Obama and Race

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    Obama's Search for Identity

    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    How about Barry Obama? How did he fit in?

    You know, when I first met Barry, obviously he stood out because he's half-African American, and at the time there were just a few or handful of blacks, as it were, on campus. I never really put him in a different category than any of us, because we're all multiracial. I'm Polish and Chinese. It's not uncommon in Hawaii to have these races that just like to mix it up.

    But at the same time, Barry, he looked black. In our day it was kind of cool to have a friend that was diverse and out of the ordinary. It wasn't the exception, but it was more the rule, that you had to be mixed to feel mixed in with the mixed races. And Barry was very gregarious, very happy, very outgoing. He was very, very easily [sic] to befriend.

    And how did he fit into the school? Did he have problems? Was he considered to some extent the smart kid? What was he considered?

    You know, Barry, to me, wore a lot of hats. He had the academics. He was always well spoken. He blended in with sports. He was dribbling that basketball around forever, and everywhere that he went on campus. He didn't isolate himself to any one particular clique. I took pride in knowing that I associated with everybody, and I didn't become a real clique person, because I, too, have different friends from different areas of life. …

    When you hear about the school, it's a prep school, I guess, a private school that is renowned for sending people to Ivy League, and very successful people come out of it. I guess some people consider it sort of a rich-kid, more exclusive kind of place. But Obama wasn't rich or anything, was he?

    No. There is a stigma attached to Punahou, and that's undeniable, and you hear that even when you're 8, 9 or 10 years old -- oh, the rich kids or the snob kids or even all the rich haole kids, haole meaning foreigner, and in Hawaii more so it means a foreigner from the mainland. So it was known to be a rich, haole school, and only the privileged got to go there. You had to be special.

    Now, when you look at Barry's background, it's almost the antithesis of that, because Barry lived in a very humble apartment, which was blocks away from the school. He didn't dress lavishly. He didn't show any bling, even though Punahou was bling, and still is in many people's minds. But Barry just was a normal, happy-go-lucky kid that didn't hold himself to be better than anybody else.

    To me, he was a perfect fit, because he had people like me that came from the same background, which is mixed. And it seemed to have worked well. And that's how we became friends so quick, so quickly. He didn't have any kind of attitude whatsoever. He was just always very diplomatic.

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Hapa is a term. What is hapa, and what does it mean for growing up hapa in Hawaii? How does that help them maybe define some of what Obama went through?

    So hapa means half, and it's slang for half something or part something, so typically if somebody's hapa haole, which means you're part Caucasian, part something else. And as I said earlier, that's kind of a cool thing to be, hapa haole, because you've got a better tan and tend to be better-looking, I think.

    So for Barry it's a little bit different. I mentioned that we have a lot of different races, racial backgrounds in Hawaii. We didn't, and I think still don't, have many blacks. And many of the blacks were there from the military, because we do have a number of military bases on the island. So there wasn't quite the same familiarity I think with blacks with some of the -- we had some Indians, India Indians, but not a lot. We had back then not many Vietnamese, a few Koreans. So we had many, many Asians, but not all represented at the time. I think now there are obviously a lot more of everybody there, and I think as well more blacks.

    So we didn't have a lot of blacks in Hawaii, and we didn't have a lot of blacks at Punahou.

    Could you tell it affected him in a way, that he needed to sort of search out an identity; that maybe he felt somewhat awkward, that he was dealing with something about being slightly different in a place where everybody was slightly different, but he was slightly different in a different way? Could you see it in him, in that he had some stuff to deal with?

    In hindsight, absolutely; at the time, no, I didn't have any idea. I'm sure I was more caught up in my own identity issues, like any kid is trying to find himself. But you're right. Not every kid has the differences that he had.

    I think part of the reason that he came up with being an Indonesian prince or a Kenyan prince to his fifth-grade class was sort of that sense of OK, I feel a little different, so I'd better be something a little fancier, because it was a fancy school. So while not everyone there was wealthy, and not everyone there was Caucasian, despite the reputation, there were a lot of wealthy people at the school. I mean, in high school, an awful lot of kids had their own cars, which I didn't. I'm pretty sure Barry didn't.

    But some kids, families went on ski trips over Christmas. You know, a lot of people traveled. People had been places. I had never been anywhere. I hadn't been out of the islands until I was 10. The farthest east I'd ever been was Los Angeles all the way through high school and into college. So it was a little bit different, different worlds.

    But I do think a lot of times you could feel -- I certainly did -- like a little bit of a second-class citizen if you didn't have a lot, because there were children at the school who had a lot of designer clothes, whose father was the president of the bank, doctors, politicians, some very influential people.

    Where did he live?

    So it was off campus, but not too far from campus. So typically he would walk home. But as I mentioned, in the younger grades, when we were at the tennis courts late, if it was raining a lot of times my dad would come pick my sister and me up and would drop him off at home, so you didn't have to walk home in the rain.

    Did he live in a big house or a cottage?

    No, he lived in an apartment, an apartment building. I've never been in the apartment. I know now that he was living with his grandparents there, but it never came up. And it's funny that I never thought to ask, when he had said that his family was in Indonesia and he was just coming here for school, who he lived with. It didn't even cross my mind to ask.

    So he never talked about his grandparents.

    Not to me. I know a lot of my classmates in high school went over to his grandparents' house and were very comfortable with them and hung out there, but I didn't.

    Talk just a little bit more about hanging out at the tennis club and stuff. You guys would all gather. What was that like? How was he in those situations?

    Normal kid, decent tennis player. We all played in tournaments. Now, to be fair, that was kind of the boom years for tennis, the early '70s. I would say all the '70s were a pretty big time for tennis across the country. So we played competitively. We played tournaments. But the level of tennis in Hawaii at that time didn't reach the level of say, Northern California [did], which was pretty much a tennis powerhouse.

    I know one -- Nial Brash was a very good player, a little bit older than we were. Nial's mom actually sent him to California. He was a good player that was sent to California to go to school for his tennis and then moved here. So we were good for Hawaii, which meant we were OK for the mainland.

    So how did Obama do sports? How did it seem? Some people use sports in different ways. Some people are just great and talented, and they excel in it. Some people depend upon it to identify themselves. How did Obama view the sports that he played?

    To be honest, I don't know. Clearly he seemed to thrive with basketball on a number of levels. We've read about that. But from my personal experience, he just played. We were just kids who played tennis. We were competitive, played as well as we could. We did a lot of other things here on the tennis courts. You couldn't play for five hours in a row. So we played cards, Hearts, probably Spades, Three-Man Trump, you know, depending on how many people you had.

    You'd hang out there, do homework, get into trouble -- not bad trouble, but you raised your voice so you got in trouble because you might be bothering another court, that kind of thing.

    Was he competitive? Was he a team player? What kind of a sportsperson was he?

    I think he was very competitive. I mean, I think everyone wants to win. He wasn't a bad sport or anything. He just played to play, played to win. And I don't remember how he did specifically. I know well enough to advance in tournaments. He wasn't ever ranked first in the state, but I'm sure that he got through some rounds.

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Let's do the tennis tournament, the draw sheets. Take us to that story, and tell us in as much detail as you can.

    Well, the junior tournament's in Hawaii. When the draw was posted, everyone would go over to see, OK, who do I play in the first round? Where am I in the draw? Who's seeded? When might I meet them? And as kids, as anybody does, I think -- people do it now with NCAA basketball, right? -- you look at the draw, and you say OK, if I win this match, that person will probably win; I'll probably play them. And you're never supposed to look out farther because you have to focus on the match you're about to play, right? But you always do, and you anticipate.

    So we were at Punahou tennis courts. The draw was posted. I think it was for the Dillingham Juniors. Could have been for the Hawaii sectional juniors; they were both played at Punahou at the time. And we were all looking for our names on the draw, and Barry included. And the tennis pro came over, and he said to Barry, "Don't touch that; you'll get it dirty." And there was something in his tone that horrified me, because it was clear that he didn't mean, "Oh, your hands are grubby," which he would have ragged at any of us for that. It was clear that he meant you're black; you're going to come off on the draw sheet, of course pristine white posted draw sheet.

    And we were young, and you're not supposed to talk back. I'd like to think that if something like that happened today, I would stand up for my friend and say, "Wow, that was completely uncalled for." But I think we were probably 11. And I mean, I could tell it upset Barry, but I have to say, again in hindsight, he was actually very cool in how he responded, because he didn't talk back, but he stuck up for himself. He said, "What do you mean by that?"

    And the pro sort of [shrugged] a little bit and said: "Nothing. I was making a joke." But it wasn't funny. And there certainly was an overtone of that. To be fair, it wasn't just because he was black. The pro could be that way with a lot of different people. And he was originally a tennis pro from the mainland, from Oakland, Calif. So I think he probably came with some biases for that.

    But that was -- I remember reading Barry's Dreams [From] My Father book, and first thinking, what the heck? I don't know about all this racism; that wasn't so. We grew up in Hawaii; people are very accepting and accommodating of different races. The only thing I remember is that incident that happened with a draw sheet. And then lo and behold, oh, my gosh, there it is. And I do remember it. My mother remembers it. And it was upsetting.

    So I later thought OK, I don't know what his experience was; it was his experience. So I don't know how many of those instances a, he experienced, and b, he felt, right, so how much of feeling picked on. Another one of our classmates who was black ended up leaving Punahou I think after ninth grade. I remember people used to call her "Aunt Jemima." I mean, really.

    And that was upsetting. On the other hand, kids used to call me some kind of crummy stuff, too -- Kristy Deville, after Cruella Deville. I did not like that. They sang the song and everything, right? So it's hard to say how much is kids being hard on other kids as a normal thing and how much of it is specifically being hard on each other because of their background.

    However, I think if you have a different background, obviously you're going to see it that way.

    One of the things you said, though, that I thought was very interesting and key to the understanding of this is that "some of our innocence kind of disappeared there." What do you mean? How do you think that affected you guys in a way?

    The fact that the way the pro said it made me realize he was picking on Barry for being black, and I wasn't used to that. I wasn't used to people being picked on because of their race. Pick on them for their personality, pick on them for other things. And it shocked me. And I do think that was sort of a "Whoa." It was different. It stopped me in my tracks, and it made me more aware of a certain ugliness I guess that I hadn't really felt or lived with before.

    A little loss of innocence.

    Absolutely. ...There's a naivete of everyone gets along, right? And people may tease me and call me "Shark Bait" because of Orca, because I've got pale skin, but I never felt it was really a racist thing, whereas that remark really did feel that way.

    I really don't know how [else] to say it than it certainly was a loss of innocence, an unpleasant reality slap in the face perhaps.

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    Obama's Search for IdentityComing of Age

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

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    When I met him, President Obama, he was more Hawaiian and Asian and international of his acculturation than certainly he was African American, because he hadn't had an urban African American experience at all. He was very open to, you know, the international cultural influences that were on campus at that time, as was I. And I think it was a very enriching experience.

    On the other side of it, did he have some problems dealing with the African Americans from urban America? … Were there problems, in some way, in connecting with that group on campus?

    Probably to an extent, because Occi was sort of stratified in terms of culture. You did have the cultural cliques, if you will. And there was that African American clique that would sit at a certain table in the cafeteria.

    I was able to straddle both worlds, because I think I had been on campus. I knew most of the people. I played sports. I had close friends in that core African American community as well as outside, and a lot of different circles.

    So it's hard to break into that world. Many local Los Angeles African Americans were not as receptive to the cultural diversity, perhaps. And so I was a link for Barack to that world.

    And we had the same friends. I introduced him to my friends that were sitting at that table, so to speak. So he was able to bridge that cultural gap, you know, the division in the cafeteria, by coming and sitting and meeting that group of friends as well.

    Was there some pushback? I mean, there have been some discussions by some people that … he wasn't black enough or whatever. Was that something that he was dealing with? …

    Well, and I think legitimately so. You are who you are, what you experience. You're a composite of the influences on you. And so it was a new experience for him. And, you know, he was probably a little isolated from that group until he made the attempt to bridge the gap. And yes, there was some pushback from certain individuals that weren't, again, as open-minded to the world who, no matter who you were.

    And so people were trying to figure out who Barack was, at the same time he was trying to figure out who he was. And, you know, once you were able to break down those barriers, he was completely embraced by that group of friends. And, I mean, he had no problem moving effortlessly through the various groups on campus.

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    Obama's Search for Identity

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Talk a little bit, if you could, about that search, though, what he's going through to try to figure out. He talks about it quite a bit, that he's trying to figure out what it means to be African American. Another friend of his said at one point that the only thing he knew about being black was what he saw on television when he lived in Hawaii. And during the period of time from Occidental into New York, he's reading books written by famous black authors. I know he's carrying The Invisible Man around with him a lot. Talk about that search, because I think everybody goes through it, to some extent, him probably more than most.

    Yeah. No, absolutely. And I did have a similar experience. And I think his grasping of the African American experience, or whether his cultural identity was primarily intellectual, in the sense of reading about it and understanding. We both grew up on Soul Train and American Bandstand and the imagery in the media, the very same things that drew us to California in the first place. So that's a once-removed kind of experience.

    But I think his own process of understanding an evolution came from interacting with the people around us and going out around Los Angeles. We would get our hair cut in South L.A., and you'd go to jazz concerts and events in the park.

    You'd see it. You'd ask yourself, what is the urban black experience? Much of it is, you know, both the negative and the positive. And it's a rich cultural experience that you have to experience firsthand.

    So Occidental was sort of an insular oasis in the city. But, you know, we'd have to go out around the city to experience firsthand what it was. …

    In the [David] Maraniss book, he writes to a girlfriend, Alex McNear, at some point when he's in New York -- but it's probably something he's experienced in Occidental as well -- that he's viewed as a black man because he's got black skin. But he felt, as he pointed at that point, as an imposter because he didn't quite fit the skin as of yet. Was that a struggle you saw in him?

    No. I mean, he did not make his personal struggles visible at all. I mean, he was so at ease and poised and mature. You know, he was not self-brooding in any way. But I'm sure that was an experience he was going through internally, to understand what the perception by outsiders were of him. But, you know, I think he was processing all that internally. He didn't have that social insecurity or angst or anything. …

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    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    How different was Obama to you than a lot of the other Americans that you met?

    I didn't at that time consider him stereotypical or fit any of the image of any kind of American, neither the whites nor the blacks. The blacks I found tough, scary and intimidating, which the New York blacks very much were in those early '80s. Anyway, no, he didn't fit, Barack didn't fit into -- I didn't consider him American. I didn't have much knowledge of what is American either, except from my preconceived notions from living outside of the country. I had just arrived in the United States. But he seemed like an international individual.

    And what did he get from these friends, these international friends, that he seemed to be so drawn to this crowd? Instead of hanging out with urban African Americans, he was hanging out with a lot of Pakistani guys and some Indian guys.

    I have a feeling that the African Americans in New York probably didn't give him the time of day, because he wasn't tough enough. I'm sure they wouldn't have seen him like them. Barack was soft-spoken and gentle and clean language. I hope I'm not stereotyping black Americans, but from the point of view I had at that time, the only ones I had come into contact were in my neighborhood on the street, and they were intimidating and scary. But Barack didn't seem like one of them.

    And you asked me why?

    What was he getting from you guys? Why was he drawn to this group of people?

    Just a common sensibility, a kind of a common worldview.

    I mean, it's fascinating. I mean, you guys were all -- a lot of you were connected to the power elite in Pakistan, for instance.

    The Bhuttos, yeah.

    You were friends with the Bhuttos. In fact, one of the daughters came to visit you at some point.

    Right.

    For Barack Obama, what do you think he got from these friendships that makes up his knowledge base?

    … I mean, it's just you gravitate toward people who talk about things that are of interest to you, right? None of these people were militant or violent or radical in any form. We were all, I guess, liberal, liberal and more, had a wider worldview.

    I think one of the first things that struck me when I came to the United States is when you read the newspapers and you watch the news, even the world news, you're oblivious to what's going on around the planet; that the world is from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and that's it.

    So I guess that was probably what drew him to the Frenchman, Laurent Delanney, and the Indian guy, Vinai [Thummalapally] and the Pakistani guy. It's just --

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    Gerald Kellman   Hired Obama as a community organizer

    He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008

    Pastors were absolutely essential to the work that he was doing. But he's written and other people have written about the fact that it wasn't easy. When he first got there, he was sort of questioned as being the outsider. What was the problem that he encountered, and how did he start dealing with that?

    There is tendency of people to protect their turf, even if it isn't much. So both local politicians and local pastors, sometimes who can act like politicians, were threatened by Barack organizing something else in their community. And he had to convince them that this something else was something that was for them and not just in competition with them.

    But those pastors who were most self-interested and least interested in what would happen in the community, would use anything. I mean, he was called a pawn of Jews and Catholics, certainly an outsider. This whole issue of, you know, is he black enough began to arise, and other scurrilous kinds of things.

    But the source of that were people being threatened by the loss of their little power base and also by change. And we see that today. I mean, Barack has been threatening to some people, leaders in the black community who have developed a certain way of doing things. And now Barack has challenged all of that in terms of how we move forward with race relations. ...

    Back to the churches for a second. One of the things was -- I think maybe Reverend Love said, “It’s hard for you to sort of be involving all these people and getting them to jump onboard with you when we don’t even know what church you’re involved with,” whatever. Did he understand that in fact he needed to become more involved with the community and with the churches?

    An organizer has to keep some distance from the community. That's what we were taught, at least a community organizer. Civil rights organizer, on the other hand, would be very much of the community and from the community.

    And just personally what Barack found in Chicago was a home. I mean, he had traveled a lot, and from the time he got here, people received him very graciously. He was a skinny young man, and in some of the communities he worked, there were a lot of single moms, single grandmothers, and they wanted to take him in and feed him and fatten him up. He was an eligible young man. They wanted to introduce him to their daughters and to their granddaughters. ...

    A lot of what happened in Chicago was taking the theoretical and the book knowledge and making it real. Barack knew that the church had sustained African Americans from the very beginning, that when there was no place else to turn, that's where they would turn for hope. That's where they would turn to be fed. And it was the sustaining institution of the community.

    He also knew that the cadences of rhetoric and political speech, that was most powerful. Our two great speakers in American history, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, both of their speeches just ring with the rhythms of Scripture.

    So Barack understood that this was the central institution where people gathered for community and for justice and when they were in trouble, either collectively or personally, to find God. So he understood all that stuff. But it was somewhat academic for him. He had to relate to it personally.

    So he was reticent, I think initially, to move in that way. And eventually he became more comfortable. He was spending his time in churches. He was knowing people; he was knowing pastors.

    But I don't think this thing works itself out until he meets Michelle. He's not really part of the congregation at Trinity until he's moving toward a family.

    And the hard thing about leaving Trinity is that his family was rooted there. His kids met other children, and his family met other families, and he was married there, and the kids were baptized there. ...

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    Harvard Law School

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    ... What did you think when he won the presidency of the Law Review? And what did you think the implications of that were for the Law Review?

    I thought it was a big breakthrough. For a lack of a better word, Harvard Law School, the Harvard Law Review, these were very hierarchical institutions at the time. They changed very slowly. They were not that responsive to let's say new inputs. There had not been very many black editors of the Harvard Law Review. There were kind of a few every year who made it. There had only been a few black officers of the Law Review.

    And for an institution that changed so slowly, it was so representative of the long traditions of the law school to have an African American president. That was just this immensely powerful symbolic breakthrough. I thought that the stakes were very high. It was all about what message is the Harvard Law Review or the Harvard Law School sending out to the rest of the world or to the student body about its inclusiveness, about who belongs and who doesn't belong?

    Did he feel that?

    Yeah, I think he felt the immense symbolism of being elected president of the Harvard Law Review. I mean, I think it was both great and sometimes uncomfortable.

    People would project all these things on to him. People would write him letters from all over the country about this moment and about how meaningful it was to him. And sometimes it was maybe a little bit too much.

    But I think he also understood how important it was symbolically to many, many people, even outside the bounds of Harvard or outside the bounds of the Ivy League who just took this as a symbol that the country could change.

    I talked to Brad Berenson about what it meant to be on the Review with him and how he was appointed and I think surprised that he and some of the other Federalist Society guys were picked. Were you surprised that they were picked?

    No, I wasn't surprised that there were a number of Federalists as officers of the Harvard Law Review after Barack became president. Now, the selection process for officers was very complicated, so some people were elected directly and then other people were sort of elected, but then Barack had some discretion to choose. So part of it was just kind of how the process shook itself out without regard to Barack's input.

    But I think I wasn't surprised. I mean, I think Barack was always very inclusive in the way he thought about the world. He would want input from conservatives into the Law Review's policy. He would want to be talking to them. And he would want everybody to feel like that they were part of the institution and that everybody had a stake. So no, I don't think I was surprised at that. ...

    One of the things that we wrestle with when we try to think about how to think about him in this film is if you think about that period where there is a lot of integration of himself and his past, and all the things -- Grandma or Grandpa, everybody, Kansas, Kenya. By the time he gets there, I think he realized, especially through Chicago, from the stories people tell us, he begins to realize that he is a bit of a person people project their own aspirations onto.

    If you're African American you may say, "He's one of us." If you're a certain other kind of person you may, you say: "Hey, he's going to carry our water for us. Hey, he believes this. Hey, he believes that." It appears he begins to form a kind of idea that if he can figure out the world and he can figure out who he is in a very complicated world set of circumstances that he grew up in, the world can be sort of bipartisan or everybody can kind of get along or everybody can sort things out, because if he can sort out his complicated past, we can all sort out our institutional problems and all kinds of other things. ...

    Did you see any of that happening? And do you agree with the proposition?

    Yeah, I think mostly.

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    Harvard Law School

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Tell me about the Derrick Bell issue. What was the matter?

    In the late 1980s there were a lot of protests about faculty diversity, not only at Harvard Law School but all over the country. I mean, students were demanding that faculties become more diverse, and they weren't.

    Harvard, like many universities, hired its faculty through a kind of time, tried-and-true method, and maybe a little bit of an old-boy network, although the faculty didn't call it that way. And a lot of people found themselves excluded from that. And Derrick Bell was one of the people who began to say this very forcefully at Harvard Law School and to get some people to begin to listen. And the students were very energized about the topic.

    Derrick Bell was a faculty member. Tell me who Derrick Bell was.

    Derrick Bell was the first African American professor to be hired and tenured at Harvard Law School, and he was an outsider. And even in 1988 when I arrived and he had been on the faculty almost two decades, he was still an outsider. He had gone to the University of Pittsburgh, which you didn't go to if you were going to be hired on the Harvard Law School faculty. He had been a civil rights lawyer, which again, you didn't do. He had done very, very well in law school, but he hadn't clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court. And he was doing this scholarship that was different, that was different in its style, that was different in its conclusions. He was very much an outsider, but students liked him.

    He was a kind of in-your-face guy. He was just very strongly principled and kind of quietly in overtime kept pushing an issue and pushing an issue until he was heard.

    And was there anything at stake for him personally in the Derrick Bell issue? ...

    I think two things. Derrick Bell wasn't just arguing about faculty diversity. He was arguing about how should we hire faculty members, what particular skills are valued among a faculty member, what does one have to do to get hired at Harvard Law School? And at the time when I started law school, it was still the case that to become a professor at Harvard, you usually had to go to Harvard or perhaps Yale, and you had to get good grades, and you clerked for the Supreme Court, and you were friends with some faculty members, and at some point you were brought back.

    But there was no evidence that you would be a good scholar. You had been a good student, but if you wanted to be hired by the economics department, you had to show that you could do some economics scholarship. So one of Derrick's arguments was that we were hiring faculty actually not based on method but through this sort of old-boy network that excluded many minorities and women from the hiring process, and that in order to hire more minorities and women, we had to think about how we hired faculty members.

    And I can just well imagine what a subtle and powerful assault that was on the conventional wisdom among the faculty.

    Yeah. In many ways, the faculty has moved not so much in terms of diversity, a little bit, but certainly in terms of hiring in the direction that Derrick Bell wanted. I mean, now you cannot get a job at Harvard Law School or any of the top law schools unless you have already produced scholarship. That wasn't the case 20 years ago. And that was Derrick's position that there were a number of minorities and women of color out there who were producing good scholarship, but couldn't get hired at a place like Harvard Law School, because they hadn't gone through the particular networks that resulted in you getting a job at Harvard.

    Was it a sort of polarizing issue among the students? ...

    I think when Derrick Bell started to push it, it wasn't so polarizing. People agreed, people disagreed, but in the late '80s it was a national issue.

    There were protests. There was a protest in the spring of 1989. There was a protest in the spring of 1990. Every spring there would be a protest about faculty diversity. And it was perceived among the student body that the faculty were not listening.

    So we had a new dean at the law school at the time, the dean was a conservative, so the students who were pushing the diversity issue were somewhat distrustful of the new dean and his commitment to faculty diversity.

    So I think over the course of the three years I was in law school, it didn't begin as a sort of polarizing thing, but it became that very, very quickly.

    And how did Barack navigate that?

    Like me, he was on the Law Review, so neither of us were at the center of the faculty diversity protests. My second year in law school, you worked 40 hours a week as an editor of the Harvard Law Review, then you've got to do your schoolwork, and then if you had any time maybe you would try to rest.

    So Barack wasn't really at the center of it, but I think no one really expected him to be. I mean, he was on the Law Review. He was elected president of the Law Review, and that in and of itself people thought was a statement about diversity.

    So he wasn't at the center of it, but everyone understood him to be someone who felt that the faculty should diversify itself a bit more, that he agreed with the objectives if not always the tactics of the diversity protesters. ...

    Does it mean anything that [Obama] spoke at the rally? Would it mean anything to other students that he spoke at the rally? I mean, did it have a kind of independent power of its own, or was he just another guy who grabbed the mic?

    No, I think it meant a great deal to the students and the diversity movement, and the students who were not in the movement who may sympathize with the objectives but maybe not with the tactics, that Barack spoke at the diversity rally.

    It meant that this was an issue that should be taken seriously, that we should find a way to move forward on it; we should find some kind of common ground. He was somebody for whom there was immense respect in the campus at that time, this respect that really crossed political lines. So it meant a great deal that he spoke at the rally.

  10. Ψ Share

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    ... And some of the people we've interviewed, they say there was this moment where [political adviser David] Axelrod or somebody says to Barack, "What are you going to do about race?," and he says, "What do you mean, what am I going to do about race?" ... Talk a little bit about that for me. Were you part of that conversation?

    ... I took a couple of months off from my position at the Center for American Progress and went to work for Barack to help him organize his Senate office, help him hire his staff, and help him think strategically about what he wanted to accomplish in his first term in the Senate.

    And we put together a one- or two-year plan about what he would accomplish and the milestones that he wanted to reach at certain points over that period. And the goal at that time definitely wasn't focused on a 2008 run for the presidency. It wasn't until the latter part of 2006 that he gave serious consideration to a run for the presidency. ...

    And so we started those conversations. And I do remember in one conversation -- I'm not sure if it was Axelrod, but the issue was race was raised. Essentially what we were doing, he asked us to challenge him on what he would face in running for president, to really ask the tough questions about, you know, would he be willing to give up his time with his family, to press him on that, to really give him a real-world sense of the commitment that it would take to run for president. And many of us around the table had had that experience at various times in working for candidates who run for president. And so he tasked us to really push him and give him a real-world assessment of what it would take and obviously to get him to respond and get a sense of, was he really ready for this?

    And so the issue of race was raised. And Barack did say that he wasn't interested in running as a black politician. He was going to run as a politician who is black, and that those issues would be addressed during the course of the race, but he didn't believe he needed a strategy to deal with the fact that he was an African American running for the presidency.

    And I do think that that is instructive or informative for how he thinks about his experience as a public official and how he's dealt with race throughout the course of his professional life.

    What did you think?

    Well, you know, it's interesting. You did make the comment about Barack being post-racial or his candidacy as being post-racial. And Barack doesn't think in those terms. He doesn't think of himself as being post-racial. He is very clear that race is still very much an issue in the U.S. And he's also very clear that there's a division between -- you know, you've got baby boomers who think of race very differently than their kids. I think I'm kind of in the middle. I'm not quite a baby boomer. And Barack is a baby boomer, but definitely at the tail end of baby boomers.

    And so he recognizes that there's a very different way of approaching the issue generationally. But he doesn't think of himself as a post-racial candidate. A lot of people say that, and I always want to be clear about that. And he's very cognizant of race and the role that race has played and continues to play in our society.

    What I thought about that conversation was that, you know, during the course of our friendship, Barack has always been the one to convince me that things are progressing, and that we're at a place where we can do certain things. He convinced me that an African American person like Barack Obama could run and win the presidency of the United States.

    I've always been confident in Barack's ability. And even after law school, I remember telling a couple of people that, you know, I know this guy who is incredibly talented and could be the first African American president of the United States. Now, granted, I wasn't telling a lot of people that, but I did tell a couple of people that.

    So I've always been confident in his skills, in his ability. But I have to say that I haven't always been as confident in the ability of people to see beyond race to embrace him and embrace his candidacy. But he's always been able to convince me that we're ready. And he's been right.

    So I trust his judgment on these things, and in that conversation I trusted his judgment. And I believed, as he believed, that he could do it. ...

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