Shortly before his death by “natural” causes, Andrew Breitbart appeared at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, and said this of President Barack Obama:
I’ve got videos, by the way. This election we are going to vet him. I have videos. I’ve got videos. This election, we are going to vet him — from his college days! — to show you [cheering] – to show you why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008. The videos are going to come out. The narrative is going to come out.
Sane people paid no attention, because Andrew Breitbart had already proven himself uniquely untrustworthy with videotape. With his friend James O’Keefe, he destroyed the anti-poverty group ACORN by dishonestly editing a series of “sting” videos recorded in their offices, thereby plunging hundreds of working-class, civically-minded citizens into unemployment. The next year he nearly ruined the career of Shirley Sherrod by dishonestly remixing an anti-racism speech she’d delivered to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives into a proud declaration of racism. Whatever video he had of the president, it was safe to assume, would be equally silly. (And Obama, unlike the previous subjects of Breitbart’s attacks, is capable of defending himself.)
The video’s out now. Sean Hannity unveiled it last night. And it’s actually three videos.
In the first, which has long been available to all, Barack Obama is shown speaking at a student protest at Harvard in 1990. He introduces the professor leading the protest: Derrick Bell, influential legal scholar and the first black professor to receive tenure at Harvard. On that occasion, Bell was protesting the lack of diversity among Harvard’s tenured professors. Of the 60 tenured professors at Harvard’s law school in 1990, three were black, five were women, and fifty-two were white men. In the video, Obama ends his brief address by urging his fellow students to “open your minds and hearts to the words of Derrick Bell.” The screen goes dark.
In the second video, which was until recently the sole property of Professor Charles Ogletree — Harvard professor and friend of the president — Barack Obama urges his students to “open your minds and hearts to the words of Derrick Bell,” and then proceeds to hug Professor Bell. The hug, Breitbart claimed (and Hannity now claims), has been suppressed for political reasons.
Their evidence for this claim is the third video, in which Professor Charles Ogletree is shown lecturing a group of Harvard students. He has just played his own tape of Obama’s address at the protest when he says:
Of course, we hid this throughout the 2008 campaign. [laughter] I don’t care if they find it now.
It’s clear that Professor Ogletree was joking, and it’s equally clear what he was joking about: The twin tendencies of certain elements of America’s right-wing media to reduce complicated issues to outraged talking points, and to pillory Obama for associating, even only glancingly, with anyone who has ever been the least bit controversial. Sean Hannity, as unironic a man as has ever lived, probably doesn’t realize how elegantly he proves Ogletree’s point.
Barely discussed in Hannity’s segment is why anybody should care about Obama’s brief association with Derrick Bell. What about Derrick Bell was so radical? And what does Obama’s gracious introduction have to do with “class warfare” and “racial division”? Hannity and his guests reference a satirical short story written by Bell, some years after the speech, in which the United States sells off black people to settle the national debt, and black America’s erstwhile Jewish allies stand by. In reference to that story, Breitbart.com’s Joel Pollack says:
… if you’re going to open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell — well, if you wanted us to do that, now we actually have to look at what are the words of Professor Derrick Bell.
That’s rather galling, seeing as no one on Hannity bothered to mention what Professor Bell actually said on the day Obama introduced him. I’ve introduced a fair number of speakers on a fair number of stages, and when I exhort an audience to listen to one of them I’m certainly not rubbertstamping that speaker’s every utterance for eternity: I’m saying only that this speech, on this occasion, warrants attention. Certainly, if Obama’s introduction is to be used against him, that speech on that occasion warrants ours. But the speech is unavailable now. I don’t know why. But given Professor Bell’s career — which also went undiscussed on Hannity — and given the nature of the occasion, it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine its contents.
Briefly: Professor Derrick Bell, who died last fall, was one of the creators and chief proponents of something called Critical Race Theory. That theory is complicated, but its essence is this: Even well-meaning people, should they be part of a majority in society, will be unable to govern minorities justly; the very structure of power in such a society will guarantee unjust outcomes and minority marginalization. To pursue “color blindness” in government, on a court, in a jury, in legislatures, or in culture is in all cases inadequate, because “color blindness” doesn’t actually exist. Rather, societies should court color awareness, and those who wield power in society should be, as nearly as possible, representative of the population over which they wield it.
That’s why Professor Bell thought it so important to protest Harvard in 1990. Harvard is powerful. Eight American presidents have been Harvard grads, along with a disproportionate number of vice presidents, legislators, judges, business leaders, academic titans, and culture-makers. They are in every generation the future leaders of the United States. It seemed to Professor Bell, as it probably seems to most Americans in 2012, that Harvard does a disservice to its students and to history by providing instruction almost exclusively from a white, male perspective. White males, wonderful as we are, do not and cannot know everything. (Due partly to Bell’s efforts, Harvard’s staff is far more diverse than it was 20 years ago.)
This is almost certainly the point Professor Bell was making on that day in 1990, and it is a point with which nearly every black, Latin, Jewish, gay, and female person in America would agree — not to mention a large (I hope) majority of straight white men. In other words, it’s hardly radical, and it’s certainly not the stuff of good scandal. “Derrick Bell” will not become a byword among this year’s Republican presidential candidates (save perhaps Newt Gingrich, whose mutterings about “Saul Alinsky radicals” don’t seem to get the traction they once did); no one of note will treat the Professor’s sudden, postmortem emergence in electoral politics with anything other than boredom and disinterest. What “Derrick Bell” will become, apart from a titan of legal scholarship, is a reference point for angry conservatives in the comments sections of websites; a dropped name only dimly understood, standing for inchoate fears and resentments. Its use will sew a little mistrust, inspire a little shock of fear among the easily spooked, which is probably all Breitbart intended.