In his 2008 book, “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North,” released on the same day Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States, Thomas Sugrue says Obama appeared in only one sentence because he was not yet a central figure in civil rights.
In the election’s aftermath, Sugrue, the David Boies Professor of History and Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, says that whenever he conducted an interview, presentation or lecture on “Sweet Land of Liberty,” he was always asked about Obama and his relationship to that history.
So in his latest book, “Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race,” Sugrue situates Obama in the context of the history of race, politics and culture of the last 40 years. Sugrue says a key problem with discussions about Obama and race is that people tend to make sweeping statements such as: “Barack Obama is the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement that began with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.”
That statement is true, Sugrue says, but “only in the most superficial way.”
Obama is the product of more specific historical events, Sugrue says. He wasn’t around for most of the civil rights struggles and came of age in the 1980s and ‘90s when racial politics were especially divisive. “Not Even Past” looks at Obama in the larger context of black urban politics, his education at Columbia, his work as a community organizer in Chicago and his career at Harvard Law School.
Sugrue says Obama is representative of a mostly overlooked but important group of black elected officials who won races within interracial constituencies beginning in the 1970s: politicians like Tom Bradley, elected mayor of Los Angeles in the early 1970s when the city’s black population was less than 20 percent; Douglas Wilder, who was governor of Virginia in the early 1990s; and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.
“We need to take a look at Obama’s political trajectory in light of the many black politicians who were interracial coalition builders,” Sugrue says. “Their experiences fundamentally shaped Obama’s own career.”
Obama’s career at Harvard was also instrumental in forming his political strategy and vision. Sugrue says Obama has positioned himself as a unifying figure who can cross barriers that separate groups, an experience that grew out of his election as editor of the Harvard Law Review.
This also helps explain some of the more problematic aspects of Obama’s politics, Sugrue says, particularly his belief that bipartisanship is good in its own right.
“I think Obama has, in taking that political disposition of reaching out to the other side, spent a lot of his first year in office trying to build bridges with people who are trying to blow up the bridge,” Sugrue says. “But I think that sense of connecting, or bridging, opposing sides is in some ways fundamental to how Obama sees himself as a political figure, for better or for worse.”
For his research, Sugrue says he read “pretty much everything Obama wrote or said before he became a national figure in 2004,” including his speeches, memoirs, interviews with journalists and a regular column he wrote for the neighborhood newspaper in Hyde Park, Chicago. Sugrue also relied on his own scholarship on race, urban politics and civil rights in the last third of the 20th century.
Sugrue says one thing that became very clear from his research is that Obama is “a fundamentally cautious guy.”
“This is someone who very seldom speaks off the cuff and very seldom gives an answer that isn’t really carefully thought out,” he says. “I think in many respects, what you see with Obama is what you get.”
While many believed Obama would act boldly and audaciously when elected—and while those on the political right think he has overreached—Sugrue says that when we look back on the first two years of the Obama Administration, we will see someone who clearly attempted to shift the direction of national politics, “but in a very gradualist, middle-of-the-road kind of way.”
“That’s in some ways what makes the charges of Obama’s otherness, his socialism, so spurious,” he says. “This is someone whose politics on most issues are very similar to the moderate center of the Democratic Party, including his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton. I think Obama, in most respects, is a Clinton Democrat.”
Sugrue admits that he wouldn’t have predicted in 2007 that Obama would be elected president of the United States. As for 2012, he says: “A lot can happen in two years.”
Originally published on October 14, 2010