Barack Obama's Struggle With Ivy League Political Correctness

At Harvard Law School, the first black editor of the law review struggled with what he called "frustrating" arguments about language.

PBS's "Frontline" news show is previewing a series on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney online right now, and as part of that posting what they're calling "'The Artifacts of Character,' a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates' lives." One fascinating entry is a 1994 speech by the then-young attorney Obama on the importance of community organizing. The whole thing is worth a read, but this passage -- about political correctness and editing -- in particular will seem familiar to anyone who has worked at a university publication in the past 20 years:

I know that at Harvard, one of the most frustrating things about student life at Harvard was, I guess, what's called political correctness in the media. Now political correctness, I tend not to -- I tend not to be that sympathetic to people who cry about political correctness and complain about, you know, the liberals and the minorities who are giving conservatives a hard time. You know, I think that there's nothing wrong with giving somebody a hard time if they're being insensitive to other people's feelings, if they're being rude, if they're telling racist jokes, if they're telling sexist jokes. I don't think that there is anything wrong with telling them where they're wrong.

But I do think that what's happened in a place like Harvard and maybe happens less so here, is that young people tend to jump with both feet on a whole lot of symbolic issues. I remember when I was organizing at Harvard, when I was the manager of the Law Review at Harvard, I had a young black woman come in to me and complain vehemently about the fact that the word "black" was not capitalized in an article. Whereas she felt that "black" should be capitalized because that would show more respect for the black community.

And then, you know, a white editor came in. He started complaining, "Why should black be capitalized when white is not capitalized?" Now this seems like a ridiculous argument, but this is the kind of thing that a lot of students, groups, a lot of well-meaning idealists spend their time on. I think there are a lot of academics that spend their time on it. I'm not sure that's really useful. I think it's a matter of symbols and not substance. And I think it indicates our willingness to try to, instead of making the sacrifices that are required to really bring about changes, I think it's an indication of our sense of powerlessness, that we just complain about things, that we pick at small issues, instead of taking on and really engaging the major issues that face our country right now.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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