Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), as defined by one of its most influential and founding advocates, Derrick Bell, is “characterized by frequent use of the first person, storytelling, narrative, allegory, interdisciplinary treatment of law, and the unapologetic use of creativity.” (See, WHO'S AFRAID OF CRITICAL RACE THEORY, Derrick Bell (1995))  He further explains, “We use a number of different voices, but all recognize that the American social order is maintained and perpetuated by racial subordination.” (Id. at 906) Bell, a former professor at Harvard School of Law, explains that two types of CRT members exist: (1) People of color who are “ideologically committed to the struggle against racism”; and (2) white people who are “cognizant of and committed to the overthrow of their own racial privilege.” (Id at 898)

Professor Dorothy Brown - the same Dorothy Brown who appeared on Soledad OBrien's show to criticize Joel Pollak's previous characterization of CRT - adds that “[a]lthough CRT does not employ a single methodology, it seeks to highlight the ways in which the law is not neutral and objective, but designed to support White supremacy and the subordination of people of color.” (FIGHTING RACISM IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, Dorothy Brown (2004)) Essentially, CRT uses the law to demonstrate a problem that lies within and without legal institutions; that white supremacy and privilege is deeply rooted in American culture and the Civil Rights era of the 1960s did little to bring about equality.

A recent revelation by breitbart.com shows a past connection between President Barack Obama and CRT theorist Derrick Bell. While President Obama’s association with an African-American Harvard law professor in the 1990s does not suggest, by itself, that President Obama was or is a proponent of CRT, it warrants investigation into whether his narratives and/or policies have any grounding in CRT.  This article explores this issue by reviewing the President’s books, interviews, speeches, press conferences and actions for any indication that his agenda is based on such a radical theory. Ben Shapiro, of Breitbart.com, has already written a phenomenal article about the ties between Obama, Bell and Critical Race Theory. This article seeks to build on those ties and delve into the words of Barack Obama. As such, it relies almost entirely on the actual words of Barack Obama through the years.

Early Days; Harvard Law

After graduating from Columbia, Barack Obama worked in New York for a brief time and then moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer. After working to elevate those in the black community for nearly four years, Obama "became aware that it’s more and more important to understand the intricacies of the system, how money flows and business operates. As more public policy is made by private actors, any strategy for Blacks has to involve the understanding of what is happening in the private sector," he said in a 1990 interview.  The LA Times reported that "[a]fter four years, Obama decided it was time to move on. He wanted to learn how to use the political system to effect social change. He set his sights on Harvard Law School, where he quickly distinguished himself as a top student."

While attending Harvard Law School, Obama would be taught and mentored by prominent and controversial African-American professors Derrick BellCharles Ogletree and Laurence Tribe.  Tribe would call Obama the "best student I ever had" and the "most exciting research assistant." Shortly before Obama's 2008 election, Tribe said that if Obama were to be elected, he would appoint justices "who share his view that the Constitution is a living document that has to be interpreted in light of evolving values of decency."  

In 1990, Professor Tribe said that "what truly distinguishes Obama from other bright students at Harvard Law is his ability to make sense of complex legal arguments and translate them into current social concerns. For example, Obama wrote an insightful research article showing how contrasting views in the abortion debate are a direct result of cultural and sociological differences." 

Obama gained national attention when he was elected the first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review.  On why he chose to run for the position, Obama said, "[i]t was another door we hadn't walked through yet."  He added"I wanted the job because it would allow me to have some influence on the course of legal debate in this country."

Barack H. Obama at Harvard Law (Photo: NY Times)
While Obama's election as President of the Law Review was celebrated nationally, according to a 1990 LA Times piece "some of Obama's peers question the motives of this second-year law student. They find it puzzling that despite Obama's openly progressive views on social issues, he has also won support from staunch conservatives.  Although some question what personal goals motivate Obama, his interest in social issues is deeply grounded." Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell did not appear to be overly optimistic: "While I applaud Obama's achievement, I guess I am not as hopeful for what this will mean for other blacks at Harvard.  There is a strange character to this black achievement. When you have someone that reaches this high level, you find that he is just deemed exceptional and it does not change society's view of all of the rest."

While President of the Law Review, Obama relied on "compromise" and "bipartisanship" to work with fellow Law Review students who might not have agreed with his politics.  "These are the people who will be running the country in some form or other when they graduate. If I'm talking to a white conservative who wants to dismantle the welfare state, he has the respect to listen to me and I to him."

As for Obama's own thoughts about his election and his plans for the Law Review, Obama revealed, "'I personally am interested in pushing a strong minority perspective. I'm fairly opinionated about this. But as president of the law review, I have a limited role as only first among equals.''  Elsewhere he stated that “[p]eople like myself are learning a certain language of mainstream society, of power and decision making. “We have an obligation to go back to the Black community, to listen and learn and help give our people a voice.  I’m nontraditional less in my training than in my focus, and my past and my future plans. My background is more concrete and hands-on. Issues of public policy and the Black community are of major importance to me.”

Obama would continue to work with his mentors, Tribe, Bell and Ogletree throughout his career at Harvard Law. Charles Ogletree was a senior advisor to Senator Obama in 2008 and has continued a close correspondence with the President.  Ogletree gave a three-part lecture at Harvard entitled "Understanding Obama", he now teaches a class at Harvard with the same title and plans to publish a book about Obama...but will wait until after the 2012 election.  Ogletree, who has written heavily about race in the law,  has warned colleges and universities that admitting mostly foreign-born blacks to meet the goals of affirmative action is insufficient, stated: “Whether you are from Brazil or from Cuba, you are still products of slavery. But the threshold is that people of African descent who were born and raised and suffered in America have to be the first among equals.”

Community Organizing in Chicago

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1992, Barack Obama spent some time at a law firm in Chicago before heading back to the streets to engage in community organizing.  According to a Crain's Business Article in September 27,1991, Obama's two aspirations were: "political reformer and entrepreneur for social justice." In the article, Obama says "[t]emperamentally, I'm more suited to the latter. Practically, it's very difficult." He also stated that, because of his time in Hawaii and Indonesia, he was in a "unique position" to impose his world view on racial issues. 

One of Obama's major goals in community organizing was voter registration.  In 1992, he told the Chicago Sun-Times "Our biggest problem is the young, the 18 to 35 group. There is a lot of talk about 'black power' among the young but so little action. Today, we see hundreds of young blacks talking 'black power' and wearing Malcolm X T-shirts, but they don't bother to register and vote. We remind them that Malcolm once made a speech titled 'The Ballot or the Bullet,' and that today we've got enough bullets in the streets but not enough ballots."

In an appearance on NPR's All Things Considered in 1994, Obama said, "it's time for all of us, and now I'm talking about the larger American community, to acknowledge that we've never even come close to providing equal opportunity to the majority of black children. Real opportunity would mean quality prenatal care for all women and well-funded and innovative public schools for all children. Real opportunity would mean a job at a living wage for everyone who was willing to work, jobs that can return some structure and dignity to people's lives and give inner-city children something more than a basketball rim to shoot for. In the short run, such ladders of opportunity are going to cost more, not less, than either welfare or affirmative action. But, in the long run, our investment should pay off handsomely. That we fail to make this investment is just plain stupid. It's not the result of an intellectual deficit. It's the result of a moral deficit."

Eventually, Obama became discouraged by the limiting factors of community organizing. He wanted to effect more social change and have a bigger impact, so he entered the political arena in 1995.  He told Charlie Rose, "I saw the law as being inadequate to the task. It’s very difficult to bring about social change at this point through the courts. [And] community organizing was too localized and too small." 

Many years earlier, Professor Derrick Bell had expressed a similar frustration, stating "[p]rofessor Leroy Clark has written that the black community’s belief in the efficacy of litigation inhibited the development of techniques involving popular participation and control that might have advanced school desegregation in the South…A lawyer seeking social change, Clark advises, must “make clear that the major social and economic obstacles are not easily amenable to the legal process and that vigilance and continued activity by the disadvantaged are the crucial elements in social change. (Derrick A. Bell, Jr., SERVING TWO MASTERS: INTEGRATION IDEALS AND CLIENTS INTERESTS IN SCHOOL DESEGRATION LITIGATION, 85 Yale L. J. 470, 471 (1976).

Interviews about Dreams From My Father

In 1995, Barack Obama wrote his first book; Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and InheritanceHe told Charlie Rose, “I originally got the idea of writing a book while I was at Harvard Law School, where I served as president of the Law Review. In listening to a number of the debates going back and forth about affirmative action and voting rights and all the controversies surrounding race issues in the country, I thought that I might be able to insert myself into the debate and hopefully clarify it." About the same time, at his friends' urging he also entered into the political arena, because, as he says, "I saw the law as being inadequate to the task. It’s very difficult to bring about social change at this point through the courts. [And] community organizing was too localized and too small."

More to come soon...

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