Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Autumn 2004
Barack had already made an impression on both the second- and third-year student editors. If I remember properly, he had already participated in a committee that would plan the annual issue devoted to some new development in law, and was also holding forth in the forum where impressions were formed quickly among the staff — the editors’ lounge….Like all of us, he was ambitious, but he never seemed that way.
The African-American editors had been strategizing to elect one of our own to the presidency for several years, and it was not an easy task…. four black editors threw their hats in the ring for the election to the presidency in the winter of 1990. Seventeen editors eventually decided to run for the position.
There were many elements involved in Barack’s eventual victory, but the one moment that stands out to me was a vote, taken among the editors a few weeks before the election, that divided liberals and progressives from conservatives among the editorial staff. The law review, like America today, was sometimes bitterly divided along political lines, although there the liberals and progressives were in the clear majority. We argued about everything from affirmative action to the politics of legal scholarship. The conservatives lost this particular vote and many of us, myself included, were inclined to talk no further with them about it. Yet Barack followed up the vote by publicly offering to discuss the issue further and to find common ground with the conservatives, while seeming to empathize with their views. Not everyone on the winning side agreed with that tactic, but it paid dividends.
I remember vividly a moment during the presidential election when a conservative editor whom I had never known to support a black editor or a black author rose to pledge his firm support behind Barack, who everyone knew was a liberal-progressive. Barack, of course, won the election handily with an incredibly broad range of supporters. It was a moment of triumph that crossed racial and political lines, as well as about every demographic line among the editors.
I remember Barack Obama as a very strong editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review…. He motivated a large group of editors, who were talented, headstrong, and often contentious, to produce what we sincerely believed to be the United States’ best scholarly journal in law. His greatest skill lay in defusing conflicts and in encouraging colleagues of his to cooperate with one another, or at least to compromise… Was Barack considered an `affirmative action baby’ by white students or faculty members? It never occurred to me to think of Barack as anything besides the president of the Review, and (as I have said) a very strong one at that. Even back in those days he plainly aspired to a high-profile political career, and the rest of us respected, even admired, him for his ambitions.
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Jan. 31, 2001
I had established a presence in the classroom and in other activities during my first year of law school serving as an editor on the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review, assisting several professors on their scholarly work, and campaigning actively on issues of diversity in faculty hiring. As a result, I think my peers and professors knew that I took my work at the law school seriously and were less likely to question my qualifications for a spot on the Review. Moreover, by the time I was elected to the presidency of the Review, the peers who voted for me had worked with me in close quarters for over a year and were pretty familiar with my accomplishments… I have no way of knowing whether I was a beneficiary of affirmative action either in my admission to Harvard or my initial election to the Review. If I was, then I certainly am not ashamed of the fact, for I would argue that affirmative action is important precisely because those who benefit typically rise to the challenge when given an opportunity. Persons outside Harvard may have perceived my election to the presidency of the Review as a consequence of affirmative action, since they did not know me personally. At least one white friend of mine mentioned that a federal appellate court judge asked him during his clerkship whether I had been elected on the merits. And the issue did come up among those who were making the hiring decisions at the [University of Chicago] law school — something that might not have even been raised with respect to a white former president of the Review.