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Stories and Legends | The Nation

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Stories and Legends

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If the distinctions between civil rights and black power—between Martin and Malcolm—were always blurry in practice, by the mid-1980s journalists and academics drew bright lines between them, and often polemically, as a Manichaean struggle between a civic universalism, on one hand, and a narrow particularism, on the other. A growing cadre of white liberals called for a restoration of the New Deal order, longing for a past when a shared class consciousness had supplanted a divisive ethno-racial politics. And others called for a resuscitation of a common American creed of equality and opportunity, and a rejection of race consciousness and multiculturalism. Writing in the age of Reagan, they lamented the waning of social democracy—but they turned inward, blaming race-conscious leftists even more than conservatives for the "unraveling" of liberalism. In the late 1980s, their sense of crisis was heightened by highly publicized racial conflicts, especially in New York City. They focused their attention on racially divisive street protests led by angry rhetoricians, usually men without large organizational bases but with considerable talent, most prominently the Rev. Al Sharpton (who had burst onto the national scene in 1987 as the champion of Tawana Brawley, an African-American teenager whose fabricated story of a violent rape and cover-up conspiracy dominated headlines).

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Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of...

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At the same time, an influential group of academics and journalists turned their often formidable talents to retelling the history of civil rights, especially in the North, usually from the vantage point of aggrieved working- and middle-class whites. Accounts of the Boston busing crisis and racial strife in Brooklyn, two of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the Northern freedom struggle, offered sympathetic portrayals of urban ethnics who viewed affirmative action as a zero-sum game, resented school desegregation as the meddling of "limousine liberals" and were bitter at civil rights leaders' representations of their politics as incorrigibly racist. In these narratives, white working-class and lower-middle-class Northerners, only a minority of whom ever supported the black freedom struggle, even at its peak in the mid-'60s, were recast as well-meaning, incipient racial liberals who would have joined an interracial coalition had they not been alienated by the "excesses" of the civil rights movement and black power.

Parallel controversies about race and identity roiled universities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A vocal interracial group of leftists, mostly based in humanities departments and law schools, embraced the politics of diversity and difference. Their opponents, a mix of embattled campus conservatives, disaffected liberals and public intellectuals, rose up to defend the university against them. The most heated battles in the campus culture wars were fought over race and representation: namely, the merits of affirmative action in higher education and the inclusion of minorities and women in the curriculum. Should difference and race consciousness be cultivated in the classroom, or should the mission of higher education be colorblind and universalistic?

Harvard Law School in the late 1980s was an especially contentious place—the Eastern Front of the culture wars. In 1988, the semester before Obama started classes, the Harvard campus was bitterly divided over accusations that history professor Stephan Thernstrom was racially insensitive. Students in a course that he taught on race and ethnicity accused him of silencing the voices of blacks by assigning proslavery tracts but not slave narratives, and they charged him with using his lectures to promote conservative views on affirmative action, the black family and urban poverty. Thernstrom countered that his critics practiced latter-day McCarthyism, silencing their academic adversaries and imposing a stifling leftist ideological conformity in the classroom.

During Obama's second year at Harvard the law school exploded in racial controversy. When the law faculty did not make a job offer to visiting faculty member Regina Austin, an African-American professor from the University of Pennsylvania, the Coalition for Civil Rights accused the law school dean of racism, railed against the fact that the law school had no tenured black women and only a handful of nonwhite faculty members, and led a series of teach-ins and protests, including a sit-in at the dean's office, to demand the diversification of the law school. Derrick Bell, the law school's first tenured black faculty member, took a "leave of conscience" in protest (and later resigned his post). Members of Harvard's chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, criticized affirmative action and contended that any policies to mandate diversity in Harvard's student body and faculty would sacrifice quality by undermining the principle of meritocracy. Both sides wrapped themselves in the mantle of the civil rights movement. The black students claimed that their protest was in the tradition of the black freedom struggle—indeed, at one rally, Obama compared Derrick Bell to Rosa Parks. And conservative students countered that they were being faithful to King's vision of a colorblind society, and that Austin's supporters were practitioners of a divisive identity politics rooted in black power.

Despite his sympathies with Austin and Bell, Obama positioned himself as someone who could reconcile Harvard's bitter differences by bringing a tone of civility to the debate. He refused to denounce his critics and hurl polemics. In the words of Bradford Berenson, a conservative student who would later work in the second Bush administration, "Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn't appear to the conservatives in the [Harvard Law] Review to be taking sides in the tribal warfare." Obama's position in the middle allowed him to build a winning coalition of liberals and conservatives in his bid to be elected president of the Review in February 1990. Later that year, in a dispute about the Review's affirmative action policy, Obama again attempted to reconcile the opposing camps. He defended the principle of affirmative action while suggesting that he respected the "depth" and "sincerity" of its opponents' beliefs. Racial preferences, he contended, would "enhance the representativeness" of the Review's staff, but not "at the price of any 'lower standard' of editorial excellence." Obama's intervention did not lead to anything more than a momentary cease-fire in Harvard's culture wars. The law school continued to be intensely polarized. Still, it was a defining moment in his racial education.

Obama's experience at Harvard tempered his sympathy for the race-conscious politics of the black freedom struggle. His emphasis on reconciliation over confrontation dovetailed with his ongoing search for an identity—a defining story, a way to make sense of American history and his place in it. That journey inevitably led him back in time to the Jim Crow South—a place whose indignities and struggles he had not experienced. Obama found himself drawn to "a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known." His search for authenticity and purpose led him to "the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs" of the Southern struggle for civil rights. There, on the streets of Birmingham, in the pews of Atlanta, in the jails of Mississippi, Obama found himself, his community and his calling. "This is my story," Obama excitedly told a friend in the late 1980s, after reading Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63, the Pulitzer Prize–winning first volume of his epic biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

As Obama moved onto the political stage, he distanced himself from the black politicians who had paved his way by offering a generational critique, reiterating the conventional wisdom that "black politics is still shaped by the '60s and black power." He aligned himself instead with the Southern freedom struggle, whose history, once divisive, had become domesticated, transformed into a narrative of national redemption. Obama launched his 2003 campaign for the Senate with a speech punctuated by the refrain: "What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say?" Obama downplayed King's scathing critique of moderation, his call to an all-out battle against materialism and privilege and his demand for a "revolution of values." Instead, he portrayed King as the soft-spoken prophet of fairness, hope, opportunity and ill-defined change.

Obama read widely in civil rights history, taught antidiscrimination law at the University of Chicago Law School and steeped himself in the historical and scholarly literature on race, poverty and inequality. But none of that history was particularly useful for an ambitious politician. Situating himself in a current of civil rights history that emphasized its radical strains would be political suicide. But there was something deeper than simple political instrumentality at work. During his journey through the polarized racial world of late-twentieth-century America, Obama discovered his calling. It was to overcome the acrimonious history of racial polarization, whether it be black power or the culture wars—to act on the understanding that such polarization was anathema to national unity.

For Obama, as for all political leaders, history provides a scaffolding for politics: it is full of inspiration, examples, lessons and analogies. The past can be used—and reinterpreted—for purposes of image creation, political mobilization, coalition building and policy-making. Political actors create a useful past, sifting from it what resonates with their constituents, opinion leaders and the general public, whitewashing those elements that are jarring and unsettling or inconvenient. And Obama did that with King. The history of the civil rights struggle—told through Moses and Joshua and King—was a historical theology, a civic religion, a fundamentally Christian story of suffering, martyrdom and redemption. King had cleansed America from its original sin of slavery, and Obama was his heir. By the time Obama was inaugurated president, he had recast himself as an agent of national unification, one who could finally bring to fruition the few lingering, unmet promises of the civil rights movement. What Obama called "my story" became "our story."

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