A Complicated Record On Race

When it comes to the question of race in America, Barack Obama is used to hot tempers, accusations of bias, protests, speeches and pained outrage. In 1990 Harvard Law School was a key battleground in the identity wars. The faculty was angrily split over minority hiring and how to teach race in the classroom. Two years earlier 50 students had occupied the dean's office, demanding a more diverse faculty; that spring Derrick Bell—the first African-American to get tenure at Harvard Law School—resigned over the issue.

Similar tensions roiled the prestigious Harvard Law Review. "That year was unusual in that there was a group of very assertive conservative types on the Law Review," says Adam Charnes, who counted himself among them. Obama, who had earned a place on the journal in his first year at Harvard, saw a role for himself that has come to define his pitch for the presidency today—as a bridge-builder. He approached the conservatives, according to one who asked for anonymity in order to speak more freely. Obama explained that while he supported affirmative action as a policy matter, he recognized it came at a cost and didn't consider them to be racists for opposing it. Charnes praises Obama as "a straight-up guy, who always told you exactly what he thought." Obama was handily elected Review president.

In his acclaimed Philadelphia speech on race, Obama tried to walk an equally fine line. He did not disown his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.—who fulminated against America's foreign policy and history of discrimination in some of his sermons—or the black church tradition from which he had emerged. Yet Obama also made clear that he understood the reaction of whites who were angered by Wright's denunciations. That's a hard-enough balancing act when talking about race in the abstract; detractors later criticized Obama for pandering to all sides. It's even tougher with an issue as specific, and as potent, as affirmative action.

Should Obama become the Democratic nominee, this could be one of the tougher issues on which to find common ground. Ward Connerly, a prominent opponent of affirmative action, is pushing to get referendums on the subject onto ballots in at least five states this fall. Affirmative action, he says, "is probably the most difficult race issue [Obama] will have to face." If the candidate denounces affirmative action, Connerly predicts, "his support among blacks will plummet from around 80 to 50 percent. Then, bear in mind that much of his support in Iowa, Vermont and Wyoming came from white males, who by a margin of 70 to 30 [percent] oppose affirmative action." The challenge is made all the more difficult by Obama's well-polished reputation for fresh thinking: this, some supporters say, is a perfect chance for him to break with the liberal orthodoxy. To this day, some of the conservatives from the Law Review wonder if Obama agrees with them on race-based affirmative action—a testament to his skill at projecting empathy, if nothing else. "But in politics you can only be a moderator for so long," says Connerly. Eventually, "you must become a referee."

Obama has sent signals that he is not doctrinaire on the issue. In an interview last May on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," the senator was asked whether his own daughters should someday receive preferences in college admissions. His response was startling: "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged." He added, "I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed." His comments lit up the blogosphere with speculation that as president he might spearhead a major policy change, shifting the basis of affirmative action from race to class disparities.

The statement fits into Obama's record on the issue, which has never been black and white. At Harvard as a 28-year-old, he attended meetings of the Black Law Students Association and spoke to at least one event demanding greater diversity on campus. But classmate David Troutt, now a law professor at Rutgers, says he was no militant. "There are a lot of people that spent a tremendous amount of time on that issue. They sued the school. They camped out at the dean's office," says Troutt. Obama wasn't among them. Instead, he worked in more subtle ways to promote faculty diversity. Although he is a formidable writer, Obama took a relatively relaxed approach to articles while president of the journal, trusting his editors rather than micromanaging each piece. But according to a classmate, he worked especially hard to improve one story, by a young black professor who was up for tenure at the time.

Students at the University of Chicago, where Obama lectured on constitutional law, do not recall his taking a simplistic position there, either. Erika Walsh, who graduated in 2002 and took Obama's Equal Protection and Due Process class, says she came away with no idea about his personal views on affirmative action, or any other hot constitutional issue. "The way he conducted the class, he wanted you to talk, and he would be provocative," she says. "He could always see where people were coming from, even if he didn't agree." Andrew Janis, who graduated in 2005, took Obama's class on Current Issues in Racism and the Law. Like Walsh, he has no recollection of even discussing affirmative action. Which suggests that either the issue wasn't important enough to make its way onto his syllabus, or Professor Obama wasn't all that fussed about it.

As a lawmaker Obama has never had to confront the issue directly. There haven't been any major votes on affirmative action since he joined the U.S. Senate, nor during his time in the Illinois Senate. When asked about his position, the campaign pointed to his previous statements on the subject, in which he has defended the practice in broad terms. He has called himself "a firm believer in affirmative action." In a 1998 Illinois National Political Awareness Test, Obama answered "yes" to questions asking whether state government agencies should take race and sex into account in "college and university admissions, public employment and state contracting." Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2003 that charted a middle ground on affirmative action, upholding the admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School, Obama was quoted in the Chicago Defender celebrating the ruling and warning people that "George Bush is still looking to replace some members of the court, more conservative members who might end up reversing this opinion."

What Obama has done, as in his comments about his daughters, is try to broaden the question of increasing diversity beyond "race and test scores," as he writes in his most recent book, "The Audacity of Hope": "Affirmative action programs, when properly structured, can open up opportunities otherwise closed to qualified minorities without diminishing opportunities for white students." Gerald Kellman, who supervised Obama as an organizer in Chicago, says the two of them never discussed affirmative action specifically, but did talk about programs that "level the playing field." "Not so much advantages in being chosen," says Kellman, "but things like after-school programs, tutoring, summer jobs. Something needed to be done to make up for the things that poverty had denied [African-American and Hispanic kids]." He also says Obama preferred to work through community organizing and community programs wherever possible, rather than legislation.

Asked to speculate how Obama had managed to sidestep so many of the most sensitive issues about race until the Wright story exploded in March, Janis, his former student, says, "Obama never sees race as in its own special camp. For him race and class and gender are all different kinds of social inequality, and they are all interrelated." That nuance has led some opponents to hear what they want to hear in Obama's rhetoric. The Goldwater Institute's Clint Bolick, who is helping Connerly with his anti-affirmative-action propositions, says of Obama, "The fact is that he does not full-throatedly support race-based policies. What Obama is doing is opening the door to needs-based, rather than race-based, affirmative action."

Obama was able to bridge that gap at Harvard, says Ron Klain, who served as Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff and as president of the Law Review two years before Obama: "He did help the institution move forward in a less noxious and much less divisive way." But Klain, an informal adviser to Sen. Joseph Biden's presidential campaign, cautions that Obama's success was partly due to the fact that in such a small group, he could meet with everyone face to face. "In a country of 300 million people, that's a very different enterprise." Obama understands the complexities of race. But affirmative action is one of those issues where partisans tolerate few shades of gray.

Join the Discussion