Reading Professor Obama: Race and the American Constitutional Tradition
Stacey Marlise Gahagan
affiliation not provided to SSRN
Alfred L. Brophy
University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill - School of Law
August 17, 2012
UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2131395
“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 for the 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 racism.
The readings begin by discussing the malleability of racial categories and progress to cases from the nineteenth century on Native Americans and on slavery. The readings dealt in particular with the moral dilemma of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the obligations -- or not -- of slaves to obey the law. 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 and included reading from such diverse figures as Robert Bork, Lino Graglia, 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 concluding plea from Cornel West for more understanding. After the initial four class meetings, student groups made presentations. The syllabus has suggested topics for the presentations and brief discussion of those topics.
Recently, Obama has been linked to Derrick Bell; however, notwithstanding the option to read Bell’s summaries of cases in lieu of the opinions themselves, there is 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 indicate he hoped for substantially more discussion and perhaps, ultimately, economic uplift of those labeled by some of his readings “the truly disadvantaged.” Obama’s choice to use the title of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 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 voice appears in his framing of the suggested topics for student presentations and often aligns with arguments advanced by CRT scholars. His 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 many of the key questions of Critical Race Theory.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 56
Keywords: Obama, Critical Race Theory, Race and Lawworking papers series
Date posted: August 19, 2012 ; Last revised: February 6, 2013
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