A course description for “Current Issues in Racism and the Law,” a class Barack Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School 12 times between 1992 and 2004, categorized race relations in the United States as “institutional racism in American society.”
Obama taught the two-hour seminar course more often than his other two classes, “Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process” and “Voting Rights and the Democratic Process.” He taught those eight times beginning in 1996 and six times beginning in 1997, respectively.
The summary of Obama’s course on racism, likely authored by the future president himself, appeared in the law school’s 1995-1996 course catalog.
It promised students they would “examine current problems in American race relations and the role the law has played in structuring the race debate.”
It also promised an examination of “the continued emphasis on statutory solutions to racism” that have been emphasized at the expense of “potentially richer political, economic, and cultural approaches.”
“[C]an minorities afford to shift their emphasis,” it asked, “given the continued prevalence of racism in society?”
“Can, and should, the existing concepts of American jurisprudence provide racial minorities more than formal equality through the courts?”
The course’s requirements included writing “papers that evaluate how the legal system has dealt with particular incidents of racism and that discuss the comparative merits of litigation, legislation, and market solutions to the problems of institutional racism in American society.”
The course’s presumption that the legal profession has a duty to equalize minorities with the general population is a hallmark of Critical Race Theory, the academic idea that the law itself is an instrument of the powerful against the powerless, rather than an effort to seek justice.
The phrase “institutional racism” recalls the work of Derrick Bell, a controversial Harvard Law school professor whom Obama once introduced as a speaker during 1991 “diversity” protests at Harvard Law School, and whose Saturday seminars Obama attended as a law student.
New York Times reporter Jody Kantor released other materials from the course in 2008 showing that Obama taught Bell’s work, in particular Bell’s interpretations of seminal civil rights case law.
An August 2012 analysis of the materials Kantor published, co-authored by a University of North Carolina law professor and a law student, suggests that the readings Obama assigned and the group presentation topics he suggested reveal his strong interest in Critical Race Theory, also called CRT.
“[T]he prevalence of presentation questions on the syllabus that were at the center of CRT suggests that Obama had been brought into orbit around key issues in CRT.” Obama, they wrote, also seems to have taught according to “a model set by many CRT scholars,” who prefer alternatives to the traditional Socratic method. (RELATED: In Harvard essay, young Michelle Obama argued for race-based faculty hiring)
“He was different from other professors at Chicago,” former Obama student Daniel Sokol told David Remnick, author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”
“A lot of the faculty was heavily Socratic in method, even in upper-level courses. Obama was demanding with questions, but he wouldn’t just stick on one student. It was a small seminar.”
It’s unclear how much of Obama’s views from a decade or more ago influence his conduct in office. None of the Obama students identified in the book discussed on the record what Obama taught or discussed in class.
But Obama’s views on the material he was teaching did leak out on occasion. Remnick quoted an unnamed former law student who said Obama supported racial reparations in theory, but found it unworkable in practice.
“He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable,” the former student said. “You could tell he thought he had let the cat out of the bag and felt uncomfortable.”
“To agree with reparations in theory,” the student continued, “means we go past apology and can actually change the dynamics of the country based on other situations where you saw reparations … As the complexities emerged — who is black, how far back do you go, what about recent immigrants still feeling racism, do they have a claim — finally, he [Obama] said, ‘That is why it’s unworkable.'”