Back in 2009, when golf great Tiger Woods crashed his Escalade, comedian Wanda Sykes wondered if the black part of him bought the Cadillac and the Asian part of him crashed it. That hilarious routine did not prompt calls for Sykes’ “cancellation” but it also did not invite any parallel speculation about actions of the new president, son of a black father and white mother, regarding education. Perhaps it should have.
As Dreams from My Father explains, the president’s mother Ann Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student she met at the University of Hawaii. In 1967, Lolo moved the family to Indonesia and young Barry attended Menteng 01, also known as the Besuki School, as Reuters reported, “in a posh, leafy district of Jakarta, founded by Indonesia’s former colonial rulers as a school for Europeans and the Indonesian nobility.”
Back in Hawaii by 1971, Barry was raised by grandparents Stanley and Madelyn Dunham. They sent him to the prestigious Punahou School, founded by Christian missionaries in 1841, and by all accounts, the very best Hawaii had to offer. As the author of Dreams from My Father explains, “I was considered only because of the intervention of Gramps’ boss, who was an alumnus.” Even so, Barry, as he was known until well into his 20s, excelled in his studies.
When it came time for college, Barry did not follow the footsteps of his Kenyan father, Barack Obama, to the University of Hawaii. Instead, young Obama chose the highly rated Occidental College in Los Angeles. Then he chose Columbia University and Harvard Law School.
Yet when the son of a white mother and black father became president of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, he opposed school choice for low-income African Americans.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program once provided vouchers of up to $7,500 for low-income students to attend the independent schools of their choice. To roll back the program, the president drafted his white Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former boss of Chicago’s public schools. Duncan played basketball at Harvard but he couldn’t be bothered to hand out assists to local blacks in the District of Columbia. Instead, he blocked them out and even took points off the board.
As the Washington Post reported at the time, Duncan opted to “to rescind scholarships awarded to 216 families for this upcoming school year.” And as the Post said, “nine out of 10 students who were shut out of the scholarship program this year are assigned to attend failing public schools.”
Like segregationist George Wallace, Duncan stood in the schoolhouse door, only he was facing inward. At the time, nobody speculated whether it was the uppercrust white part of the president that deployed Duncan to block needy black students from escaping some of the worst schools in the nation. Maybe the president’s black part was sensitive to charges of “acting white,” that are sometimes attached to high-achieving black students.
Of course, it could have been the president’s quest to subject all citizens to more government control and more dependence on the state. It also could have been related to the president’s regal, elitist attitude. When he wanted to play golf, he flew all the way to Hawaii at taxpayer expense.
That president served two full terms and, in May 2017, four months after he left office, key revelations emerged. In Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Garrow, exposed Dreams from My Father as fiction and outed the author as a “composite character.” That applied not only to the president’s black father and white mother but also to the identities of Barry Soetoro and Barack Obama.
As president, the composite character succeeded in transforming America into a nation where African Americans had fewer economic and educational opportunities than they did in 2008 when he took office. In 2020, with former Vice President Joe “you ain’t black” Biden a lock for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the composite character, in effect, is on the ballot once again. As President Trump says, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.