In the video released by BuzzFeed today, President Obama — then President of the Harvard Law Review — speaks on behalf of now deceased Professor Derrick Bell, formerly of Harvard Law School. But who is Bell, and what did he stand for? We went digging, and you might be shocked at what we found.
First, ABC News gives some context to the video:
Bell was the first black professor to sit on the law school faculty. As David Remnick wrote in his Obama biography “The Bridge,” “Derrick Bell was, in Barack Obama’s time, the most vivid symbol of racial politics at Harvard Law School…In 1962, Bell helped James Meredith win admittance to the University of Mississippi…”
In the 1960s, Bell spent years trying to make the leap from a civil rights attorney to an academic, but he was never deemed good enough for tenure, until after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and law schools began taking action to change the composition of their all-white faculties. The dean of Harvard Law School promised Bell, “You’ll be the first, but not the last.” But after two years on the faculty, he was still the only African-American, so Bell threatened to resign. As Remnick writes, “For the next two decades he repeatedly threatened to resign in order to get Harvard to hire more African-American men and, eventually, women. ‘My life,’ Bell said, ‘is a living manifestation of taking no shit.’”[…]
By Obama’s second year at Harvard Law School, there were five African-American men on the Harvard Law School faculty, but no African-American women. After a black visiting professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Regina Austin was denied tenure, Bell again threatened to leave the school. He began a hunger strike. Some students began to rally around him. Classmates were curious as to how Obama would react. He was considered liberal, but not a leader, when it came to political controversies, or racial ones.
Watch the video here:
That brings us to who Derrick Bell was, and what made him such a “vivid symbol of racial politics.” A quick search of Law Review articles reveals a troubling story. Namely, that Derrick Bell’s perspective on the law was eerily similar to Jeremiah Wright’s perspective on God and His relationship to America.
Among his other distinctions, Bell is one of the main figures in a school of thought known as “Critical Legal Studies,” or CLS, as it’s known in legal academic circles. That is, as in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School applied to the law. Bell’s particular branch of CLS — the one dealing with race – flows from a type of thinking Bell called “racial realism” in an article published in the Connecticut Law Review right around the time that Obama was protesting in favor of his cause. Because the article is only available to subscribers (we paid for access), we can only provide screenshots of relevant paragraphs in Bell’s writing.
So what was racial realism? Bell explains:
Bell’s usage of the word “liberal” here is deceptive — he is not talking about modern liberalism, but instead about classical liberalism, a philosophy associated with John Locke, John Stuart Mill and even the Founding Fathers. And lest this is unclear from the above quote, consider this set of remarks further on in the same article:
In other words, Bell could care less what the law actually says — as far as he’s concerned, that’s irrelevant. What matters is making sure the right legal results are achieved. In a book published just a year after Obama’s protest, Bell talks about his outsized pleasure at getting a black cab driver in New York:
I noted with some satisfaction that my driver was black. In New York, as elsewhere, it has begun to seem that blacks, particularly black men, who lack at least two college degrees, are not hired in any position above the most menial.
Bell also makes the following claim right at the start of the book:
Racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society.
However, along with Bell’s career as a legal academic, he also wrote a famously disturbing science fiction story titled “The Space Traders.” io9 summarized the plot as follows:
In “The Space Traders,” aliens arrive and offer the United States “enough gold to retire the national debt, a magic chemical that will cleanse America’s polluted skies and waters, and a limitless source of safe energy to replace our dwindling reserves.” The U.S. just has to give the aliens one thing in return: all of our black people. (Guess what white Americans decide?)
We’ll save you the suspense of finding out what they decide by quoting the relevant passage from Bell’s story (emphasis added):
But whites, long conditioned to discounting any statements of blacks unconfirmed by other whites, chose now, of course, to follow their own perceptions. “Will the blacks never be free of their silly superstitions?” whites asked one another with condescending smiles. “Here, in this truly historic moment, when America has been selected as the site for this planet’s first contact with people from another world, the blacks just revert to their primitive fear and foolishness.” Thus, the blacks’ outrage was discounted in this crisis; they had, as usual, no credibility.
And it was a time of crisis. Not only because of the Space Traders’ offer per se, but because that offer came when the country was in dire straits. Decades of conservative, laissez-faire capitalism had emptied the coffers of all but a few of the very rich. The nation that had, in the quarter-century after the Second World War, funded the reconstruction of the free world had, in the next quarter-century, given itself over to greed and willful exploitation of its natural resources. Now it was struggling to survive like any third-world nation. Massive debt had curtailed all but the most necessary services. The environment was in shambles, as reflected by the fact that the sick and elderly had to wear special masks whenever they ventured out-of-doors. In addition, supplies of crude oil and coal were almost exhausted. The Space Traders’ offer had come just in time to rescue America. Though few gave voice to their thoughts, many were thinking that the trade offer was, indeed, the ultimate solution to the nation’s troubles.[…]
17 January. The last Martin Luther King holiday the nation would ever observe dawned on an extraordinary sight. In the night, the Space Traders had drawn their strange ships right up to the beaches and discharged their cargoes of gold, minerals, and machinery, leaving vast empty holds. Crowded on the beaches were inductees, some twenty million silent black men, women, and children, including babes in arms. As the sun rose, the Space Traders directed them, first, to strip off all but a single undergarment; then, to line up; and finally, to enter those holds which yawned in the morning light like Milton’s “darkness visible.” The inductees looked fearfully behind them. But, on the dunes above the beaches, guns at the ready, stood U.S. guards. There was no escape, no alternative. Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forebears had arrived.
HBO filmed a version of this disturbing story, which can be viewed in the following three videos (as published on Breitbart.com):
And what of Regina Austin, the professor whose denial of tenure Bell was protesting? She appears to now work for the University of Pennsylvania, has donated to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, and teaches students to use documentary filmmaking techniques on behalf of “social justice.” We’ll let her define what exactly that means in her own words:
This is but a sample of Bell’s writings, which The Blaze will be reviewing more comprehensively as the week goes on.
However, as to whether Obama really subscribed to the philosophy of Bell, right now the issue is less clear-cut. A 2007 article from “Rolling Stone” mentions the Bell protests, but also includes the following:
Although hip-hop was stirring the campus, friends say that Obama was not the type to stay out late at rap shows. In 1990, when Harvard law professor Derrick Bell resigned to protest the denial of tenure to Black visiting professor Regina Austin and progressive law students organized a national protest over faculty diversity, Obama played a background role.
“He was supportive, and spoke at a few rallies, but he didn’t really have time,” says Bernard, an organizer of the protest. “The image I have is him being on the way to the Law Review building, chain-smoking and joining us for a few minutes before he had to go.”
A book titled “Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race” also sheds light on the issue. According to the book, while Obama was sympathetic to the views of Austin and Bell, he “refused to denounce his critics and hurl polemics” and negotiated a “momentary cease-fire in Harvard’s culture wars.”
The folks over at Breitbart — who have said the Buzzfeed video is “selectively edited” — have promised to reveal more about this time in Obama’s history. That should be interesting.