Obama defined by contrasts

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama’s friend was angry. The high school coaches were benching good black players. Black kids weren’t getting dates.

“These girls are A-1, USDA-certified racists. All of ‘em,” the friend said while the two teenagers wolfed down French fries, as the story goes in Obama’s memoir.

As far back as that sort of exchange in high school, a recurring character type has played a role in the life of Obama: a friend or associate who is quick to blame white America for the troubles of the black community.


The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose racially explosive sermons now threaten to undercut Obama’s presidential campaign, is the latest example. Before Wright, there was “Ray,” Obama’s angry high school friend depicted in his 1995 book, “Dreams From My Father,” and later there was “Rafiq,” a black Muslim in Chicago who, Obama wrote, blamed the city’s white power structure for the struggles of public housing residents.

But to some who know Obama, there is an irony in how he is now being criticized for Wright’s fiery comments.

In his political life, disaffected black figures have helped Obama shape and project the identity that is now the center point of his presidential campaign and that has proved appealing to much of the Democratic electorate, black and white.

For a man raised in Hawaii by white grandparents, friendships with more militant blacks have allowed Obama to show he understood the frustrations of many in mainstream black America -- and have helped him build support in the largely black Illinois state Senate district that became his first political base.

But whereas the others might condemn America, calling it inherently polarized and oppressive, Obama made it clear that he had adopted a different view. He had moved beyond that resentment to arrive at a more moderate center, a place more palatable to whites and blacks alike.

“In a way, he tried to find a middle ground,” said Keith Kakugawa, the high school friend portrayed in Obama’s book.

Today, Obama acknowledges the puzzlement that some Americans may feel about his ties to his pastor. “ ‘Why associate myself with Rev. Wright in the first place?’ they may ask,” he said in an address last week timed to defuse the Wright controversy. “Why not join another church?”

Obama said in the speech that Wright was “like family,” and he described how one of the pastor’s early sermons helped Obama suddenly realize the power of the black church to foster hope among black people.

However, his association with Wright also reflects Obama’s way of both cultivating relationships and striking contrasts with militant figures -- a trait he showed after moving to Chicago in the 1980s to become a community organizer, and later as he ran for office. The relationships had obvious benefits for someone who felt very much like a cultural outsider.

Obama, the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father, came to the mainland only after high school, and struggled to navigate the politics of an adopted hometown with a black community rooted in the legacies of institutional racism and the traditions of the civil rights movement -- a movement he knew only from afar.

“I asked myself if I could truly understand that,” Obama wrote, recalling a moment soon after his arrival in Chicago in 1985 when an older black barber described the community’s pride in the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, just two years before. As Obama got his hair cut, he said, he wondered what would happen if his white grandfather walked into the black barbershop, how “the talk would stop, how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work.”

Obama courted some radical leaders, but carefully kept his distance from their more strident positions. The bonds helped him win his race for the state Senate.

“This characteristic has now become a strength for Obama in terms of forging this coalition of voters,” said Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, director of inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University, and a longtime black activist leader in Chicago.

Worrill says that as Obama prepared for his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, the candidate visited Worrill and asked for his support.

“He wanted me as a representative of the pan-African thinking in Chicago,” Worrill said. “And he wanted me to support him publicly, which I did on the radio. And he knew I came from a different school of thought” than Obama had.

During the campaign, though, Obama rejected one of Worrill’s key causes -- seeking monetary reparations for black Americans whose ancestors were slaves. Worrill took to the local airwaves to criticize Obama, but the activist says he now understands his motives.

“He has to appeal to everybody,” Worrill said.

Obama appears to know the value of striking such contrasts. When he wrote his memoir, which he invokes on the campaign trail as the key to his thinking, he used literary devices to create several characters that were quick to see racial injustice. In the narrative, they serve as his foils.

Some of Obama’s friends who appear as composite characters with fictional names said he gave them far sharper and more militant attitudes than they recall having.

Kakugawa, identified in the book as “Ray,” the resentful black high school friend, is a part Japanese, part Native American former classmate who says he was nowhere near as angry as the character Obama portrays.

“It makes me a very bitter person,” Kakugawa said. “I wasn’t that bitter.”

The same is true for a Chicago activist who encountered Obama in his years as a community organizer.

The activist is identified in the book as “Rafiq al-Shabazz,” a Nation of Islam follower who encouraged Obama to challenge the city’s white power structure rather than work within it.

Obama writes of working with “Rafiq” to open a job training center, but recoiling when his more militant colleague railed against whites. “Rafiq” told Obama that, growing up in the projects, “I’d soaked up all the poison the white man feeds us.”

But black nationalist teachings “contradicted the morality my mother had taught me,” Obama wrote.

Activist Salim Al Nurridin says Obama’s description fits him in almost every way -- except that he was never a black nationalist.

“I wasn’t promoting a black nationalist agenda, and I’m not promoting one now,” said Al Nurridin, now a Chicago healthcare advocate, who confirmed in an interview last year that he resembled “Rafiq.” “I think . . . his interpretation of where I was coming from was probably skewed by his own position rather than what I was saying.”

Al Nurridin said he actually agreed with many of Obama’s conclusions about how some aspects of black nationalism could be counterproductive.

“You can be for your people without being against other people,” Al Nurridin said. “The whole idea is to have relationships with all walks of life.”

By that time, Obama’s way of reacting to outspoken activists was not a new development.

Obama wrote of being deeply impressed by the autobiography of Malcolm X, whose “repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words . . . promised a new and uncompromising order.”

But he added an important caveat: “All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.”

Obama’s speech last week was simply the epilogue to his memoir. It was in the book that he expressed empathy for his grandmother’s fear of a black panhandler, just as in his speech he called on blacks to understand that resentment builds when whites “are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced.”

And just as he had critiqued “Ray” and “Rafiq” and even Malcolm X, Obama said in the speech that the Rev. Wright had made a “profound mistake” in speaking “as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

And with that, Obama fit the Wright controversy neatly into the narrative of his political life story and the theme of his presidential campaign -- presenting himself as not just a political uniter but a racial healer.