When Barack Obama returned to Chicago in 1991 after three brilliant years at Harvard Law School, he didn’t like what he saw. The former community activist, then 30, had come fresh from a term as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a position he was the first African-American to hold. Now he was ready to continue his battle to organize Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the state of the city muted his exuberance.
“Upon my return to Chicago,” he would write in the epilogue to his recently published memoir, Dreams From My Father, “I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the South Side—the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass—what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we’ve always done—pretending that these children are somehow not our own.”
Today, after three years of law practice and civic activism, Obama has decided to dive into electoral politics. He is running for the Illinois Senate, he says, because he wants to help create jobs and a decent future for those embittered youth. But when he met with some veteran politicians to tell them of his plans, the only jobs he says they wanted to talk about were theirs and his. Obama got all sorts of advice. Some of it perplexed him; most of it annoyed him. One African-American elected official suggested that Obama change his name, which he’d inherited from his late Kenyan father. Another told him to put a picture of his light-bronze, boyish face on all his campaign materials, “so people don’t see your name and think you’re some big dark guy.”
Obama, running to be the Democratic candidate for the 13th District on the south side, was also told—even by fellow progressives—that he might be too independent, that he should strike a few deals to assure his election. Another well-meaning adviser suggested never posing for photos with a glass in his hand—even if he wasn’t drinking alcohol.
“Now all of this may be good political advice,” Obama said, “but it’s all so superficial. I am surprised at how many elected officials—even the good ones—spend so much time talking about the mechanics of politics and not matters of substance. They have this poker chip mentality, this overriding interest in retaining their seats or in moving their careers forward, and the business and game of politics, the political horse race, is all they talk about. Even those who are on the same page as me on the issues never seem to want to talk about them. Politics is regarded as little more than a career.”
Obama doesn’t need another career. As a civil rights lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author, he already has no trouble working 12-hour days. He says he is drawn to politics, despite its superficialities, as a means to advance his real passion and calling: community organization.
Obama thinks elected officials could do much to overcome the political paralysis of the nation’s black communities. He thinks they could lead their communities out of twin culs-de-sac: the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation—which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to “move up, get rich, and move out”—and the equally impractical politics of black rage and black nationalism—which exhorts but does not organize ordinary folks or create realistic agendas for change.
Obama, whose political vision was nurtured by his work in the 80s as an organizer in the far-south-side communities of Roseland and Altgeld Gardens, proposes a third alternative. Not new to Chicago—which is the birthplace of community organizing—but unusual in electoral politics, his proposal calls for organizing ordinary citizens into bottom-up democracies that create their own strategies, programs, and campaigns and that forge alliances with other disaffected Americans. Obama thinks elected officials—even a state senator—can play a critical catalytic role in this rebuilding.
Obama is certainly not the first candidate to talk about the politics of community empowerment. His views, for instance, are not that different from those of the person he would replace, state senator Alice Palmer, who gave Obama her blessing after deciding to run for the congressional seat vacated by Mel Reynolds. She promised Obama that if she lost—which is what happened on November 28—she wouldn’t then run against him to keep her senate seat.
What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he’s running to fill a political and moral vacuum. He says he’s tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up—at the speaker’s rostrum and from the pulpit—and then allowed to dissipate because there’s no agenda, no concrete program for change.
While no political opposition to Obama has arisen yet, many have expressed doubts about the practicality of his ambitions. Obama himself says he’s not certain that his experimental plunge into electoral politics can produce the kind of community empowerment and economic change he’s after.
“Three major doubts have been raised,” he said. The first is whether in today’s political environment—with its emphasis on media and money—a grass-roots movement can even be created. Will people still answer the call of participatory politics?
“Second,” Obama said, “many believe that the country is too racially polarized to build the kind of multiracial coalitions necessary to bring about massive economic change.
“Third, is it possible for those of us working through the Democratic Party to figure out ways to use the political process to create jobs for our communities?”
Obama’s intriguing candidacy is the latest adventure in a fascinating life chronicled in Dreams From My Father, published this summer by Times Books. In Obama’s words, the book is “a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American.” In the book, which reads more like a novel than a memoir, Obama comes to terms with the legacy of the African father who left his mother and him when he was two, dropped by when he was ten, and died in an auto accident when he was finishing college. While doing so, Obama takes readers on a multicultural odyssey through three continents and several political philosophies. He casts a skeptical if sympathetic eye on white liberalism, black nationalism, integration, separatism, small-scale economic development, and the transient effectiveness of charismatic black political leaders like the late mayor Washington. While Obama credits all these political movements with bringing some progress to middle-class blacks, he believes that none have built enduring institutions and none have halted the unraveling of black America.
Obama is the product of a brief early-60s college romance and short-lived marriage between a black African exchange student and a white liberal Kansan who met at the University of Hawaii. His critical boyhood years—from two to ten—were spent neither in white nor black America but in the teeming streets and jungle outskirts of Djakarta. Obama’s boyhood experiences in Indonesia—where his mother took him when she married another foreign exchange student—propelled him toward a worldview well beyond his mother’s liberalism.
“The poverty, the corruption, the constant scramble for security . . . remained all around me and bred a relentless skepticism. My mother’s confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn’t possess. . . . In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hard-ship . . . she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.”
When Obama moved back to his grandparents’ home in Hawaii, to attend the prestigious Punahou School, he encountered race and class prejudice that would darken his politics even more. At first embarrassed by his race and African name, he soon bonded with the few other African-American students. He quickly learned that integration was a one-way street, with blacks expected to assimilate into a white world that never gave ground. He participated in bitter bull sessions with his buddies on the theme of “how white folks will do you.” Obama, who had to reconcile these sentiments with the loving support he had at home from his white mother and grandparents, dismissed much of his buddies’ analysis as “the same sloppy thinking” used by racist whites, but he found the racism of whites to be particularly stubborn and obnoxious.
Obama objected when his Punahou basketball coach upbraided the team for losing to “a bunch of niggers.” Obama writes that the coach “calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that ‘there are black people, and there are niggers. Those guys were niggers.'”
“That’s just how white folks will do you,” Obama writes. “It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn.”
Obama’s politics were tinged with nihilism during his undergraduate years at Occidental College outside Los Angeles. There he played it cool and detached, and began to confuse partying and getting high with rebellion. After he and his buddies joked about the Mexican cleaning woman’s forlorn reaction to the mess they’d created at a party, Obama was jolted back to reality by the criticism of a fellow black student, a young Chicago woman. “You think that’s funny?” she told him. “That could have been my grandmother, you know. She had to clean up behind people for most of her life.” Obama later transferred to Columbia University, where he was shocked by the casual tolerance of whites and blacks alike for the wide disparity between New York City’s opulence and ghetto poverty. He graduated from Columbia with a double major in English literature and political science, and a determination to “organize black folks. At the grass roots.” He wrote scores of letters looking for the right job, and almost a year later got an offer to come to Chicago. He gave up a job as a financial writer with an international consulting firm and became a $1,000-a-month community organizer.
Here in Chicago, Obama worked as lead organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a campaign funded by south-side Catholic churches to counteract the dislocation and massive unemployment caused by the closing and downsizing of southeast Chicago steel plants.
From 1984 to ’88 Obama built an organization in Roseland and the nearby Altgeld Gardens public housing complex that mobilized hundreds of citizens. Obama says the campaign experienced “modest successes” in winning residents a place at the table where a job-training facility was launched, asbestos and lead paint were negotiated out of the local schools, and community interests were guarded in the development of the area’s landfills.
Obama left for Harvard in 1988, vowing to return. He excelled at Harvard Law and gave up an almost certain Supreme Court clerkship to come back as promised. Here he met and married his wife, Michelle, a fellow lawyer and activist, joined a law firm headed by Judson Miner, Mayor Washington’s corporation counsel, moved into a lakefront condominium in Hyde Park, and launched a busy civic life. He sits on the boards of two foundations with long histories of backing social and political reform, including his own community work—the Woods Fund and the Joyce Foundation. Recently he was appointed president of the board of the Annenberg Challenge Grant, which will distribute some $50 million in grants to public-school reform efforts.
In 1992 Obama took time off to direct Project Vote, the most successful grass-roots voter-registration campaign in recent city history. Credited with helping elect Carol Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate, the registration drive, aimed primarily at African-Americans, added an estimated 125,000 voters to the voter rolls—even more than were registered during Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns. “It’s a power thing,” said the brochures and radio commercials.
Obama’s work on the south side has won him the friendship and respect of many activists. One of them, Johnnie Owens, left the citywide advocacy group Friends of the Parks to join Obama at the Developing Communities Project. He later replaced Obama as its executive director.
“What I liked about Barack immediately is that he brought a certain level of sophistication and intelligence to community work,” Owens says. “He had a reasonable, focused approach that I hadn’t seen much of. A lot of organizers you meet these days are these self-anointed leaders with this strange, way-out approach and unrealistic, eccentric way of pursuing things from the very beginning. Not Barack. He’s not about calling attention to himself. He’s concerned with the work. It’s as if it’s his mission in life, his calling, to work for social justice.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m one of the most cynical people you want to see, always looking for somebody’s angle or personal interest,” Owens added. “I’ve lived in Chicago all my life. I’ve known some of the most ruthless and biggest bullshitters out there, but I see nothing but integrity in this guy.”
Jean Rudd, executive director of the Woods Fund, is another person on guard against self-appointed, self-promoting community leaders. She admires not only Obama’s intelligence but his honesty. “He is one of the most articulate people I have ever met, but he doesn’t use his gift with language to promote himself. He uses it to clarify the difficult job before him and before all of us. He’s not a promoter; from the very beginning, he always makes it clear what his difficulties are. His honesty is refreshing.”
Woods was the first foundation to underwrite Obama’s work with DCP. Now that he’s on the Woods board, Rudd says, “He is among the most hard-nosed board members in wanting to see results. He wants to see our grants make change happen—not just pay salaries.”
Another strong supporter of Obama’s work—as an organizer, as a lawyer, and now as a candidate—is Madeline Talbott, lead organizer of the feisty ACORN community organization, a group that’s a thorn in the side of most elected officials. “I can’t repeat what most ACORN members think and say about politicians. But Barack has proven himself among our members. He is committed to organizing, to building a democracy. Above all else, he is a good listener, and we accept and respect him as a kindred spirit, a fellow organizer.”
Obama continues his organizing work largely through classes for future leaders identified by ACORN and the Centers for New Horizons on the south side. Conducting a session in a New Horizons classroom, Obama, tall and thin, looks very much like an Ivy League graduate student. Dressed casually prep, his tie loosened and his top shirt button unfastened, he leads eight black women from the Grand Boulevard community through a discussion of “what folks should know” about who in Chicago has power and why they have it. It’s one of his favorite topics, and the class bubbles with suggestions about how “they” got to be high and mighty.
“Slow down now. You’re going too fast now,” says Obama. “I want to break this down. We talk ‘they, they, they’ but don’t take the time to break it down. We don’t analyze. Our thinking is sloppy. And to the degree that it is, we’re not going to be able to have the impact we could have. We can’t afford to go out there blind, hollering and acting the fool, and get to the table and don’t know who it is we’re talking to—or what we’re going to ask them—whether it’s someone with real power or just a third-string flak catcher.”
Later Obama gets to another favorite topic—the lack of collective action among black churches. “All these churches and all these pastors are going it alone. And what do we have? These magnificent palatial churches in the midst of the ruins of some of the most run-down neighborhoods we’ll ever see. All pastors go on thinking about how they are going to ‘build my church,’ without joining with others to try to influence the factors or forces that are destroying the neighborhoods. They start food pantries and community-service programs, but until they come together to build something bigger than an effective church all the community-service programs, all the food pantries they start will barely take care of even a fraction of the community’s problems.”
“In America,” Obama says, “we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”
In an interview after the class, Obama again spoke of the need to organize and mobilize the economic power and moral fervor of black churches. He also argued that as a state senator he might help bring this about faster than as a community organizer or civil rights lawyer.
“What we need in America, especially in the African-American community, is a moral agenda that is tied to a concrete agenda for building and rebuilding our communities,” he said. “We have moved beyond the clarion call stage that was needed during the civil rights movement. Now, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we must move into a building stage. We must invest our energy and resources in a massive rebuilding effort and invent new mechanisms to strengthen and hasten this community-building effort.
“We have no shortage of moral fervor,” said Obama. “We have some wonderful preachers in town—preachers who continue to inspire me—preachers who are magnificent at articulating a vision of the world as it should be. In every church on Sunday in the African-American community we have this moral fervor; we have energy to burn.
“But as soon as church lets out, the energy dissipates. We must find ways to channel all this energy into community building. The biggest failure of the civil rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures.”
Obama added that as important and inspiring as it was, the Washington administration also let an opportunity go by. “Washington was the best of the classic politicians,” Obama said. “He knew his constituency; he truly enjoyed people. That can’t be said for a lot of politicians. He was not cynical about democracy and the democratic process—as so many of them are. But he, like all politicians, was primarily interested in maintaining his power and working the levers of power.
“He was a classic charismatic leader,” Obama said, “and when he died all of that dissipated. This potentially powerful collective spirit that went into supporting him was never translated into clear principles, or into an articulable agenda for community change.
“The only principle that came through was ‘getting our fair share,’ and this runs itself out rather quickly if you don’t make it concrete. How do we rebuild our schools? How do we rebuild our communities? How do we create safer streets? What concretely can we do together to achieve these goals? When Harold died, everyone claimed the mantle of his vision and went off in different directions. All that power dissipated.
“Now an agenda for getting our fair share is vital. But to work, it can’t see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It’s time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces—the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.
“The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that’s what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.
“The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted,” said Obama. “People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change.
“What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer,” he wondered, “as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.
“The right wing, the Christian right, has done a good job of building these organizations of accountability, much better than the left or progressive forces have. But it’s always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia. And they also have hijacked the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.
“Now we have to take this same language—these same values that are encouraged within our families—of looking out for one another, of sharing, of sacrificing for each other—and apply them to a larger society. Let’s talk about creating a society, not just individual families, based on these values. Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more.”
Obama said he’s not at all comfortable with the political game of getting and staying elected, of raising money in backroom deals and manipulating an electable image.
“I am also finding people equivocating on their support. I’m talking about progressive politicians who are on the same page with me on the issues but who warn me I may be too independent.”
Although Obama has built strong relationships with people inside Mayor Daley’s administration, he has not asked for their support in his campaign. Nor has he sought the mayor’s endorsement.
“I want to do this as much as I can from the grass-roots level, raising as much money for the campaign as possible at coffees, connecting directly with voters,” said Obama. “But to organize this district I must get known. And this costs money. I admit that in this transitional period, before I’m known in the district, I’m going to have to rely on some contributions from wealthy people—people who like my ideas but who won’t attach strings. This is not ideal, but it is a problem encountered by everyone in their first campaign.
“Once elected, once I’m known, I won’t need that kind of money, just as Harold Washington, once he was elected and known, did not need to raise and spend money to get the black vote.”
Obama took time off from attending campaign coffees to attend October’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C. His experiences there only reinforced his reasons for jumping into politics.
“What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African-American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society,” he said. “There was a profound sense that African-American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.
“But what was lacking among march organizers was a positive agenda, a coherent agenda for change. Without this agenda a lot of this energy is going to dissipate. Just as holding hands and singing ‘We shall overcome’ is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can’t find jobs and futures for the 50 percent of black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage.
“Exhortations are not enough, nor are the notions that we can create a black economy within America that is hermetically sealed from the rest of the economy and seriously tackle the major issues confronting us,” Obama said.
“Any solution to our unemployment catastrophe must arise from us working creatively within a multicultural, interdependent, and international economy. Any African-Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled if they don’t also come to grips with the larger economic forces that are creating economic insecurity for all workers—whites, Latinos, and Asians. We must deal with the forces that are depressing wages, lopping off people’s benefits right and left, and creating an earnings gap between CEOs and the lowest-paid worker that has risen in the last 20 years from a ratio of 10 to 1 to one of better than 100 to 1.
“This doesn’t suggest that the need to look inward emphasized by the march isn’t important, and that these African-American tribal affinities aren’t legitimate. These are mean, cruel times, exemplified by a ‘lock ’em up, take no prisoners’ mentality that dominates the Republican-led Congress. Historically, African-Americans have turned inward and towards black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us, and that white Americans couldn’t care less about the profound problems African-Americans are facing.”
“But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up. We’ve got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We’ve got communities to build.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark PoKempner.