I knew Derrick Bell. Derrick Bell was (sort of) a friend of mine. And Barack Obama is no Derrick Bell.

I did know Derrick Bell (he passed away last October).  One of his sons is a close friend of my brother’s, and Bell was an acquaintance of my parents’, and later, of mine.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Derrick Bell was a close friend or anything, but I knew him to say “hi” to.

The reason I bring this up, in case you missed it, is that the big scoop that Andrew Breitbart was supposedly working on when he died is video – posted first today by (who else) Andrew Kaczynski at BuzzFeed, thus apparently annoying the Breitbart crowd no end - of Barack Obama speaking at a rally at Harvard Law School in 1990 support of Derrick Bell (then a professor at the school) when Bell was protesting the law school’s hiring policies.

First of all, let’s get one thing clear: this is not newly-discovered video.  In fact, PBS’s Frontline had, and used, this video in a 2008 special about Obama and John McCain.  So the Breitbartian who is all excited to have found video of Obama confidante Charles Ogletree saying that they “hid” the video before the 2008 election has got nothing, because, well, it’s already been on TV.  As PBS explains,

there’s nothing new about the clip or Obama’s role in the controversy at Harvard Law School. In 2008, as a part of our quadrennial election special The Choice 2008, FRONTLINE ran the same footage of the speech as a part of an exploration of Obama’s time at Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1991. It’s been online at our site and on YouTube since then.

So if Ogletree et al. were really trying to hide the video, they sure did a lousy job of it.

Anyway, I saw today’s revelation, and I thought, “that’s it?  Breitbart’s big scoop is about Derrick Bell? My brother’s friend’s dad?”  

Now, to be sure, Bell’s academic views were (and still are) controversial.  Kaczynski has assembled an interesting set of videos that give you a flavor of where Bell was coming from.  In brief, Bell believed that racism was a permanent feature of American society, and he was a proponent of “critical race theory,” a still-controversial branch of legal scholarship.  I’ve read some of his stuff.  It’s extremely provocative; it makes you think.  I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but he was a very smart guy.

But the notion that Obama’s little speech somehow proves that he was a Bell acolyte is, well, ludicrous.  The same year that he gave that speech, Obama was named the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review – a powerful position that put him in charge of the country’s most influential legal publication for a year.  Obama could have used the considerable power of that position to bring attention to critical race theorists and other lefties who couldn’t always expect their articles to appear in such a prestigious publication, and some of his colleagues undoubtedly thought he would do just that. But that’s not what happened. Watch this excerpt from the above-mentioned Frontline piece, in which Brad Berenson – a conservative Federalist Society member who subsequently took high-ranking positions in the George W. Bush administration – explains that Obama’s

first and foremost goal, it always seemed to me, was to put out a first-rate publication. And he was not going to let politics or ideology get in the way of doing that…. I think Barack took ten times as much grief from those on the left on the Review as from those of us on the right. And the reason was I think there was an expectation among those editors on the left that he would affirmatively use his position to advance “the cause.”

Needless to say, he didn’t.

Watch The Choice 2008 on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

And so, this “scoop” is actually a big #fail on Team Breitbart’s part. The video has been out since before the 2008 election, and in any event it doesn’t prove anything other than that Obama seems to like Bell personally (and I can confirm that Bell was a very charming fellow) and has some sympathy with the stand Bell was taking regarding diversity in the law school’s hiring. Big whoop.

Recommended by fortleft, paulsimmons.


12 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Critical Race Theory

    I, too, have read quite a bit of critical race theory including stuff by Bell and found it interesting and challenging. What Team Breitbart will never understand is that one can read things, like the person who wrote them, and not agree with everything they said. And with all the racial attacks against the President from the right, maybe the critical race theorists had a point.


    • CRT is undefensible, but this video is nothing

      Making up fictitious stories where one race is the victim and then blaming the other race is undefensible. How can one engage in reasonable dialog, when the script is already written and perpetrator and victim roles are assigned? What if people started making up fictitious stories where blacks hunt down poor defenseless whites, round them up into a reservation in Oklahoma, or ship them to space. Would the story still be ok, would it still be academic material?

      Personally, I found myself offended by Bell’s Space Trader story. “My” race is assigned a repugnant role that I doubt would have ever come true in the scenario presented. Electing President Obama provides clear proof that most whites are not racist. What else could they (“we”?) have done to prove it, but to elect a black man with the middle name of Hussein to be their leader?

      That said, I do not get why this video should be damaging to Obama. Most people do not know who Bell is. Neither do I agree with everyone that I introduced to other people on every issue, and that probably applies to an even lesser degree to politicians.

      • furthermore

        Most folks I hear from outside of the hyper-engaged progressive / conservative activists don’t even know or care who Andrew Breitbart is/was.

      • I don't think Obama's victory means the end of racism in America

        I have to imagine that there are a lot of people who voted for President Obama and still have trouble with racial issues. Racism doesn’t necessarily mean overt hatred of everyone in a particular race; there are plenty of less overt forms of racism, forms of racism that people may not be aware they have and, were they aware, would work to overcome it.

        Racism can be someone deciding where to live and subconsciously ruling out the ‘black neighborhood’ or ‘vietnamese neighborhood’ and, in terms of homophobia, the ‘gay neighborhood,’ even if those people would be polite to a black person, vietnamese person or gay person if they bumped into them at store, or something like that.

        As for any of Bell’s theories or stories, I don’t know much, if anything, about any of them. What I can say though is that the ‘role reversal’ of your example used to happen, quite frequently. Lynchings were once commonplace in the South — with literally thousands and thousands of black people lynched. There were white people, too, but they were largely immigrants, such as Italians, lynched by many of the same people lynching African Americans. Again, racial KKK-style killings.

        When it came to lynchings, they were often something that not just one or two people did to one or two other people… there were a lot of people that went to do the lynching…. a lot of them.

        In that sense, I think there really is a great deal of blame that has to be placed on the majority of people in that area who allowed it to happen in that time. While it may not have always been the majority that did the lynchings, the majority certainly didn’t *stop* them.

        As I said, I don’t know Bell’s story, his work or his theories… but I’m guessing a lot of it is based in the historical context of what happened in the not-so-distant (and very ugly) past.

        While I don’t think we’re anything close to being like that today, it’s still valuable to remember the historical context of where we came from and how that shapes us as a society today.

        For one thing, I think it speaks a lot about us that we still — to this day — aren’t offering the kind of schools and police services in ‘bad’ neighborhoods as we should be, and that sort of behavior — where we ignore very real problems — seems like an ugly step cousin to the way these communities may have been treated in the past.

        There may not be racists going into those communities to lynch people like they were 50-100 years ago, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that there are plenty of racists out there, whether they realize it or not, who think along the lines of ‘well, if they want to kill each other off, let them,’ reducing everyone in the Dorchesters of the world into mindless criminals, forgetting the fact that most of the victims are innocent bystanders and that the people living in these places would like to have nice communities, too.

        RyansTake   @   Thu 8 Mar 8:52 PM
        • It may well be the tipping point, however...

          [new] I don’t think Obama’s victory means the end of racism in America

          I have to imagine that there are a lot of people who voted for President Obama and still have trouble with racial issues.

          Certainly the election of Obama marks the end of racism as a primary motive in political action, and that is certainly worth celebrating. I certainly believe that the current Republican meltdown is due, in equal parts to direct racism as well as the simple fact that they simply have no other frame of reference from which, and in which, to act: political anomie, if you will.

          • Really?

            You don’t think the rise of the Tea Party and conservative reaction to the President’s election, with huge results in 2010, kind of puts that tipping-point idea into question? I think it’s alive and kicking and very much still a strong motivating factor, especially in certain parts of the country. Just look at all the dog-whistle politics in this very Republican Primary.

            It’s not (usually) overt anymore and the GOP attacks are usually done in dog-whistle ways, in which the attacks are made under the guise of something else (hello, Newt Gingrich’s ‘let’s make inner city kids work as janitors’ plea), but it’s there.

            Don’t get me wrong… I would love if it we were actually at a tipping point and racism was going to be dead in another generation or two. That’d be great. I just say trust, but verify. We should always be vigilantly watching out for dog whistle politics and the like. If 2008 proved racism was nearing an end, 2010 proved that if we pretend it’s dead, we’re going to get our asses kicked.

            RyansTake   @   Fri 9 Mar 3:16 PM
          • I also submit to you

            Arizona, Alabama and the like are constant reminders that racism is alive and kicking and winning votes on a daily basis. Their “papers please” laws are a travesty of justice, yet politically popular in those states… and the people passing them and voting for the candidates who pass them insist it has nothing to do with raise. Baloney.

            Ditto all the states passing Voter ID laws to combat non-existing fraud, laws that will do tremendous damage to the ability of African Americans and other minorities to get out and vote.

            If we put our fingers in our ears, when these kinds of racially-motivated laws are passing, and scream LALALALA, then what happens? The Tea Partiers get a pass.

            RyansTake   @   Fri 9 Mar 3:22 PM
            • correction

              and the people passing them and voting for the candidates who pass them insist it has nothing to do with raise*. Baloney.

              Hopefully, it was obvious I meant to say race. Sorry for the typo.

              RyansTake   @   Fri 9 Mar 3:24 PM
  2. scary hug?

    There’s have more video from this event that they’re showing over on fox news, including Obama giving Bell a hug after he finishes speaking- I get the impression that is the part the Brietbart folks were planning to “selectively edit” into some horrifying glimpse into Obama’s dark, radical soul (plans which now have been neutered by Buzzfeed scooping them).

    They have a couple of very eager young Brietbart people on who keep saying that Bell is the “Jeremiah Wright of academia”. Guys! Newsflash: people didn’t care about the actual Jeremiah Wright, they’re going to care even less about an alleged Jeremiah Wright of whatever.

    • The hug

      was clearly shown in the Frontline video in 2008. Old news. The extent to which Buzzfeed destroyed Breitbart’s big “scoop” is pretty hilarious.

    • I'd like to think so

      The Jeremiah Wright thing didn’t hurt Obama at the end, but I think it’s entirely possible that if it came out a month before the election instead of many months before it, it could have been much more damaging.

      Mind you, I don’t *think* it should have been, Republicans have certainly made it clear in recent days that there should be no religious tests or questions when it comes to *Republicans*, but it took the President a while to combat the right wing on that one.

      RyansTake   @   Thu 8 Mar 9:03 PM
      • Speaking of Jeremiah Wright

        Let’s not forget that while Dick Cheney had numerous deferments because he had “more important priorities” and George W. Bush had his cushy National Guard duty from which he was partly AOL, Wright gave up his student deferment to join the marines, then moved over to the medical corps where he helped care for President Lyndon Johnson.

        Just who was the real patriot there?

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