The Obama Video: Fuss and Obfuscation

The 1990 Harvard Law School video of Barack Obama endorsing a quota-hire protest unearthed by Buzzfeed has generated widespread comment in both the blogosphere and the conservative media. Much of the commentary from the right was overheated and wide of the mark; representative commentary on the left, however, was deliberately deceptive.

After viewing the cable news treatment of the video, Radley Balko correctly noted that he “didn’t think it was possible, but politics got noticeably stupider tonight.” The video was a lead story on Sean Hannity’s FOX program; on CNN, Big Journalism’s Dana Loesch accused Buzzfeed of selectively editing the video to exclude a hug between Obama and Derrick Bell. In light of such broadcasts, Cato’s Julian Sanchez wondered whether there was “literally NOTHING too trivial and moronic to be ginned up into a fake scandal anymore.”

Obama has been president for more than three years. While the media should ask if he still considers Derrick Bell to be the “Rosa Parks of legal education” and a producer of “excellence” in scholarship, even Obama’s most vehement critics would not suggest that he has pursued a racially-based presidency of the type that a Bell protégé would embrace. Indeed, he has come under criticism from some African-Americans for not doing enough to address black unemployment. In short, using this video to gain insight into Obama’s broader policies is not likely to reveal much.

As so often has occurred in his presidency, Obama benefits from his critics’ overreaction, and I suspect that the Bell video will most be remembered for demonstrating this pattern yet again. If so, that would be unfortunate. The fact that the Bell video might not be relevant to understanding Obama’s handling of the federal deficit doesn’t mean that the video isn’t significant.

The 1990 protest dealt with a policy issue in higher education, an area where the Obama administration’s policy has dramatically differed from at least the spirit of his 2008 campaign ideology. Seeing Obama as Harvard Law Review president demonstrate a personal attachment to Bell’s educational agenda is jarring. Does this attachment help explain why his administration has adopted such an ideologically rigid approach to higher-ed matters?

John Podhoretz observed that while he “was not an admirer of Derrick Bell’s writing or method, and wish they had not been mainstream. But they were. He was not Bill Ayers.” (Buzzfeed helpfully provided some clips of Bell’s racist and anti-Semitic views.) Podhoretz is, of course, absolutely correct. But during the 2008 campaign, there never was any credible evidence that Obama had endorsed (or even had read) Bill Ayers’ scholarship. We now have a video of the future President enthusiastically praising a man who declared as part of his scholarship that “resort to fiction can provide a unique perspective on reality”–a useful tactic when there’s only extremely weak evidence to support the scholarship’s basic conclusions, but an approach that would have generated ridicule in most fields. There was a reason why Charles Ogletree admitted that pro-Obama forces “hid this throughout the 2008 campaign.”

Wiring in New York, Jonathan Chait recognized that “if you tease out the politics here, Obama was taking a more left-wing position than you would probably see him advocating as president. Obama was a moderate and unifying figure, but within the context of a political debate that was fairly radical. There are interesting lessons to be gleaned as to what this tells us about him.” Chait’s post, however, didn’t reveal what these “interesting lessons” are; instead, he spent most of his post mocking the overheated claims of Obama’s right-wing critics.

At least Chait conceded that Obama had participated in a “fairly radical” debate that resulted in him “taking a more left-wing position than you would probably[!!] see him advocating as president.” Other liberal commentators have chosen to obfuscate the matter.

In a tweet mockingly endorsed by Media Matters’ Jamison Foser, Andrea Purse, vice president of Communications at the Center for American Progress, minimized the video’s import. “Obama is (and was,” declared Purse, “for diversity and opportunity. Groundbreaking news.”

It’s worth reiterating the nature of Bell’s agenda at the protest at which Obama spoke: Bell was demanding that the Harvard Law School administration make a tenured hire on the basis of the candidate’s race and gender. Is it now the position of the CAP, one of the nation’s leading think-tanks, that “diversity” means quotas–as many critics long have suggested and as Bell wanted to occur at Harvard Law? It’s hard to interpret Purse’s words in any other way. If so, this admission would suggest a sharp break from the various left-leaning groups that have consumed reams of paper in court filings contending that “diversity” doesn’t lead to quotas.

I hope that and the CAP will file an amicus brief in the Fisher case amplifying on Purse’s diversity-as-quota-hires theory. In the meantime, it’s hard not to recall Obama’s 1990 embrace of critical race theory when pondering his administration’s anti-civil liberties, ultra-politically correct approach to higher-ed policy.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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One thought on “The Obama Video: Fuss and Obfuscation”

  1. Let me say first that I have a healthy respect for those in our midst that swim against the current.I think that I can fairly say that that’s what a black conservative is. And a black woman conservative–you’re practically in a class all your own.You say that Obama has “extremely liberal views.” Would his views be more palatable if he merely had “liberal views”? I’m not trying to be contentious, just sincerely interested in your point of view.A democrat, by definition, is a “liberal,” just as a republican, by definition is a “conservative.”I know: there are various shades within those categories.Of late, many white conservatives have elected to endorse Obama–and they’re neither black nor liberal.I believe that it’s the Palin factor that is the primary reason why C. Powell endorsed Obama, despite his stated respect for her.Also, I believe that Powell respects a woman’s right to choose, and is concerned that the next president will have the opportunity to nominate a couple more Supreme Court Associate Justices and, if that president is a republican, it would tip the balance towards a conservative majority, potentially threatening the existence of Roe v. Wade.Truthfully, Palin, in my opinion, is not up to the task of filling presidential shoes should some calamity befall McCain.And that his slogan is Country First is all the more ironic that he selected Palin to be a heart attack away from the seat of presidential power.Clearly his decision was political first and country last.Again, I respect your ideology, although I find it flawed, and I, as do many other blacks, find the term, black conservative, to be paradoxical and inexplicable. I will return to read up on your evolving conservative views of your world. But I probably won’t attempt to change your conservative outlook.That would be inexcusably presumptuous of me.You see, I don’t necessarily feel a liberal point of view is superior to a conservative point of view, or vice versa. It is what it is.I see the world more in light of what works or doesn’t work, given what it is we say we want.For me, at this moment, in light of what I say I want, the liberal view works better.

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