Derrick Bell: Right wing propaganda smears late Harvard professor

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The Fox News propaganda machine was hard at work last week, criticizing President Obama as a “radical”, and using a 1991 video that shows him introducing and embracing the late Harvard professor Derrick Bell, widely credited as the father of Critical Race Theory.

Bell was a legal scholar who in 1969, as the nation still wrestled with the complexities of the Civil Rights era, joined the faculty of Harvard Law School, and quickly became its first tenured African-American professor.

The latest controversy originated with the late Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger and commentator well-known for generating scandal intended to shame Democrats and liberals. He famously destroyed the career of shamed NYC Congressman Anthony Weiner and unfairly targeted civil servant, Shirley Sherrod. Following Breitbart’s death, Joel Pollak, Editor-in-Chief of, re-released video that Breitbart had apparently intended to use in a smear campaign against the president, seeking to prove Obama had radical, anti-American ties.

Like the Sherrod affair, this case has proven ‘much ado about nothing’.

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The video itself was actually available online years ago, receiving over a million views on YouTube alone before Election Day 2008.

However, the central argument made by Fox News host Sean Hannity, conservative governor-turned-pundit Sarah Palin, and articulated by Joel Pollak in an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, is that at the heart of Bell’s critical race theory is the idea that “white supremacy is the order, and must be overthrown.”

Pollack’s bias and blindside is abundantly clear, as he never assailed the danger and violent terror of white supremacists, but instead sought to frame Bell as outside the mainstream, by asserting he was a “radical.” It appears the truth couldn’t be further from the propaganda, as O’Brien expressed when she pushed back on Pollack calling his claim “a complete misreading.”

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry had a similar response during her Saturday show, calling it a “manufactured controversy.” Harris-Perry delved deeper in the historical context of such false associations, by comparing Obama’s critics to those who attacked former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1940s for “public proximity to black people.”

She said, “And now we’re asked to see this photo [of Obama and Bell] not as two legal scholars embracing in solidarity against injustice, but as a seditious traitor embracing a radical idea.”

And herein lies the rub: the now, notorious “hug” aside, conservative pundits and accusers failed in explaining the fundamentals of why Derrick Bell is, in fact, a radical, and what about ‘critical race theory’ is outside the mainstream of legal academia.

Will Oremus of Slate explained in a recent piece, Bell “began using the phrase ‘critical race theory’… as a takeoff on ‘critical legal theory’, a branch of legal scholarship that challenges the validity of concepts such as rationality, objectionable truth and judicial neutrality.”

Bell’s theory, Oremus explained, is “an academic movement that looks at society and the law through a racial lens…and is more controversial than radical….Classical liberal ideals such as meritocracy, equal opportunity and colorblind justice, [Bell said], actually served the white elite by cloaking and reinforcing society’s deep structural inequalities. Racism according to this line of thought is not a matter of bad behavior by individual racists; it’s embedded in American attitudes and institutions. Even with overt discrimination outlawed, institutional racism and unconscious biases…would keep minorities down.”

Bell and fellow law professors in the 70s and 80s understood that, though blacks had technically gained equality before the law, whites continued to experience disproportionate power, wealth and opportunity. Even the most critical reading of Bell’s theory conveys it is a balanced, intellectual approach to understanding racial disparities that plague American society, even today, 50 years post-Jim Crow. Critical Race Theory is widely accepted in the halls of academia, in legal discipline as well as sociology, education and political science.

Harris-Perry, O’Brien and others have attempted to reveal the cognitive dissonance inherent in this smear of Bell, by addressing the race-baiting antics at the heart of so many attacks on President Obama. Namely, the shameful double standard of Republicans and conservative operatives who frame black and brown people who discuss matters of race as being “radical” and “racist,” yet defend or dismiss explicitly racist and outrageous comments by fellow conservatives.

From Palin’s ignorant claim that Obama wants to return to a “pre-Civil War” state of discrimination “based on color of skin”; to Gingrich’s claims that the president empathizes with Kenyan Mau-Mau socialists and that African-Americans should not be “satisfied with food stamps,” conservatives prove they aren’t interested in policing racism. Instead they deny claims of their own prejudice by silencing rational arguments about legitimate cases of race-based discrimination: the very kind explored in Bell’s critical race theory.
Since the attacks on Bell’s legacy went viral via conservative channels, some of the attention has focused on another renowned Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, a dear friend of Bell, who remains among the handful of African-American scholars at Harvard.

Ogletree, founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and a former professor of Barack and Michelle, garnered attention when Hannity and Pollak unveiled yet another tape, this one of Ogletree joking during a lecture that he had hidden the “incriminating” footage of Obama. The professor is no stranger to political spin, and quickly confronted the distortions of both his own words and hyperbolic claims of radicalism being waged against Bell and the president.

Ogletree spoke with The Grio, to shed light on Bell’s seminal work and legacy, and the truth behind the lies.

theGrio: Who was Derrick Bell the man? Was he radical in his thinking, teaching, approach or scholarship?

Ogletree: No, not at all. Just the opposite. When you think about the fact he taught at predominately white institutions: Harvard, Stanford and Oregon; and that the majority of his friends and students were white — questioning whether he was a racist radical becomes absurd.

As for his scholarship, he was a constitutional expert. His history had been working as a government lawyer and civil rights attorney for the NAACP. He was never going to tell you what to think, but how to think it. That’s how he defined his view of the law.

Derrick consistently tried to suggest new ideas, and engage in deep thinking about the rationale of our Constitution. For instance, how the Framers rationalized the three-fifths clause or the “We the People” phrase when blacks, Native Americans and women had no rights “of the people.” He believed in inclusion of everyone — not exclusion of anyone.

What was critical race theory and did you agree with Bell on its central tenets?

A group of professors had created “Critical Legal Studies,” which explored how power shaped the way law was developed. But at Harvard it consisted mostly of white men, and maybe one or two women. Bell intended to broaden and expand the way critical legal study could be understood, and how race was central to the intersection of law and power — especially given America’s history on the subject.

I originally disagreed with one aspect, the theory of ‘interest convergence’, which suggested that blacks could not get ahead unless whites believed it was in their own self-interest. I fought against that. But honestly, I’ve had a hard time finding examples of where we could get things done without some appeasement and support of whites.

What circumstances prompted those original demonstrations in 1991?

David was standing up for diversity in legal academy. In 1985, he left his role as Dean of University of Oregon Law School over a dispute about faculty diversity. When he returned to Harvard he protested a similar instance in which a female, who he thought deserved tenure, had not gotten it. His concern was equality and opportunity for not just people of color, but women as well.

Did you “suppress” that tape, and what did you mean when you joked in 2008 about “hiding” it?

No. If you look at the tape from my lecture, it was clearly a joke. Every time I get a chance, I joke about it, because there’s no way to win this battle. People who are opposed to President Obama will continue to be. Besides the fact this had been available from PBS’ Frontline for years.

Here’s what they miss; look at who is there. The audience is overwhelmingly white. It’s important to note, the president never took classes from Professor Bell. To compare Bell to Jeremiah Wright is absurd. Fox News has not done their research.

How did you and Bell feel about Obama winning the presidency? Did Bell see it as the ushering in of a post-racial age?

I was thrilled. He had been one of the most thoughtful and expressive people I ever taught. He was genius at bringing in the thoughts of other students who had not sufficiently been credited.

As for Bell, born in 1930, he grew up at a time in which it was almost impossible to imagine an African-American president. What did I see on November 4, 2008? I saw tears. Not just from Derrick but Judge Robert Carter as well. (Carter had argued the Brown v. Board.) What those men did is what I did, they cried: overwhelmed with joy.

And Bell could see — through the lens of his critical race theory — that Obama was being embraced by a global audience from Egypt to France, from Japan to Brazil. That made him very happy. It was what his work was all about.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Derrick Bell?

The quiet ways he’s done things is very important. He is a deep part of everything I am and everything I hope to be.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.