The New Social Engineers in the Age of Obama: Black Corporate Lawyers and the Making of the First Black President
David B. Wilkins
Harvard University - Center on the Legal Profession
March 23, 2011
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 11-12
In this article, I document the connection between the election of the nation’s first black president and the fledgling, but nevertheless important, creation of a new black "corporate" bar. Specifically, I argue that the new generation of black lawyers who moved into important positions of power and responsibility in corporate America since the mid-1960s played a critical role in opening the door for an Obama presidency – and that understanding the experiences and attitudes of these new "social engineers" is critical to understanding the President's approach to integrating his obligations as leader of all of the people and his expressed commitment to improving the lives of black people in the first decades of the twentieth century.
My argument proceeds in four parts. Part I documents the important role that Houston’s and Marshall’s original social engineers played in paving the way for Obama. As the President frequently acknowledges, he stands on the shoulders of these giants who quite literally laid the groundwork for his success. Indeed, before running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996 Obama’s career was eerily reminiscent of the great social engineer Wiley Branton for whom the Symposium at Howard Law School where this article appears is named. But for all of his connections to the original social engineers, it was a new generation of black lawyers who actually propelled Obama’s meteoric rise from the Illinois State Senate to the U.S. Senate, and eventually to the presidency. Part II charts the rise of this new generation and explains both their connections to, and differences from, the prior generation of social engineers. Although much has rightly been made of the theme of generational change in Obama’s ascendance, many have mischaracterized both the formative experiences and the commitments of what I will refer to as the Brown generation of black lawyers who came of age in the years following that historic decision. Using original interview data and other sources, I document these experiences and commitments and demonstrate how this generation’s unique status as black professionals with role-related obligations that are separate from, and potentially in opposition to, their continuing commitment to use their positions in corporate America to advance the cause of racial justice both drew this new black legal elite to Obama, and in turn, shaped the way in which the President has responded to similar tensions between his role as president and his desire to use the powers of his office to improve the plight of black Americans.
Part III explores these tensions by examining how Obama has attempted to use the office of the presidency to advance the cause of racial justice. In each of the three major avenues through which he has pursued this goal – using the "bully pulpit" to assist traditional civil rights organizations and to inspire individual responsibility and high aspirations among blacks generally, placing talented black professionals in important positions in his administration, and, most importantly, promising to improve the lives of black Americans through a combination of vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and a series of new race-neutral social programs targeting areas of particular concern to blacks – the President has employed strategies also employed by the Brown generation. Not surprisingly, many of the same problems that the nation’s first black corporate lawyers encountered when they attempted to negotiate the complex and sometimes conflicting demands of the "equal opportunity" and "social justice" legacies of the Brown decision have also come to haunt the nation’s first black President as he has engaged in an even more public balancing act between his obligation (and right) to be the president of all the people and his commitment to use his office to improve the lives of black people in this country. Part IV closes by briefly examining how the election of the first black president presents unique opportunities – but also poses unique challenges – for this country’s still fragile black bar.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 89
Date posted: March 27, 2011 ; Last revised: October 8, 2013