Barack Obama, Derrick Bell, and the politics of hugging

Let’s dispense with a few misconceptions, shall we?

No, of course it’s not racist to object to the late Professor Derrick Bell’s contributions to critical race theory. It’s not racist to object to the protest – essentially for racial hiring quotas at the Harvard Law faculty – depicted in the video released by Breitbart.com. Nor is it racist to say then-student Barack Obama shouldn’t have lent his support to the protest or to Professor Bell.

While we’re at it, a few more points.

Yes, we can all imagine what would happen if a Republican embraced a controversial right-wing scholar on questions of race and ethnicity. Wait, we don’t have to imagine. ThinkProgress, the blog of the Center for American Progress, as recently as February attacked Rick Santorum for citing Charles Murray in a debate, calling Murray a “racist” and heavily implying that Santorum was one too.

We know the liberal media holds Democrats and Republicans to different standards. This is nothing new.

Moreover, there is a legitimate case that the news media was insufficiently rigorous in vetting Candidate Obama. Enchanted by his good looks, left-wing politics, rhetorical ease, and all-round coolness, Washington correspondents forgot that their job is to act as watchdogs, not lapdogs. Teams of investigative journalists were dropped into Wasilla, Alaska to dig dirt on Sarah Palin while the non-Fox media was initially reluctant to cover the Jeremiah Wright issue or ask any questions of Obama that didn’t begin, “How do you think the Republicans are going to attack you for…?”

Candidate Obama should have been vetted as thoroughly as every other candidate.

All that said, my immediate reaction to the Derrick Bell video is: Is that it?

For days, the people over at the Breitbart sites have been promising footage that would devastate President Obama’s re-election bid. Maybe they have more videos yet to be released but if this is it, I don’t think the White House need be too troubled. In the words of Sean Hannity, who promoted the video on his Fox News show, “this is not a smoking gun”.

Critical race theory is of course controversial and I would rather its divisive assumptions were left behind in favour of a post-racial politics that focusses on the value of individuals as individuals rather than representatives or embodiments of larger identity groups. I have an intellectual interest in critical race theory – I much prefer bell hooks to Professor Bell – and found it fascinating when I studied it as an undergraduate. But while its questions were compelling, I found its answers untenable, stuck in a past that most modern societies are glad to have escaped. Nor do I cut it any slack over its manifestations of antisemitism – well documented by the liberal academics Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry in their incisive critique Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law – which sometimes saw Jews attacked for their supposed failure to join the struggle against white European hegemony.

So I understand why some might be alarmed at Barack Obama, as a student in 1991, embracing and praising the father of this political critique. To argue, however, that this video proves that President Obama shares some or all of the late professor’s radical ideas is to make a leap as untenable as many of Bell’s theories. When Obama enjoined his fellow students to “Open up your hearts and your minds” to Bell, can we really be certain that he meant, “I agree with every word this man has ever committed to paper and think every one of you should think like him and take up his cause”? Or is it more likely that Obama was offering up some boiler plate platitudes – even as a student, he was a polished politician – about a well-liked teacher who was leaving the university?

Are we to read into the hug Obama gave Bell an ideological embrace, where the future president betrothed himself to the academic as an unquestioning adherent? If anything, we should congratulate the two men on being sufficiently free of homophobia, in the less enlightened days of 1991, to meet in a physical embrace without fearing a compromise of their masculinity.

One of the supreme joys of university is taking a class taught by a charming, charismatic, intellectually stimulating professor. As a passionate young idealist, you are drawn to his/her ideas and soon decide they are your own. It’s a heady experience, meeting a grown-up who doesn’t agree with other grown-ups and compels you to think differently about things you’ve always accepted without question. It’s easy to fall under the spell of such people. But then you finish their class and you encounter other instructors with different ideas and you learn from them too until, one day, you find yourself piecing together your own perspective on the world. It’s usually a collage of ideas you picked up along the way but you’ve made the moral choice to claim these beliefs as your own. They’re now yours as much as anyone else’s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Barack Obama fell under the sway of the eloquent Professor Bell but I doubt very much if he still cleaves to many of the ideas that fill the pages of the late scholar’s published works. I say this because Obama has already broken the cardinal rule of critical race theory by choosing to work within the “white heteropatriarchal capitalist order” instead of attacking it from the outside. I say this also because President Obama so rarely talks about race. He’s an economics man, with a side interest in the culture wars. Race might once have stirred his heart; it does not sway his philosophy or steer his administration’s policies. President Obama is a social democrat; he believes in collectivism, welfarism, and redistributivism. He is a student of European democratic socialism, not American race theory. And therein lies his weak spot. The president wishes to graft onto the American system of limited government and checks and balances the hulking, illiberal, opportunity-squelching dead hand of Western European statism – at the very time that we in Europe are trying to make a break for it.

If conservatives hope to defeat Barack Obama – either for the White House or for the future direction of American politics – they have to understand that Obama is motivated by economics and ultimately can be undone only by economics.

Feature image © I, DavidShankbone by Creative Commons 3.0

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