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.
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.