Young Obama on display

The “smoking gun” video confirms Obama’s strength and weakness: He always tries to have it both ways

Topics: Barack Obama, ,

Young Obama on display (Credit:

Just before he died on March 1, the right-wing attack dog and disinformation specialist Andrew Breitbart promised to reveal explosive videos of a racially charged speech made by the young Barack Obama that would “change this election.”

Breitbart’s death at age 43 led wingnuts on the right to mutter darkly that he was taken out by nameless forces, presumably working for a Satanic Commie Muslim with the initials B.O. Now the video has been released, and it is safe to say that if the Obama administration did dispatch a hit team to silence Breitbart, it was a serious miscalculation. If Breitbart really believed that this feeble artifact would change the election, it would have been much better for the White House if he remained a key member of the right-wing brain trust charged with reclaiming the White House.

The brief video, shot in 1990, shows a young, skinny Barack Obama, at the time a second-year student at Harvard Law School, delivering a speech at a rally on behalf of a tenured law professor at the school named Derrick Bell.

As the video opens, Obama says, “And I remember that the black law students had organized an orientation for the first-year black law students. And one of the persons who spoke at that orientation was Professor Bell. And I remember him sauntering up to the front and not giving us a lecture, but engaging us in conversation. And speaking the truth.”

Here Obama says something indecipherable; there may be a gap or edit in the video. Then, after apparently praising Bell’s achievements, Obama goes on to rhetorically ask, “How did this one man do all this? How has he accomplished all this? He hasn’t done it simply by his good looks and easy charm, although he has both in ample measure. He hasn’t done it simply because of the excellence of his scholarship, although his scholarship has opened up new vistas and new horizons and changed the standards of what legal writing is about.” After loud applause, there is another apparent gap or edit in the video. Obama’s final words are “Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell.”

Before he died, Breitbart claimed that this video would show “why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008.” Sure enough, right-wingers have seized upon it to portray Obama as a race-card player and friend of white-hating academic extremists. It’s this year’s version of the Bill Ayers, Rashid Khalidi and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright “scandals,” in which Obama was accused of playing footsie with, respectively, a radical Weatherman, a Palestinian academic and an incendiary black clergyman.

Obama’s association with Derrick Bell will turn out to be even more of a non-event than those fizzled bombshells. But the story does shed some light – for better and for worse — on Obama’s temperament, his intellectual style and his racial politics.

To understand the video, one must understand the context. Academia in the late 1980s and early 1990s was roiled by an enormous controversy over “multiculturalism.” The debate took many forms. In the humanities, multiculturalists argued that works by minorities, women and gays had been systematically excluded and devalued by institutions of higher learning, and that it was time to change the canon to end the hegemony of “dead white males.” Students at Stanford marched through campus chanting “Hey ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Activists demanded that campuses create Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies departments, and hire more minority faculty members. The conflict was bitter, long-lasting and spawned an enormous literature.

Perhaps the most extreme variant of multiculturalism was found in law schools. Called “Critical Legal Studies,” this movement asserted that law was essentially political and served the hegemony of the white racist power structure. As one of its leading figures, Derrick Bell argued that racism was intractable and permanent and that minority professors were systematically excluded simply because of that racism. He further argued that minority professors, by virtue of the oppression and discrimination they allegedly experienced, possessed unique talents and perspectives not available to white professors, and should be hired on that basis alone.

Bell was given to writing in “non-traditional” forms, like science fiction, and argued that narratives and the like should have the same academic standing as footnoted, peer-reviewed papers. In one such story, “Space Traders,” Bell imagined that a group of spacemen had come to earth and offered to remove all of America’s black people, in exchange for vast wealth and other benefits.

The leaders of America agree, and all of America’s blacks are sold into slavery.

In another allegorical fable, “The Unspoken Limit on Affirmative Action: The Chronicle of the DeVine Gift,” Bell imagines how an elite law school would react to the hiring of a super-qualified African-American candidate who, if hired, would increase the faculty’s minority percentage to 25 percent. The white dean in Bell’s parable refuses, saying that doing so would change the racial character of the school to an intolerable degree. The hiring would “threaten, at some deep-seated level, the white faculty members’ sense of ideological hegemony.”

In a devastating critique of Critical Legal Studies in the June 1989 Harvard Law Review (available online via many public libraries), Randall Kennedy demolished the arguments of Bell and two other leading CLS scholars, Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda.

“Stated bluntly, they fail to support persuasively their claims of racial exclusion or their claims that legal academic scholars of color produce a racially distinctive brand of valuable scholarship,” Kennedy wrote, and then proceeded to back his argument up in detail. For example, he noted that Bell refused to even engage with the obvious reason that there were so few minority candidates, namely that not enough were qualified. Instead, Bell simply asserted that the criteria of judgment was flawed in some nameless way. Bell was clearly only interested in the outcome, not the process. If it took putting a thumb on the scales to get more black people hired, so be it. The scales were rigged anyway.

What Kennedy wrote of Matsuda was equally true of Bell: By claiming that being a member of a minority group automatically connotes a certain and superior worldview, he argued, she “stereotypes scholars.” The CLS racialism simply inverted pernicious white stereotypes about black people: Instead of being inherently inferior, they were inherently superior.

Kennedy also noted that various CLS supporters came to him (he doesn’t say it, but Bell was among them) and urged him not to publish his piece because it would hurt the movement – behavior more befitting members of a Communist cell than scholars interested in dispassionate inquiry. Of Kennedy, Bell said, “the cause of diversity is not served by someone who looks black and thinks white.”

In short, Bell was a crude racial essentialist. He believed there was such a thing as “thinking white” and “thinking black.” As James Traub noted in a New Republic piece, he was so afraid of giving aid and comfort to white people, and causing harm to blacks, that he refused to condemn the abhorrent anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

As befit his racialist ideology, Bell was also a consummate race-card player. His academic career consisted of a long series of racial confrontations with the institutions he worked for. After being hired as an avowed racial token at Harvard, Bell left for Oregon, where he became the first black dean of a non-black school. But he resigned his deanship when the faculty voted against giving tenure to an Asian woman. He then went to Stanford, where a bizarre incident unfolded. Many of the students in his constitutional law course complained about his teaching, saying it was disorganized and excessively politicized. Some began to audit other courses. In possibly the most impolitic move in the history of academia, the university then set up a parallel series of lectures, which were designed to “supplement” Bell’s courses. When black law students protested, the parallel series was canceled.

Bell then returned to Harvard, where he staged a five-day sit-in to protest the school’s failure to hire two radical CLS faculty members, both white. This led a faculty member to say, “This is a university, not a lunch counter in the Deep South.”

The episode that led to Obama’s involvement started in April 1990, when Bell announced that he would leave Harvard if a black woman was not hired. He demanded that Harvard hire Regina Austin, a visiting professor from the University of Pennsylvania. But – in a real-world demonstration of one of the problems Kennedy criticized – Bell was unable to defend her credentials, which made her look like a token. When Austin was predictably and summarily rejected – the appointments committee refused even to vote on her candidacy –Bell took heat from feminists for chauvinism. Austin never forgave Bell for the public humiliation she endured.

Enter Obama

This is where Barack Obama, second-year law student, came in. According to Thomas J. Sugrue’s 2010 book “Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race,” “the Black Law Students Association (of which Obama was a  member) accused the law school dean of racism, railed against the fact that Harvard had no tenured black women and only a handful of nonwhite faculty members, and led a series of teach-ins and protests … to demand the diversification of the law school.” The debate was bitter, with both sides claiming the mantle of the civil rights movement.

Obama took part in the protests. At one rally, according to Sugrue, he even compared Bell to Rosa Parks. But – and this is the key point – Obama tried to find a middle ground in the bitter dispute. It is worth quoting the relevant passage from Sugrue at length:

Despite his sympathies with Austin and Bell, Obama positioned himself as someone who could reconcile Harvard’s bitter differences by bringing a tone of civility to the debate. He refused to denounce his critics and hurl polemics. In the words of Bradford Berenson, a conservative student who would later work in the second Bush administration, “Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn’t appear to the conservatives in the review to be taking sides in the tribal warfare.”

Obama’s position in the middle allowed him to build a winning coalition of liberal and conservatives in his bid to be elected president of the Harvard Law review in February 1990. Later that year, in a dispute about the law review’s affirmative action policy, Obama again attempted to reconcile the opposing camps. He defended the principle of affirmative action while suggesting that he respected the “depth and sincerity” of its opponents beliefs.

Sugrue concludes that “Obama’s experience at Harvard tempered his sympathy for the race-conscious politics of the black freedom struggle.”

The entire episode is vintage Obama. It shows off his strengths: ability to conciliate, open-mindedness, tactfulness, pragmatism. But it also shows off his weaknesses: weakness, indecisiveness, wishful thinking, pragmatism.

Anyone who has read Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,”  in which Obama grapples with the long-standing tension in the black community between colorblind universalism and Black Power-tinged separatism, will realize that the Bell case put Obama in a difficult situation. As a member of the Black Law Students Association, for him to have sat this dispute out would have been extremely difficult. It was a mom and apple pie issue. He would have come across as a race traitor. (It should also be noted that Bell, whatever his shortcomings as a scholar and thinker about race, was praised as a fine mentor to black students.)

At the same time, Obama was not a racial bomb-thrower. As Sugrue notes, Obama’s racial views were not yet fully formed, but Obama never subscribed to Bell’s crude racial essentialism and guilt-card playing. If he had been forced to openly state whether he agreed with Bell’s racialist theories, he would have been caught in a bind, trapped between the racial solidarity that was expected of him and the universalism he was inwardly inclined toward. But he was not forced to. He was able to live to fight another day by mouthing bland generalities about how Bell’s scholarship “opened up new vistas and new horizons and changed the standards of what legal writing is about.” In short, he displayed the chameleonic abilities of a future politician.

In his 2008 book “A Bound Man,” Shelby Steele argues that Obama’s Achilles’ heel is precisely his attempt to have it racially both ways. For Steele, Obama is trapped by his need to simultaneously assert black solidarity and a universal identity. The Bell case is a small example of this double bind in action.

Does it matter? At the political level, no. This isn’t a scandal. Who cares if a young law student went racially along to get along? Besides, Obama was just demonstrating for “diversity,” an anodyne goal that has now received a quasi-official societal imprimatur as well as an explicit legal one. (Much as I hate to agree with Justice Scalia about anything, there is a connection between Bell’s crude racial essentialism and the Supreme Court’s 2003 pro-“diversity” ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger.)

Nor does it matter at a personal level. I don’t think that America cares that much about whatever convoluted Hegelian racial dialectic Barack Obama may have gone through in the course of creating his identity.

But it may matter at another level. Obama has shown time and again that he will not get tough until he absolutely has to – and sometimes not even then. He’s conflict-averse. He prefers making beautiful speeches to taking on enemies, or committing himself to one position. He seems to always be slipping away from the fight, thinking he can have it both ways. It is a trait that got him elected, but it is his greatest weakness. The big question, if he is elected for a second term, is whether he is capable of unifying the opposite strands of his character, forging a single identity. That would mean letting the chips fall where they may, and living up to his promise to transform America by finding within himself the only attribute he has so far lacked: courage.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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