Barack Obama went to Harvard Law School to learn “power’s currency in all its intricacy in detail.” An exclusive excerpt from The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick shows how much Obama learned in law school.
At the website of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School:
By the time Obama arrived at Harvard, the law-school curriculum had grown much more flexible than in its early days and the student body more diverse, but the school was still a fractious place, riven by political conflict and intramural resentments. As if to flaunt its own unhappiness, the law-school community commonly referred to itself as a bastion of Levantine infighting—alternately “Beirut on the Charles” and “the Beirut of legal education.”
Obama said that Harvard Law School was the “perfect place to examine how the power structure works.” Indeed, the “power structure”—a phrase common in organizing circles—and how it is, or is not, examined by the likes of Harvard Law School was the focus of a battle that had already raged for a decade when Obama enrolled. In 1977, a group of legal academics—radicals, as most would readily have identified themselves—met at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, to discuss a barely formed school of thought that was soon to be called Critical Legal Studies. Influenced by post-structuralism, the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and the Legal Realism of the nineteen-twenties, the scholars interested in Critical Legal Studies sought to demystify the law and the language of law and legal studies, to challenge its self-regard as a disinterested system of precedent. Critical Legal Studies posited that law is politics by other means, that the practice and discourse of law—and legal education—is merely another lever of entrenched power, a way of enforcing the primacy and perquisites of the wealthy, the powerful, the male, and the white.
According to the adherents of Critical Legal Studies, many of the conditions of the legal status quo—the high incarceration rates among people of color, the higher penalties for drugs used mainly among the poor—are inscribed in a legal system that only pretends to be consistent and nonideological.
By the time Obama appeared on campus, there had also appeared an increasing number of conservative and libertarian scholars centered on the Federalist Society, a many-branched group that had begun in 1982 at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago.