He’s Comfortable in His Skin -- Now It’s Our Turn

Sandy Banks is a Times editorial writer.

Barack Obama’s fans, legions and growing, imagine a day when this new rock star of politics strides into the Oval Office.

The junior senator from Illinois insists that he has no immediate designs on the White House. But even if Obama, 43, runs as an octogenarian -- and even though he has been diplomatically dismantling racial and political boundaries since he became, in 1990, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review -- his candidacy would make this country squirm and shudder and maybe even come unglued.

Obama, after all, is no Tiger Woods, cobbling together a treacly amalgam to represent each strain of his heritage. Never mind his biracial DNA. He considers himself a black man. His gene pool may be free from the taint of slavery, but his experience as an American is not.


Obama’s father was a black economics student from Kenya who returned to Africa when his son was young. His mother was a white anthropologist from Kansas. She raised her son in Indonesia for four years, then sent him at age 10 to live with her parents, who now lived in Hawaii. It was his white mother who cloaked the child in blackness, insisting, he says, that “to be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.”

Obama recounted his family’s story in “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” first published 10 years ago, before he began his political career. The publisher reissued the autobiography last summer, during Obama’s Senate race. The book reveals a man who is intellectually intense, emotionally honest and racially aware -- qualities certain to strain the affections of a nation that prefers its leaders simple and self-righteous, no soul-searching allowed.

By chronicling the journey of a confused young man struggling to find “a workable meaning for his life as a black American,” the autobiography hands future political opponents ammunition: As a teenager, Obama smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. With his father gone, he relied for guidance on a handful of black acquaintances -- the streetwise son of a former Los Angeles cop, an elderly poker buddy of his grandfather -- and behaved as “a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood.”

“I engaged in self-destructive behavior,” Obama admits today. “Sometimes I lashed out at white people and sometimes I lashed out at black people.”

In the book, he cringes when black friends play the race card to summon white guilt. And he seethes over whites’ mindless bigotry -- their “particular brand of arrogance” -- that breeds bitterness and self-hatred among blacks. But although the pain, frustration and anger he expresses will resonate among minorities, his candor will discomfort others by illuminating what Obama calls “the fissures of race.”

It’s a subject Obama insists Americans need to talk about more, not less. So we talked:

Opinion: Won’t voters have trouble reconciling your warm and fuzzy performance at last year’s Democratic National Convention with the “race man” this book reveals?

Obama: I don’t see any contradiction at all. What I was affirming in my speech at the convention was an aspiration, an idea of America, the notion that at its best America can be an enormous land of opportunity.... But it’s also a vision that has to be earned through hard work ... in the same way I earned in that book a sense of resolution between the white half of me and the black half of me. It didn’t happen by ignoring these subterranean issues, but because I struggled and made mistakes and tried to be honest.

The same is true for this country.... What makes us special is that we confront -- in a much more direct way than other countries have -- the whole [question] of “how do you stitch together a heterogeneous society?”

Opinion: Why is it so hard to talk about race without being polarized?

Obama: The gridlock in racial conversations comes from [the conflict] being framed as oppressor/victim.... If you ask people, “Is it tougher being black than white?” I think white people know the answer and I think they would articulate it, whether you ask in Utah or in Chicago or in Los Angeles.

White people, most of them, are profoundly decent; they just don’t have a lot of experience with race, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, are profoundly uncomfortable talking about it.... The biggest impediment is the empathy deficit -- the difficulty people have in standing in somebody else’s shoes, seeing the world from their perspective.

Part of the function of literature is to try to close that deficit, see the world from a different angle, get inside somebody else’s skin. Part of my interest in politics and what I consider to be my project in politics is to try to take that sensibility and introduce it into our political discourse. It doesn’t happen easily or naturally....

Oftentimes in politics we underestimate people; we assume that somehow they don’t want to hear the truth. I don’t agree with that. The truth has to be delivered in a way that is non-accusatory, takes into account the fact that everybody’s struggling out here: “Don’t come at me as if you’re the victim and [you assume] everything’s OK with me, because I’m trying to pay my bills and raise my family.”

Opinion: What is the role of black Americans in this racial conversation?

Obama: It’s absolutely imperative that African Americans take responsibility for raising our children and giving them broader aspirations and overcoming a strain of anti-intellectualism that exists.

The larger society, white and black, has an obligation to reach back and help kids who are less fortunate.... We all have individual responsibility and collective responsibility. I think you can have that conversation ... in a way that people can respond to.

Opinion: Are you concerned that your image in the book will hurt you down the line if you run for higher office?

Obama: I’m always tickled by the idea that the book has these explosive revelations. It’s me, as a 15-year-old. My observations about race were honest discussions of how I felt at that time, which doesn’t reflect my current views on race or my wisdom about race.

Some of the problems that ail both Africa and African Americans are self-inflicted. [By the book’s end] the values I end up ascertaining as most important are not black or white, but universal values -- that all of us are woven into a tragic history and part of our job as human beings is to overcome the ailments of that tragic history. My father wasn’t able to do that successfully.... I’m still in the process of trying to do it ....

The notion that you can’t speak honestly without damaging yourself

We create such fear among our elected officials they can’t be heartfelt without being punished.... If I sacrifice my ability to be honest, then I shouldn’t aspire to these offices in the first place.