Fact Check

Winds of Change

Barack Obama did not write in 2006 that "I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction."

Published May 20, 2008

A list collect passages about racism taken from Barack Obama's books.

The above-quoted e-mail forward reproduces passages taken from Barack Obama's two books — Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope — (2006) with the presumed intent of presenting Obama as a self-declared racist. However, these cherry-picked statements are all presented devoid of context, and some of them are either significantly reworded from the originals or outright fabrications. Below we have identified and reproduced the relevant passages in which these statements appear, with their fuller context:

"I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction."

This statement is a rewording of a passage from page 261 of The Audacity of Hope, in which Barack Obama wrote of the importance of not allowing inflamed public opinion to result in innocent members of immigrant groups being stripped of their rights, denied their due as American citizens, or placed into confinement, as was done with Japanese-American U.S. citizens during World War II. The original contains no specific mention of "Muslims" — Obama was referring to the importance of standing up for and protecting the rights of all immigrants who have become U.S. citizens, and someone altered the wording of the passage to give it a different meaning:

In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arab and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging. They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific reassurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.

"I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites."

This statement comes from the introduction to Dreams from My Father (p. xv), as part of a passage in which Barack Obama spoke of the difficulties of growing up as the child of mixed-race parents. The statement is actually a portion of a parenthetical remark Obama used to explain that people who did not know him well were often surprised to find that he was the child of mixed-raced parents (because he looked black, and he no longer made a point of gratuitously mentioning that his mother was white):

[W]hat strikes me most when I think about the story of my family is a running strain of innocence, an innocence that seems unimaginable, even by the measures of childhood. My wife's cousin, only six years old, has already lost such innocence. A few weeks ago he reported to his parents that some of his first grade classmates had refused to play with him because of his dark, unblemished skin. Obviously his parents, born and raised in Chicago and Gary, lost their own innocence long ago, and although they aren't bitter — the two of them being as strong and proud and resourceful as any parents I know — one hears the pain in their voices as they begin to have second thoughts about having moved out of the city into a mostly white suburb, a move they made to protect their son from the possibility of being caught in a gang shooting and the certainty of attending an underfunded school.

They know too much, we have all seen too much, to take my parents' brief union — a black man and a white woman, an African and an American — at face value. When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am.

"I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against my mother's race."

No such sentence (nor anything close to it) appears anywhere in either Dreams from My Father or The Audacity of Hope. This statement was taken from a March 2007 article about Barack Obama, and they are not Obama's own words but rather those of the article's author (recast in the first person):

In reality, Obama provides a disturbing test of the best-case scenario of whether America can indeed move beyond race. He inherited his father's penetrating intelligence; was raised mostly by his loving liberal white grandparents in multiracial, laid-back Hawaii, where America's normal race rules never applied; and received a superb private school education. And yet, at least through age 33 when he wrote Dreams from My Father, he found solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against his mother's race.

"There was something about him that made me wary, a little too sure of himself, maybe. And white."

This statement comes from page 142 of Dreams from My Father, as part of a passage in which Barack Obama described being interviewed by a man named Marty Kaufman (a pseudonym for Jerry Kellman) for a position as a community organizer in Chicago. Kaufman was specifically looking for a black man to work with him, because he himself was white and needed someone to help him appeal to both sides in a racially polarized city. The statement reproduced above creates a false impression by eliding the ending to the final sentence, in which Obama makes reference (in his expression of misgivings) to Kaufman's whiteness being a problem, because Kaufman himself had said it was a problem:

I had all but given up on organizing when I received a call from Marty Kaufman. He explained that he'd started an organizing drive in Chicago and was looking to hire a trainee. He'd be in New York the following week and suggested that we meet at a coffee shop on Lexington.

His appearance didn't inspire much confidence. He was a white man of medium height wearing a rumpled suit over a pudgy frame. His face was heavy with two-day-old whiskers; behind a pair of thick, wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes seemed set in a perpetual squint. As he rose from the booth to shake my hand, he spilled some tea on his shirt ...

He ordered more hot water and told me about himself. He was Jewish, in his late thirties, had been reared in New York. He had started organizing in the sixties with the student protests, and ended up staying with it for fifteen years. Farmers in Nebraska. Blacks in Philadelphia. Mexicans in Chicago. Now he was trying to pull urban blacks and suburban whites together around a plan to save manufacturing jobs in metropolitan Chicago. He needed somebody to work with him, he said. Somebody black.

He offered to start me off at ten thousand dollars the first year, with a two-thousand-dollar travel allowance to buy a car; the salary would go up if things worked out. After he was gone, I took the long way home, along the East River promenade, and tried to figure out what to make of the man. He was smart, I decided. He seemed committed to his work. Still, there was something about him that made me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white — he'd said himself that that was a problem.

"It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names."

This sentence appears on page 101 of Dreams from My Father, as part of a long passage in which Barack Obama talked about his time at Occidental College in Los Angeles. It was another expression of a theme touched on in many other sections of the book — the difficulties of being expected to associate oneself with a particular racial heritage, especially for those who came from multiracial backgrounds — prompted by the example of a girl named Joyce, one of Obama's classmates:

She was a good-looking woman, Joyce was with her green eyes and honey skin and pouty lips. We lived in the same dorm my freshman year, and all the brothers were after her. One day I asked her if she was going to the Black Students' Association meeting. She looked at me funny, then started shaking her head like a baby who doesn't want what it sees on the spoon.

"I'm not black," Joyce said. "I'm multiracial." Then she started telling me about her father, who happened to be Italian and was the sweetest man in the world; and her mother, who happened to be part African and part French and part Native American and part something else. "Why should I have to choose between them?" she asked me. Her voice cracked, and I thought she was going to cry. "It's not white people who are making me choose. Maybe it used to be that way, but now they're willing to treat me like a person. No — it's black people who always have to make everything racial. They're the ones making me choose. They're the ones who are telling me that I can't be who I am ..."

They, they, they. That was the problem with people like Joyce. They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people ...

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling conventions. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.

But this strategy alone couldn't provide the distance I wanted, from Joyce or my past. After all, there were thousands of so-called campus radicals, most of them white and tenured and happily tolerant. No, it remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.

"I never emulate white men and brown men whose fates didn't speak to my own. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela."

This statement is a rewording (further changing an intended meaning already obscured by a lack of context) of material from page 220 of Dreams from My Father. The material appeared as part of a passage in which Barack Obama described his profound disappointment in learning (from information provided by his half-sister, Auma) that the lofty image he had held all his life of his role model, his biological father (a man he barely knew), was a flawed and idealized one.

All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I had later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader — my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn't see what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father's body shrinking, their father's best hopes dashed, their father's face lined with grief and regret.

Yes, I'd seen weakness in other men — Gramps and his disappointments, Lolo [my adoptive father] and his compromise. But these men had become object lessons for me, men I might love but never emulate, white men and brown men whose fates didn't speak to my own. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela. And if later I saw that the black men I knew fell short of such lofty standards; if I had learned to respect these men for the struggles they went through, recognizing them as my own — my father's voice had nevertheless remained untainted, inspiring, rebuking, granting or withholding approval. You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people's struggle. Wake up, black man!

Now, as I sat in the glow of a single light bulb, rocking slightly on a hard-backed chair, that image had suddenly vanished. Replaced by ... what? A bitter drunk? An abusive husband? A defeated, lonely bureaucrat? To think that all my life I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost!

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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