Reading Professor Obama: Race and the American Constitutional Tradition
"Reading Professor Obama" mines Barack Obama’s syllabus on “Current Issues in Racism and the Law” for evidence of his beliefs about race, law, and jurisprudence. The syllabus forhis 1994 seminar at the University of Chicago, which provides the reading assignments and structure for the course, has been available on the New York Times website since July 2008. Other than a few responses solicited by the New York Times when it published the syllabus, however, there has been little attention to the material Obama assigned or to what it suggests about Obama’s approach to the law and race.
The class began with four weeks of foundational readings, followed by four weeks of student-led class discussions. The readings started by discussing the malleability of racial categories and progressed to cases from the nineteenth century on Native Americans and on slavery. The second day’s readings shifted to the Reconstruction era and changes in the Constitution and statutory law, as well as the rise of the “Jim Crow” system of segregation and the response of African American intellectuals. The third class covered the Civil Rights revolution and retrenchment. It included reading from such diverse figures as Robert Bork, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. The fourth class, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” addressed some of the enduring issues of inequality facing our nation, the fragility of the African American middle class, continuing racism against African Americans, and a plea for more understanding. After the initial four class meetings, student groups selected additional readings and led class discussions on a variety of race-related topics. The syllabus has suggested topics for the presentations and brief discussion of those topics.
The media has called attention to President Obama’s public relationship with Derrick Bell; notwithstanding the option to read Bell’s summaries of cases in lieu of the actual opinions, the readings have no overt endorsement of Derrick Bell, Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), or Bell’s Interest-Convergence theory. Obama included many critics of CRT and offered readings that seemingly demonstrate his hope for substantially more dialog and perhaps, ultimately, economic uplift of those labeled by some of his readings “the truly disadvantaged.” Obama’s use of the Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? as the title of the last group of readings suggests that Obama did not share Bell’s vision of the unalterable nature of racism.
The readings, while instructive, are just the starting point of our analysis. Obama’s suggested topics encourage students to wrestle with the modern consequences of racism and to question its malleability. Thus, we suggest that the readings and group presentation topics reveal Obama, the teacher, as interested in, but not necessarily aligned with, many of the key questions of CRT. The syllabus fits with the story that Obama focuses on issues that unite Americans while he seeks equal treatment. This may reflect the future of constitutional doctrine related to race.
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