Last night, the Breitbart organization unveiled a video from Barack Obama’s law school days, in which he introduces Professor Derrick Bell and tells his listeners that they should open their hearts and their minds to his message. Obama and Bell then hug. This is followed by a brief excerpt from a speech by Professor Charles Ogletree, who shows that clip to an audience and says that “we” hid it during the 2008 campaign. The video is less than a minute long altogether; here it is:
This morning, Steve wrote that he found the video significant because it may focus attention on Derrick Bell’s cockeyed theories, which Obama apparently endorsed. Liberal commentators, however, have unanimously declared that the video is a non-event. To take just one example, Yahoo highlighted a column titled “Breitbart’s Obama college [sic] video turns out to be a dud, sparks race debate.” The headline, at least, was probably seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
So, is the video a dud? Frankly, from the buildup I expected more. The video shows that when he was a law student, Obama was an admirer of Derrick Bell. To the extent that people know who Bell was, that adds one more radical association from Obama’s early years. But I doubt whether most people will find that very significant. Despite the media’s efforts to keep the lid on, I think pretty much all voters know that Obama has had a series of unsavory associations with radical figures. Pretty much everyone knows about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers. Adding Derrick Bell to the list isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about Obama’s fitness to be president.
The video dates to a sad period in Harvard Law School’s history, when a small group of radical faculty had split the institution. These “Critical Legal Studies” scholars, of whom Bell was one, were essentially Marxists. Rather than teaching law to their students, they attacked the foundations of American law. At the time the video was filmed, Bell was leading a movement to force the law school to hire more African-American professors. There were sit-ins and other forms of protest. Not long thereafter, Bell left Harvard; it is not entirely clear whether, in the end, he quit or was fired.
In that time and place, there is nothing surprising about African-American law students like Barack Obama supporting Bell. Really, they were expected to do so, and most would have looked askance at them if they had failed to play their assigned part in the Kabuki theater that the academic world so often resembles. Similarly, there is video that appears to show Michelle Obama participating in a sit-in in the office of the dean of the law school in 1988, in support of the demand that Harvard hire more black law professors. Was this a radical activity? Not particularly. The dean probably served the protesting students cookies. This kind of protest was one of the rituals of the time.
I actually knew Derrick Bell. He was my criminal law professor as a first-year law student. This was one of his first years at Harvard. He was obviously more liberal than most professors there–the law school was not a left-wing institution at that time–and I think it was some years later when he came out as, in my characterization, a racist neo-Marxist. He was a nice guy and a reasonably good teacher. His ideas, as he later developed them, were reprehensible. But one of the sad and twisted aspects of our public culture is that bright young African-Americans like Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson are expected to align themselves with such poisonous creeds. Our establishment rewards them for doing so, and tends to punish them if they don’t. (Think Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas.)
So, will many voters consider the fact that Obama delivered a warm endorsement of Derrick Bell a bombshell? I doubt it. The Breitbart people say that last night’s video is just the opening shot in an ongoing process of vetting President Obama in a manner that never happened in 2008. I am all in favor of that project, but it will take more than what we have seen so far to make an impression on voters.