As the sands of time drip from the summer hourglass, I am rushing to finish up a bunch of projects. My essay on David Rabban's Law's History is almost in draft form; and some other big projects are all sprinting towards the finish line. But right now I want to talk about a paper that Stacey Gahagan and I have been working on for a while now: a paper that we call "Reading Professor Obama." The title is a riff on James Kloppenberg's fabulous intellectual history of Obama, Obama Reading: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, which reconstructs the Obama's intellectual culture from college through the presidency.
What we have done is gone back and looked at the syllabus for his 1994 course on "Current Issues on Racism and the Law" at the University of Chicago. This got some attention back in 2008 when the New York Times first posted on it and then ran commentary by a number of distinguished law professors -- like Pam Karlen, Akhil Amar, and Randy Barnett. (I blogged about it back in August 2008.)
We contribute two things to the discussion that I think are important. First, we went back and tried as best we could to see just exactly what he assigned -- often it was a little unclear what pieces of articles and books he was assigning, but we made an educated guess about this. And then we read that work to see what kind of ideas students would likely take away. In contrast to those who link Obama closely to Derrick Bell -- and in spite of the fact that Obama assigned a lot of excerpts from Bell's Race, Racism, and American Law casebook -- Obama's readings from people like Anthony Appiah and George Fredrickson reveal that he likely departed from Bell's ideas about the permanence of racial classifications and of racism. Moreover, his concluding assignment was Cornell West's essay written in the wake of the 1992 LA Riot. The essay's final sentences -- and therefore the last words that Obama assigned -- are “Let us hope and pray that the vast intelligence, imagination, humor and courage in this country will not fail us. Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”
Our second insight -- really Stacey deserves the credit for this -- was to look pretty closely at the class presentation topics that Obama suggested for the students. For after the first four classes, groups of students made presentations on topics of their choice, though Obama provided twelve broad categories for them to choose from, including "the all-black, all male school," "racial gerrymandering," "welfare policy and reproductive freedom" and "reparations." We looked closely at the topics and the questions Obama posed for the students on each one. Stacey linked those questions to the burgeoning critical race theory (CRT) literature in the early 1990s. This suggests that Obama was deeply interested in issues that were in discussion in CRT circles. Now, one might think -- in fact, I think -- that no matter one's orientation towards CRT, a course on "current issues in racism and the law" should address a lot of these same issues. Still, reading this syllabus makes me think that Obama had a closer affinity for CRT than one might expect given his usual and well-known posture of refusing to take sides on controversial issues.
I don't think this changes in significant ways how we think about Professor Obama, but I think that it suggests he was further from Derrick Bell's ideas than many have appreciated, while perhaps more sympathetic to key CRT ideas than we appreciated. This distance from Bell is particularly important given the discussion last spring about the "rediscovered" tape of Obama introducing Bell.
Anyway, the paper's up on ssrn and we'd be most interested in your thoughts. And we'd be most, most interested in the thoughts of people who took that course -- especially if any of you still have the readings packet.