Black Like Him

The new issue of the Claremont Review of Books is in the mail and posted online for subscribers (subscribe here). You will undoubtedly be shocked to hear that I think it’s a great issue. We’ve already taken a look at Professor James Ceaser’s essay “The great repudiation,” examining the results of the mid-term elections. As usual, our friends at the CRB have afforded us the run of the issue to pick three pieces for Power Line readers.

First up is Christopher Caldwell’s review of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. According to Caldwell, Remnick’s book “is not so much about how a black became president as about how a president became black.” Caldwell drily notes that Obama is the son of “a sort of wind-chime socialist who believed she had ‘Cherokee blood’ (the wish possibly being father to the thought)” and “a brainy, ambitious Kenyan Muslim who arrived in Hawaii as part of a foundation-funded program for training a post-imperial African ruling class.”

Viewed through the lens of race, Caldwell writes, Obama was in a confusing position: “He looked black, but he didn’t know any blacks. He was descended from slave owners but not from slaves. Most disorientingly, Hawaii–where he was brought up by his white grandparents–lacked even those lingering remnants of racism…”
I think Caldwell’s review might be more valuable than Remnick’s book, but Caldwell extracts this gem from it:

One of the book’s highlights is Remnick’s interview with the former Black Panther leader (now Congressman) Bobby Rush, who demolished Obama in his first race for Congress in 2000, largely by raising doubts among inner-city voters about Obama’s “authenticity.” Rush, who still seems to carry considerable resentment from the campaign, alleges that Obama even taught himself to walk like a black person, with a kind of “sashay,” as Remnick calls it, that Rush gleefully imitates for him.

Caldwell quotes Rep. Rush: “There’s a certain break at the knees as you walk and you get a certain roll going. Watch. You see? And he’s the first President of the United States to walk like that, I can guarantee you that! But, lemme tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then!” Caldwell comments: “Obama is, racially speaking, a self-made man.”

This is a brilliant review with what is, to my mind, one lapse. The “war on drugs,” Caldwell writes, “has dramatically reduced crime in black neighborhoods, helping people like the president’s grandmother to make their peace with integration. But it has resulted in a level of incarceration that should be a source of embarrassment and shame in a free country. The United States has a quarter of the world’s prison population, and most of it is black.” Caldwell implies that the situation he describes results from the adoption of unconstitutional criminal laws (“politicians have been ready to throw out the constitutional baby with the segregationist bathwater”).

The rates of incarceration by race, however, mirror the rates of offending by race, and the laws against drug distribution are only one piece of the picture. Insofar as we can determine from the data, the criminal justice system treats perpetrators equally without regard to race. From this perspective it is a success. If the war on drugs were terminated tomorrow, the racial disparities would remain. The problem is the underlying disparity in rates of offending by race, especially with respect to crimes of violence. Many people of good will are in fact embarrassed by and ashamed of the situation Caldwell describes, but it is not clear to me that they should be, at least in the sense that Caldwell means.

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