Posted: December 8, 2010
he Bridge, by New Yorker editor David Remnick, is not so much about how a black became president as about how a president became black. It opens at a 2007 commemoration in Selma, Alabama—the site of a clash between police and civil rights marchers 42 years earlier—where Barack Obama was able to present himself as a worthier inheritor than Hillary Clinton of the struggles for which the old men and women in the audience had risked so much. "Don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama," he said. "Don't tell me I'm not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama."
That the segregation-era Deep South, or even the memory thereof, might be in any way "home" to Obama did not go without saying. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, was an impressionable, idealistic white woman raised in Kansas and then Hawaii, a sort of wind-chime socialist who believed she had "Cherokee blood" (the wish possibly being father to the thought), and who wound up in Indonesia, studying village blacksmithing and writing reports for the Ford Foundation. Obama would later describe her, with a mixture of love and condescension, as "that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head." Obama's father was a brainy, ambitious Kenyan Muslim who arrived in Hawaii as part of a foundation-funded program for training a post-imperial African ruling class. "Ann's parents found Obama smooth, smart, even charming," Remnick writes, "but not entirely familiar or trustworthy." He was a drunk, the more so as the years passed, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a polygamist, who already had a wife at the time he married Ann, and would acquire another after he abandoned the Dunham family to attend graduate school. He subsequently returned to Africa, and the future president met him only once.
The story of Barack Obama's rise is familiar enough not to warrant repeating. What is unusual about Remnick's version is that he tells it through the lens of race. As an American boy growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, Obama was in a confusing position. He looked black, but he didn't know any blacks. He was descended from slave owners but not from slaves. Most disorientingly, Hawaii—where he was brought up by his white grandparents—lacked even those lingering remnants of racism, the exposure and expunging of which was, by the 1970s, the main preoccupation of the burgeoning establishment that had grown out of the civil rights movement.
In a way that strikes Remnick as both "touching" and "awkward," Obama began "giving himself instruction on how to be black." He wrote letters to his father that went unanswered. He sought out military servicemen to play basketball with, in hopes of learning their slang. In college, Obama read deeply in black literature and history. He gravitated towards community organizing in poor black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. At law school he took a lot of classes in civil rights law, and then spurned a lucrative career track to take up civil rights work at Davis, Miner, which Remnick calls "a classic liberal ‘good-guy' firm." As a lecturer at the University of Chicago, he taught a course (by all accounts superb) called Current Issues in Racism and the Law. He sought out as a mentor the fiery advocate of "black-liberation theology," Jeremiah Wright.
One of the book's highlights is Remnick's interview with the former Black Panther leader (now Congressman) Bobby Rush, who demolished Obama in his first race for Congress in 2000, largely by raising doubts among inner-city voters about Obama's "authenticity." Rush, who still seems to carry considerable resentment from the campaign, alleges that Obama even taught himself to walk like a black person, with a kind of "sashay," as Remnick calls it, that Rush gleefully imitates for him.
There's a certain break at the knees as you walk and you get a certain roll going. Watch. You see? And he's the first President of the United States to walk like that, I can guarantee you that! But, lemme tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then!
Obama is, racially speaking, a self-made man. If there were a citizenship examination for blackness, he'd have passed it. Remnick hints that Ann Dunham's idealization of black people may have rubbed off on Obama, and that it may be responsible for the immodesty that is his besetting flaw. Remnick sees that blackness can, in some circumstances, be deployed to great effect on the political stage—and that the 2008 presidential election was one of those circumstances. A Chicago Tribune journalist describes Obama to Remnick as "radiating the sense that ‘You're the kind of guy who can accept a black guy as a senator.'"
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At root, though, Remnick is without a drop of cynicism as to why Obama, as both a youth and a middle-aged man, might consider a confident blackness of a politicized kind to be something worthy of aspiring to. The struggle for racial equality appears in these pages as a moral lodestar, the only real litmus test of contemporary political morality. Mastering the history and rhetoric of civil rights, reading the rest of American history through it, rendering one's personality acceptable to those who speak in its name—to Remnick, all of this is so self-evidently admirable as to need no explanation.
Woven into this story are set pieces on the history of blacks in America. When Obama is in Selma, we are treated to long discursions on Martin Luther King's rhetoric and John Lewis's activism. Obama's election as the first black editor of theHarvard Law Review serves as a springboard to a history of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall's challenge to the doctrine of separate-but-equal. And Remnick prefaces his discussion of Dreams from My Father, the memoir Obama wrote in his early thirties, with a history of slave narratives and black autobiographies.
These sections are impeccably researched, intelligently laid out, and thoroughly conventional. This is the "Whig" version of civil rights history—the catechetical version, the version taught in elementary schools across the country during Black History Month, the version that one sees in museums of African-American history. There are no wrong turns in it, no misjudgments, aside from a few moments of excessive zeal that are easily accounted for, and—above all—no opportunity costs for progress made.
It is also the version that Obama, like other politicians of both parties before him, proclaimed on the campaign trail. "The black freedom struggle became, in Obama's terms, an American freedom struggle," Remnick writes. That's true, and, again, not just in Obama's terms. It has been true since the founding. To the extent that Obama conveyed that idea, he deserves nothing but credit.
But Remnick misses the quixotic side to Obama's attempt to read his way back into a departed past. Obama comes to seem not just a defender of civil rights but the embodiment of them. Remnick mistakes Obama's allies and enemies for the allies and enemies of reason, progress, and fair play. It is one thing to describe Georgia congressman John Lewis as a hero of the 1960s. It is quite another to call him—after a political career spent casting the mildest of dissents from whatever his own position happens to be as evidence of totalitarianism— "one of the most principled figures in government." Jesse Jackson appears as a flawed giant, Jeremiah Wright as hot-tempered but brilliant and misunderstood. There is, in fact, no one in the book who speaks in the name of civil rights whom Remnick will damn more than faintly. Even some of the wilder black nationalists Obama meets are described as "full of pride but also too willing to listen to conspiracy theories about Koreans funding the Klan and Jewish doctors injecting black babies with AIDS."
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When Remnick writes about political campaigns, there is always a sense of partisan heat insufficiently cooled. Consider his long description of the 1983 Chicago mayoral race, which pitted the black congressman Harold Washington against Republican Bernard Epton. Remnick sees Epton's slogan ("Before It's Too Late") as an appeal to racism, and his frustrated outburst after being cast as the villain of the campaign ("I am not ashamed of being white!") as more of the same. But the case that Epton himself made a Faustian pact with racism is weak. Epton was a Hyde Park liberal who marched for civil rights in the South and sent his children to local public schools even after they had become virtually all-black. (That is, well after much of the city's black elite had abandoned them.) Racism did not exhaust the reasons that Chicagoans might have feared a Washington victory. Epton's misdeed was that he stood in the way of the history that Washington's supporters wanted to make.
John McCain was fitted with the same villain's cloak in the 2008 presidential campaign, which Remnick compares explicitly to the 1983 mayoral race. McCain accused Obama of "playing the race card" after Obama warned an audience in Missouri about McCain's supporters: "What they're going to try to do is make you scared of me.You know, ‘He doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.'" One needn't hold Obama to an impossible moral standard: campaigning is campaigning. But from this distance, it ought to be easy to see that McCain had a point. Remnick is correct to regret the way McCain stifled his independent voice to please the establishment Republicans around George W. Bush. (At the worst possible moment, he paid lip service to their foolish economic policies, which he had opposed in the past.) But to say that McCain campaigned in a way that "would have been pitiable had it not been so dangerous" is to tell a political fish story.
The official version of civil rights, as taught in schools, rushes from the idealistic struggles of underdog protesters in the mid-20th century to the glorious present. The problem is that, although the period since the late 1960s was indeed marked by moral triumphs, it also saw serious failures. Remnick tends to see these failures as evidence of lingering racism, and those who point them out as self-interested rabble-rousers. To say that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew "used the code of ‘law and order' to insure themselves of a solid white voting bloc in the South" is to imply that black crime was either a minor problem or a non-existent one. Remnick cites Obama's memory of confiding in the 1970s to Frank Davis, a black friend of his grandfather, about his grandmother's fear of black people. "Your grandma's right to be scared," Davis says. "She understands that black people have a reason to hate." But Davis has sneaked an extra term into the syllogism here. Obama's grandmother was afraid of black people because she believed they were violent. Whether they had a reason to hate is a different question altogether.
Race relations have calmed down since then, partly because politicians have been ready to throw out the constitutional baby with the segregationist bathwater. The "war on drugs," for example, has dramatically reduced crime in black neighborhoods, helping people like the president's grandmother to make their peace with integration. But it has resulted in a level of incarceration that should be a source of embarrassment and shame in a free country. The United States has a quarter of the world's prison population, and most of it is black.
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Affirmative action exacts an even steeper constitutional price. For a book about the self-identification of an unusually introspective, upwardly mobile black man in the late 20th century, The Bridge has surprisingly little to say about it. Aside from one partly tongue-in-cheek letter Obama wrote in the Harvard Law Review, describing himself as "someone who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career," its effect on Obama's life gets no serious attention at all. Remnick sometimes dances around the issue, as when he notes—by way of explaining how Obama was considered for tenure at the University of Chicago despite having spent a decade there without publishing a single article—that the university was "eager to increase the diversity of [its] faculty".
Elsewhere Remnick raises affirmative action only to ridicule those who worry about it, noting that Obama was admitted to the elite private school Punahou thanks to a connection his grandparents had there:
"My first experience with affirmative action, it seems, had little to do with race," Obama writes, winking at a fact that looms so large at elite American prep schools and Ivy League colleges: that affirmative action for alumni children and the well-connected is far more pervasive than any breaks extended on the basis of ethnic background.
Obama is careful enough to include the words "it seems." It is unlikely that race had nothing to do with the decision of one of the most elite prep schools in the country to accept a boy, however bright, who was being raised by a penurious furniture salesman. (And to call alumni preference a form of "affirmative action" is a canard. No law requires it. No college admissions official has ever found himself hauled into a courtroom for failing to practice it.) At key junctures where one would expect a discussion of affirmative action, it is absent. Obama was a B student at Punahou, but was much sought after by colleges. Why? "Like the best New England prep schools," Remnick writes, "Punahou routinely sent its top-tier students to the best colleges and universities in the country—and the second-tier students, Obama included, did almost as well."
When President Obama went to Selma to declare it his political "home," he was doing a paradoxical thing. He was laying claim to be a civil rights leader not because of what he could give to the movement but because of the opportunities that he and other blacks of his generation—which Remnick calls "the Joshua generation"—had taken from it. Americans can be proud of this history, but they should not lose sight of the distinction between equality and oppression. President Obama is an important figure in the civil rights movement only to the extent that the civil rights movement's work is done.