I want to talk a little bit more about a paper that Stacey Gahagan and I posted last fall, which 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.
We 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 theNew 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 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. West'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 Gahagan 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 Gahagan 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, 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.
One of the things I particularly like about the paper is our methodology -- we're trying to draw inferences from the documents Obama included in the syllabus. And while certainly there are ideas in there he disagreed with -- such as, one imagines, Robert Bork's New Republic essay on federal civil rights law -- we get a sense of the ideas that were discussed. That gives us a sense of what he was interested in; and I think we can draw some inferences from the central directions of the readings. This is core intellectual history material -- and I've used a similar method in recovering the ideas about jurisprudence and constitutionalism at southern universities before the Civil War.
Our paper received some attention during the election season when the Daily Caller discussed it in an article on Obama's ideas about race. They used our article to suggest that Obama was closely linked to CRT. And while I agree that's one upshot of the paper, I think the central tendency of our finding is that there are significant differences between Obama and Derrick Bell. This distance from Bell is particularly important given the discussion last spring about the "rediscovered" tape of Obama introducing Bell. Our hope is that people will turn to the syllabus and our paper as they continue to seek the origins and contours of Obama's thinking about race.
Anyway, the paper's on ssrn and we'd be most interested in your thoughts. David Garrow was kind enough to give me a detailed critique of the paper. He emphasized Obama's interested in the practical rather than the theoreotical (in this case the CRT literature), among other points. And as I said last August when I posted on this, 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.
The image of the University of Chicago Law School is from wikipedia.