off-screen work-time of the younger child, but I stopped cold in my tracks when I heard President Biden ask near the end of the address: ‘What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?’ 

I have been asking these same questions throughout my career as a sociologist who studies the public policy intersections of racial and ethnic inequality, criminalization and punishment, education with a focus on the most marginalized among us — young people who live in unequal cities, are granted unequal opportunities, and are blamed for unequal outcomes. After four years of increasing disappointment in and disdain for federal policies that undermined the efficacy of our most formative social institutions and provisions — especially public education, public health, and public safety — it is clear today is another phase of reconstruction for our democracy. 

It is my hope that federal and state/local policy will prioritize funding public institutions, including schools, libraries, hospitals, and community centers. It is my hope that researchers (especially in sociology and education) move beyond assessing and evaluating so-called troubled students to helping to change the policies and practices in troubled schools. Finally, it is my hope that data-driven policy interventions will ensure that the marginalized youth in my studies are diverted from the “carceral continuum,” in order to realize their full potential and contribute to a more democratic, more equal American society. 

Manu BhagavanManu Bhagavan
Professor of History, The Graduate Center and Hunter College

“Joe Biden is the man of the moment. He spoke boldly of unity, but specifically of collective action driven by purpose, to defeat lies, to bring racial justice, and to save the planet. Yet the most remarkable thing was his ability to take center stage while also broadening the spotlight. He delivered a simple and direct speech meant for every person, using his unique ability to use compassion to heal deep wounds. Then he gave way to Amanda Gorman whose soaring verse elevated our collective spirit and summoned us to higher calling. Through her, the true significance and majesty of the inaugural became piercingly clear, refracting what Kamala Harris has achieved, and all of us through her. Today was a milestone. The challenges before us remain great. But it is without exaggeration to say that authoritarianism has been thwarted, democracy renewed, and hope kindled.”

Carol BerkinCarol Berkin
Presidential Professor of History, Emerita, The Graduate Center and Baruch College

“The historian in me pressed to dismiss Biden’s inaugural speech calling for unity as just another rhetorical moment in our 244-year history. But the citizen in me pleaded with me to let its balm to the wounds of the past four years wash over me. If nothing else, Biden’s words helped erase the lingering stench of Trump and Trumpism, and I am grateful for this. But more than his words, the presence of participants in this pageantry of women as well as men, of people of color and of differing cultures, of young people as well as old — all in COVID-defying masks — lifted my spirits. The arc of history is taking its sweet time in bending toward justice, but maybe in the next four years we can speed it up a bit.”

Virginia ValianVirginia Valian
Professor of Psychology, The Graduate Center and Hunter College

“What was so heartening about the swearing in was the inclusiveness, hopefulness, and naturalness of the occasion. President Biden and Vice President Harris created an event in which people could be themselves, and the diversity of those selves was inspiring. I'd single out Amanda Gorman's poem and the way the 22-year-old read it. The message was that there was room in this administration for everyone, in all their particularity.”

Submitted on: JAN 20, 2021

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