clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In ‘A Promised Land,’ Obama reflects on the ‘issue of Black folks and the police’

Within a few pages of the 700-page memoir the Hawaii born Obama, a young community organizer, is in Chicago, the city that “changed the arc of my life.” 

Former President Obama, pictured here campaigning for Joe Biden in November, publishes his presidential memoir, “A Promised Land,” on Tuesday.
Former President Obama, pictured here campaigning for Joe Biden in November, publishes his presidential memoir, “A Promised Land,” on Tuesday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Donald Trump presidency was unfolding as Barack Obama wrote, on a yellow legal pad, his presidential memoir, “A Promised Land,” to be released Tuesday, as his vice president, Joe Biden, is poised to be the next president and restore the norms Trump destroyed.

Within a few pages of the 700-page memoir — the first of two volumes — the Hawaii born Obama, a young community organizer, is in Chicago, the city that “changed the arc of my life.” That we knew.

For the first time, Obama writes about the controversy that almost derailed his run for president and reflects on the incendiary remarks of his then-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Here are some takeaways from the Obama book:

ON PICKING JOE BIDEN TO BE HIS VICE PRESIDENT

“Joe’s enthusiasm had it’s downside. In a town filled with people who like to hear themselves talk, Joe had no peer…His lack of a filter periodically got him in trouble, as when during the primaries, he had pronounced me ‘articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy’…interpreted by some as suggesting that that such characteristics in a Black man were noteworthy.

“As I came to know Joe, through, I found his occasional gaffes to be trivial compared to his strengths…Most of all, Joe had heart.”

ON JEREMIAH WRIGHT

Obama thought he sidestepped a problem after yanking the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his then-pastor — now pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — from giving the invocation at the kickoff of his presidential campaign in Springfield in 2007. That was after a Rolling Stone article was published with some inflammatory Wright quotes about race.

Obama writes, “Maybe if the Rolling Stone article had come out earlier, foreshadowing problems to come, I would have decided not to run. It’s hard to say.”

About a year later, an ABC News report with clips of sermons Wright gave — in one he said, ‘Not God bless America, God damn America’ — threatened to doom Obama’s primary bid.

Writes Obama, while he was not in church for Wright’s “explosive language,” he “knew all too well the occasional spasms of anger within the Black community — my community — that Reverend Wright was channeling. I did know how differently Black and white folks still viewed issues of race in America, regardless of how much else they had in common. For me to believe I could bridge those worlds had been pure hubris, that same hubris that had led me to assume that I could dip in and out of a complex institution like Trinity, headed by a complex man like Reverend Wright and select, as if off a menu, only those things that I liked.”

After Wright, at the National Press Club in Washington “pronounced America racist at its core,” Obama broke from him and rescued his primary bid in a March 18, 2008, speech in Philadelphia, addressing race and the Wright controversy.

OBAMA, POLICE AND RACE

Obama writes about the uproar sparked by a question I asked at a 2009 White House press conference, referring to me as the “veteran Chicago Sun-Times reporter I’d known for years.” I asked about the police arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “What does that incident say to you, and what does it say about race relations in America?”

Obama answered in part, the police “acted stupidly” and to his surprise that reply — not his discussions about his health care plans at the press conference — became the story.

The next day, his then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, “looked like he was ready to jump off a bridge. You would have thought that in the press conference I had donned a dashiki and cussed out the police myself.”

Obama writes, “The Gates affair caused a huge drop in my support among white voters, bigger than would come from any single event during the eight years of my presidency. It was support that I’d never completely get back.”

The reaction to his comments on Gates, writes Obama, “was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing that just about any other subject in American life.”

Perhaps, he continued, because “it reminded all of us, Black and white alike, that the basis of our nation’s social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people…”

A RAHM QUIP

As Obama was starting his first weeks in the White House, he relates this story about Emanuel, who would eventually leave the administration to run for Chicago mayor.

Obama writes that he was on a “postelection honeymoon period” and Emanuel told him, “’Trust me,’ he said. ‘The presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot.”’