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What Ayers Saw in Barack Obama
In 1994, while Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father was being polished off, Bill Ayers co-authored an essay whose title befits a former merchant seaman, “Navigating a restless sea: The continuing struggle to achieve a decent education for African American youngsters in Chicago.”
In “Navigating,” Ayers and his nominal co-author, former New Communist Movement leader Michael Klonsky, offer a detailed analysis of the Chicago school system and a discussion of potential reforms. Curiously, so too does Obama in Dreams.
What makes Obama’s educational digression curious is that he had spent only two months working on education issues as a community organizer--and that seven years earlier while his mind was admittedly “elsewhere.”
Unlike Obama, Bill Ayers has had a genuine, career-long interest in education. In the mid-1990s he was sufficiently serious about reform that he invested considerable time and energy in his protégé. As shall be seen, the likely reason he did so was because Obama had the ability to address problems that Ayers and Klonsky could not.
It will surprise no one who has followed my research that the analysis offered in Dreams echoes that of “Navigating.” It stands to reason. Each was co-authored in the same year by the same person, Bill Ayers, a talented writer and editor and surely the dominant partner in either effort.
The clue to understanding the particular value Obama brought to the relationship, however, can be found not in not the many points on which Ayers and the Obama of Dreams agree but rather on the one in which they differ.
First, the areas of agreement. Dreams tells us that Chicago’s schools “remained in a state of perpetual crisis.” “Navigating” describes the situation as a “perpetual state of conflict, paralysis, and stagnation.”
Dreams describes a “bloated bureaucracy” as one source of the problem and “a teachers’ union that went out on strike at least once every two years” as another. “Navigating” affirms that the “bureaucracy has grown steadily in the past decade” and confirms Dreams’ math, citing a “ninth walkout in 18 years.”
“Self-interest” is at the heart of the bureaucratic problem as described in Dreams. “Navigating” clarifies that “survivalist bureaucracies” struggle for power “to protect their narrow, self-interested positions against any common, public purpose.”
In Dreams, educators “defend the status quo” and blame problems on “impossible” children and their “bad parents.” In “Navigating,” an educator serves as “apologist for the status quo” and “place[s] the blame for school failure on children and families.”
Another challenge cited in Dreams is “an indifferent state legislature.” Ayers cites an “unwillingness on [the legislature’s] part to adequately fund Chicago schools.”
In Dreams, “school reform” is the only solution that Obama envisions. In “Navigating,” “reforming Chicago's schools” is Ayers’ passion. In fact, in that same year, 1994, Ayers co-authored the proposal that would win for Chicago a $49.2 million Annenberg Challenge grant.
If Ayers allows Obama to cite the structural problems bedeviling the schools, in Dreams he channels his thoughts on educational reform through the soulful voices of two older African Americans.
One goes by the phonied-up name "Asante Moran," likely an homage to the Afro-centric educator, Molefi Kete Asante. In Dreams, Moran lectures Obama and his pal "Johnnie" on the nature of public education:
"The first thing you have to realize," he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, "is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period."
"Social control" is an Ayers' obsession. "The message to Black people was that at any moment and for any reason whatsoever your life or the lives of your loved ones could be randomly snuffed out," he writes in his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days. "The intention was social control through random intimidation and unpredictable violence."
In Dreams, Moran elaborates on the fate of the black student:
From day one, what's he learning about? Someone else's history. Someone else's culture. Not only that, this culture he's supposed to learn is the same culture that's systematically rejected him, denied his humanity.
Ayers had been making the same case since he first got involved in education. In 1968, as the 23 year-old director of an alternative school in Ann Arbor, he told the Toledo Blade:
The public schools’ idea of integration is racist. They put Negro children into school and demand that they give up their Negro culture. Negro children are forced to speak, behave, and react according to middle-class standards.
In “Navigating,” Ayers makes Moran’s case that students who do not meet the idealized “white, working-class, well-fed, able-bodied, English-speaking” model are “met with indifference or even hostility and are deemed ‘unteachable.’"
The second of Obama’s educational mentors is “Frank,” the real life poet, pornographer and Stalinist, Frank Marshall Davis. In Dreams, he informs young Obama, “Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained.”
Frank has no use for training. “They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know,” he tells Obama. “They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that sh**.”
In his 1993 book, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, Ayers makes the exact same distinction between education and training. “Education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens,” Ayers writes. “Training,” on the other hand, “is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers.”
By 1994, Ayers had been preaching educational reform for nearly thirty years. If his theories were utopian, his tactics were hardball Chicago. He had come a long way from the 24-pupil Children’s Community School in Ann Arbor.
For Ayers, “decentralized, flexible, multicultural, small schools” were essential to any serious reform effort. After years of struggle, he faced one major obstacle in being able to fulfill his vision: Chicago’s sluggish and self-interested educational bureaucracy.
Compounding the problems was that this bureaucracy had morphed, as Ayers notes in “Navigating,” from being a bastion of “White political patronage and racism” to being “a source of Black professional jobs, contracts, and, yes, patronage.”
For reasons both ideological and practical, Ayers wilts in the face of this bureaucracy. In none of his writing, in fact, can he bring himself to criticize any feature of black culture. So in “Navigating” he seems to buy into the claim of black activists that calls to break up the bureaucracy were based not “on hopes for educational change, but on simple Chicago race politics.”
As to the culprits in the city’s race politics, Ayers cites everyone but the black bureaucrats: Mayor Daley, white businessmen, unnamed “professionals,” Reagan education secretary William Bennett, even “right-wing academic Chester Finn.”
Dreams , however, paints a different picture. Its author openly chides the black “teachers, principals, and district superintendents,” who “knew too much” to send their own children to public school.
“ The biggest source of resistance was rarely talked about,” he continues, namely that these educators “would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before.”
As to the claims of these educators, seconded in “Navigating,” that “cutbacks in the bureaucracy-were part of a white effort to wrest back control,” the author of Dreams says teasingly, “not so true.”
“Not so true?”
In these three words one can see Obama’s strategic value and anticipate his potential return on Ayers’ investment. Simply put, as an African-American Obama could address sensitive racial issues in ways Ayers could not.
Ayers surely recognized this. To advance Obama’s career, Ayers finished up Dreams, got Obama appointed chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant, and held a fundraiser for his state senate run in his Chicago home, all in 1995.
In a Salon interview a year ago, Ayers gave a glimpse into his motivations for helping Obama, and they were not as “Manchurian” as they might seem in retrospect.
“Everyone who knew him thought that he was politically ambitious,” said Ayers of Obama. “For the first two years, I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago.”
The political calculus behind that ambition helped shape Dreams. This was a careful book written to launch the career of a deeply indebted and highly malleable Chicago politician, one who saw the world through white eyes, as Ayers did, but one who could articulate the city’s real problems in words that Ayers could not.
Ayers succeeded all too well. As president, Obama does him little good on the ground in Chicago and, for the moment at least, has made his lifelong anti-American project suspect.
Lest Obama forget where he came from, Ayers’ recent admissions of having written Dreams, however ironic their delivery, remind Obama who put him in the White House and who can take him out.
Editor's note: For a more complete account of this phenomenon, read Jack Cashill's amazing new book, "Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture.
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