Speech That Launched Obama's Career Took Place at Rally for Racial Preferences at Occidental

One of the most fascinating things about Barack Obama's first autobiography, Dreams From My Father, is not just the creation of fictitious girlfriends and black friends, such as "Regina" (who turns out to have been a partly-white "composite"), but the material Obama deliberately left out in an attempt to establish his authenticity. “I could feel [my voice] growing stronger, sturdier, that constant, honest portion of myself, a bridge between my future and my past,” Obama writes. Except that voice was often a lie.

Take, for instance, Obama's story about the formative political event in his life: his first political speech, given before an audience of students at Occidental College on February 18, 1981 at a protest before the meeting of the Board of Trustees. The speech was “part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain, a subconscious end run around issues closer to home,” according to Obama in Dreams. Obama writes that the protest, which, he had planned along with his friends, was to expose Occidental College’s investments with South Africa, then under the rule of the apartheid government. Yet student newspaper records from Occidental reveal that the protest wasn’t just about South Africa: it was also about increasing racial preferences for black and Latino students and faculty at Occidental--a history that has been utterly missing from Obama's political record.

From top to bottom, the rally was planned, promoted, and performed by Obama (as he writes in Dreams) and his friends, including Professor of English Eric Newhall, who served as the co-chair of the faculty committee on multicultural education, and who supported the campus’s affirmative action program with especial gusto. Newhall was a veteran of campus activism of the ‘60s and he, like many Occidental professors, continued his activism on campus as a professor. He was also a draft dodger who had spent ten months in prison for draft evasion in 1968-1969--a fact that gave him a certain gravitas that the more politically active of his students appreciated. While Newhall never taught Obama during his two years at Occidental, the two were close socially: Newhall attended campus parties, including dressing up as a sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost for the campus Halloween party, and played basketball with the young Barack.

Later, Newhall would become one of the go-to sources for journalists, such as David Remnick of The New Yorker, and Larry Gordon of the Los Angeles Times, writing about Obama’s years at the Los Angeles liberal arts college. But--of course--neither journalist mentioned some of the things Newhall said in The Occidental, the student newspaper on campus, even though that evidence was readily accessible to anyone on campus willing to look in either the archives of the student newspaper or the school’s official history.

In an article written on February 20, 1981 in The Occidental, Professor Newhall worried that Occidental College would become especially white given that several minority administrators were leaving the college at the end of 1981, and that that would, he said, have a deleterious effect on student education. These departures included administrators Romelle Rowe and Yolanda Garcia, who had been tasked with recruiting more blacks and Hispanics to Occidental’s campus, respectively.

Obama, for his part, was planning to join that exodus of minorities from the campus and likely filed out a transfer application to Columbia in January 1981, there being no evidence of the “transfer program” he describes in Dreams. (See Charles C. Johnson, “Did Obama Have Lower SAT Scores Than George W. Bush?”)

Many of the campus's student activist leaders graduated in 1981, but Obama still had two more years to go before he, too, would graduate. Could he have been motivated by the alleged lack of diversity on Occidental’s campus? He writes in Dreams of his desire to find his “community,” and later moved to Morningside Heights and Harlem. Perhaps the diminishing numbers of minority faculty at Occidental provided the final push.

In any event, Professor Newhall argued at the rally that the decision of minorities to leave Occidental, as well as the number of minority students dropping out, was indicative of persistent bias on the part of Occidental students and administrators. From the February 1981 Occidental:

“I’ve recently become aware that there is presently developing on this campus, an attitude of suspicion and intolerance towards certain groups,” [Eric Newhall, professor of English] announced, “mainly against blacks, Chicanos, Jews, and gays.” These prejudices he said, result from the frustration that many are feeling such problems as a spiraling inflation rate, high unemployment, and a high crime rate. Such conditions lead people to “search for scapegoats.” But he added “if we can’t stop harassment on this campus, we really don’t stand much of a chance of stopping it anywhere else.”

Newhall also said he realized that the school’s affirmative action program is in trouble.

He fretted that there might not be a single Chicano on the faculty or administration and made an explicit call for racial quotas:

[Newhall] admitted that “we all say we want affirmative action but we don’t want to pay what it apparantly [sic] will cost. Minorities with PhDs are in scarce supply, and thus will cost more to hire.” He said that he doesn’t like the idea of “someone else being paid more than I am for doing the same work I’m doing,” but that he liked even less having a “virtually all white faculty.”

Newhall then presented a plan designed to help increase minority enrollment. This spring, the Multicultural Education Committee, along with the admissions office, is planning to invite all accepted minority applicants to campus for a reception, in hopes that they can be convinced into choosing Occidental. “I’m specifically asking the student body and the SCC to support our efforts, both emotionally and financially,” he said.

The rally continued with remarks from Latina freshman Becky Rivera, who described Occidental as a “picture perfect campus. It’s quiet and beautiful, and no one has to worry about the students getting upset. Well, we’re upset.” She then accused the administration of “playing off one (minority) group against another,” and its plan is to “divide and conquer.” She warned that “a few of us ignorant minorities have got us some education,” and are “demanding answers and demanding action.” She added that “students are responsible for revolutions. Students have power. It starts on the campuses.”  (Obama was no doubt referring to Rivera when he mentioned that his fictionalized “Regina.” There were only two women that spoke during that rally—Becky Rivera, a Latina girl and Caroline Boss, a white member of the Democratic Socialist Alliance—and Obama seems to have compressed them both into one black student—Regina.)

The last to speak was Earl Chew, president of UJIMA, a black activist group on campus, and friend to Barack Obama. Chew called Occidental’s idea of a multicultural liberal arts institution “a farce,” and saw investment as “taking our tuition and investing it in the oppression of our ancestral people.”

Neither Chew nor Newhall were alone in linking the divestment issue with affirmative action efforts on campus. Shortly before the protests in February, “Members of the Student Coalition Against Apartheid” (which Obama had joined) and the "Third World Coalition,” among others, signed a letter calling Occidental’s “commitment” to affirmative action “questionable":

1.     It was overlooked to ask for any minority representation on the Dean of Faculty Search Committee. We find the position of the Dean of Faculty a viable one for the encouragement of Affirmative Action.

2.     Taking into consideration the geographic location of Occidental College, we would expect that Occidental would be more conducive to an ethnic and cultural atmosphere. Yet, we have only two full time Hispanic and only two full time Black faculty members.

3.     Over the past couple years, minority enrollment has increased, yet the attrition rate of minority students has also increased. The entering classes of 1970 and 1980 have had a decreasing enrollment of Black students.

This letter may very well have been written by Obama. As part of the campus protest movement, he describes himself as “drafting letters to the faculty” as part of his “larger role.” (Dreams, p. 160).

What is beyond doubt is that the protest included demands for great minority representation on campus. Even the official history of Occidental mentioned the affirmative action protests as having taken place on February 18, 1981, writing:

Increased attention to minority rights, begun in the 1960s, also continued to command attention. Seeking greater minority representation, students and faculty members on February 18, 1981 held a rally in front of Coons Hall during a meeting of the trustees. A “Minority Caucus” sought more multicultural courses, to be taught by minority members. The faculty and administration, however, decided against tokenism that would admit students of marginal abilities to enlarge minority representation. Although aptitude tests would henceforth be weighted more lightly in the case of minority applicants, the college, as a small institution, did not possess the resources to service deeply-disadvantaged students.

The activists were ultimately effective in getting what they wanted passed:

A faculty committee on multicultural education, in 1982, became the committee on minority issues, consisting of faculty members, students, administrators, staff members, and alumni. This group sought to identify problems faced by campus ethnic minorities. An outgrowth of meetings of minority administrators and of a faculty caucus, the committee advised expansion of the minority presence on campus, although the college had already expanded its commitment to “Affirmative Action.” In 1984 President Gilman said about the effort:

The College has been engaged for 20 years in an effort to increase diversity among the student body and faculty. In the ‘60s we received three quarters of a million dollars to provide assistance to minority students. And we have been actively seeking more minorities since ’64. Because of this, the College has been strengthened and enriched. (See generally Andrew F. Rolle, Occidental College: A Centennial History, 1887-1987)

In other words, Occidental had been in favor of affirmative action ever since the 1960s--which could explain how it was that Obama, an admittedly poor student in high school, had been admitted to Occidental.

But in the 1980s, the college went a step further and set deliberate goals for the future of its minority population: its minority committee recommended that by 1985 the college put together an entering class composed of one-third minority students that would consist of 13% Latinos, 10% Asians, 8% blacks, and 2% Native Americans. The committee also recommended an increase in minority faculty to ten persons, or 8.4%, by the 1987 centennial anniversary. It further sought a goal of 15% full-time minority faculty members by the year 1990, and 20% minority administrators.

Indeed, it is fair to say that Newhall and Occidental were at the vanguard of affirmative action policy--and the first to bear the consequences of its flirtation with a diminution of academic standards. Professor Frederick R. Lynch of Claremont McKenna College interviewed Professor Newhall for his 2001 book, The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the “White Male Workplace":

… one California liberal arts college moved somewhat ahead of others in launching an aggressive multicultural makeover. According to English professor Eric Newhall, a self-described “tactician for institutional change,” Occidental’s drive toward multiculturalism began in earnest in 1981 when Dean of Faculty Jim England packed several key selection committees in order to obtain a more diversified faculty. A forty-page document supplied fur reasons for doing so: (1) minority students were isolated, (2) women and minority faculty were isolated, (3) diversity was morally and socially just, and (4) the demographics of the city, state, and nation were rapidly shifting.

Occidental’s president was friendly but relatively indifferent. “We had to be willing to rough up administrators,” said Newhall. In 1984, the faculty overwhelmingly voted to speed recruitment of minority faculty by revising the college’s equal opportunity statement to make minority status “one of the various factors to be considered in determining which candidate was the best qualified.” Searches that did not produce an adequate number of minority candidates would be disqualified. And rank and salary were to be more flexible to compete better for minority talent.

Newhall and other faculty also lobbied the college trustees in selecting a new president: African American John Slaughter, former president of the University of Maryland. Slaughter declared Occidental a school dedicated to “excellence and diversity,” and minority student enrollment doubled by 1995; the minority faculty percentage rose from 13 to 22 percent.

Newhall, who had been appointed director of Occidental’s Multicultural Summer Institute, explained the impetus for affirmative action in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. It wasn't that minority students lacked qualifications; it’s that institutions, even those as liberal as Occidental, were racist to the core.  “What appears to be academic deficiency or a lack of proper preparation on the part of black and Latino students is really a symptom…that students don’t feel at home in the college environment,” Newhall explained.  He believed he had found the answer. "If you give me $2,500 per student, and with the proper follow-up and support services, I will give you a graduation rate of 85%." (Kristina Lindgren, “California College Guide: Holding on to Minority Students; Diversity Programs to Ease the Way Into the College Environment Help Curb a High Dropout Rate,” L.A. Times, February 9, 1993)

“Multiculturalism is another name for social justice,” Newhall has been quoted saying. Alas, all was not multicultural bliss at Occidental. The pressure that had been exerted in the name of “diversity” and affirmative action led to balkanization on campus. But Newhall, according to Lynch, continued to claim that the racial conflicts on campus were the cost of diversity. “No pain, no gain.” As Lynch describes, that pain became readily apparent--and fast:

…in 1995, the pain became financial when Occidental ran a $3 million budget deficit. Some alumni groused that the source of the deficit in part was the large number of scholarships awarded to increase minority enrollment. Nor was the proclaimed mission of unifying “excellence and diversity” effectively demonstrated when, in 1994, Occidental fell out of the first-tier institutions to forty-five place in the widely watched annual survey of colleges by U.S. News and World Report.

Obama shared Newhall's politics and fought for the very racial preferences that have since had disastrous results. “I got into politics at Occidental,” Obama told Occidental in a 2004 interview with Occidental magazine. “I made a conscious decision to go into public policy.” We now know that racial preferences was one policy that he supported. Indeed, in Dreams, Obama describes the divestment issue itself as a “subconscious end run around issues closer to home.” 

Barack Obama’s involvement with campus politics surrounding affirmative action is but another part of a larger narrative that is emerging about his views on race that began at Occidental, went through his years with Critical Race Theory scholar Derrick Bell at Harvard Law School--where he also spoke in front of an audience about racial matters--and led ultimately to the Oval Office. It is a narrative that continues to be obscured by the mainstream media, which is still more interested in the novelty of the president’s color than his record.


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