For Democrats (like me) concerned with academic freedom and depoliticizing personnel and curricular processes in higher education, the 2008 primary season offered only one candidate who even might adopt a good policy on higher education, an area where the GOP has had the overwhelming advantage in recent years. Even if he wasn’t a transparent phony, John Edwards (Version 2008) was presenting himself as a hard-left anti-poverty crusader, and seemed likely to embrace a more politicized academy. Hillary Clinton was running a rally-the-base campaign; and in a party whose base consists of African-Americans, labor unions, and feminists, it was clear Clinton’s higher-ed policy would bolster the race/class/gender dominance of the contemporary professoriate.
But Barack Obama offered promise. Not only was he running on a kind of
post-racial platform, he had the record to back up his rhetoric. His
career featured none of the inflammatory screeds so common among Chicago
African-American politicians. He had demonstrated an ability to work
with downstate Republicans in the Illinois legislature. And in the U.S.
Senate, he was one of only two Democratic senators
to support a Justice Department investigation of Mike Nifong–a
mini-Sister Souljah moment in which the nation’s first serious
African-American presidential candidate publicly repudiated the man to
whose efforts Duke’s Group of 88 had attached their professional
Four years later, of course, we all know the reality: while Obama has sought to improve accss to and affordability of higher education for poor and middle-class students, his administration has also embraced a political correctness that would have made Hillary Clinton blush. Chiefly through the work of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali, the Obama administration has aggressively weakened civil liberties and freedom of thought on campus, working hand in hand with the powers that be in the contemporary academy. This agenda, manifested in the infamous “Dear Colleagues” letter, violates the spirit if not the letter of Obama’s 2008 campaign.
But a higher-ed vision oriented around upholding the politically correct is fully consistent with a deeply troubling video unearthed by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski. The video dates from Obama’s time at Harvard Law School. In it, the then-Harvard Law Review president spoke out on one of the major protests of the period at Harvard: law school professor Derrick Bell’s announcement that he would take a leave of absence “until a woman of color is offered and accepted a tenured position on this faculty.”
Let’s be clear about Bell’s effort: he was seeking to browbeat the Harvard Law School administration into making a quota hire, and he regularly used race-baiting rhetoric in the process. Yet Obama, in the Buzzfeed video, endorsed Bell’s aims. There’s no evidence that Obama, as either a state legislator or senator, backed a quota-hiring bill, and presumably he no longer supports the idea. But in his next press conference, he should be asked whether and, if so, why he abandoned his earlier support for quotas in law school faculty hiring.
Equally troubling were Obama’s comments about Bell himself. He described Bell as “the Rosa Parks of legal education,” and praised the “excellence” of Bell’s “scholarship,” which Obama said had opened up “new vistas and new horizons.”
And what exactly was the scholarship that earned Obama’s gushing praise? Bell was a pioneer of critical race theory, the idea that the American legal system is so embedded with racism that a neutral application of the law is impossible. Here’s how Judge Richard Posner described the concept: “What is most arresting about critical race theory is that . . . it turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative. Rather than marshal logical arguments and empirical data, critical race theorists tell stories–fictional, science-fictional, quasi-fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal–designed to expose the pervasive and debilitating racism of America today. By repudiating reasoned argumentation, the storytellers reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.”
Bell’s having advanced that line of argument–which has gained almost no support in the federal judiciary–is what Obama compared to the work of Rosa Parks in advancing civil rights.
I voted for (and donated to) Obama in 2008; I’ll vote for him again in 2012 (because of his position on issues other than higher education). But this video shows an Obama who at least at one time was far more committed, on a personal level, to an extreme version of campus “diversity” than anyone who hadn’t attended the 1990 Harvard Law rally previously realized. No one should harbor any illusions that a second Obama term will not continue the first’s disastrous record on higher education.
KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of “Until Proven Innocent.“