Breitbart.com and Fox News believe that President Obama’s affiliation with the late Harvard professor Derrick Bell, as evidenced from a hug they share in a video from 1990, is some kind of “smoking gun” for his perspectives on “racial division and class warfare.” Bell was the first tenured African-American law professor at Harvard University and helped establish the study of Critical Race Theory (CRT). This morning, Breitbart.com editor Joel Pollak appeared on CNN to repeat this claim, but Soledad O’Brien was quick to point out that he had absolutely no understanding of CRT and that the clip presented no “bombshell” for the President:
O’BRIEN: What part of that was the bombshell? Because I missed it, I don’t get it. What was the bombshell?
POLLACK: Well, the bombshell is the revelation of the relationship between Obama and Derrick Bell—
O’BRIEN: Okay, so he’s a Harvard law student and a Harvard law professor. Yeah?
POLLACK: That’s correct. And Derrick Bell is “the Jeremiah Wright of academia.” He passed away last year, but during his lifetime he developed a theory called Critical Race Theory, which holds that the Civil Rights Movement was a sham and that White Supremacy is the order and it must be overthrown. Barack Obama was—
O’BRIEN: I’ll stop you there for a second and then I’m going to let you continue, but that is a complete misreading of Critical Race Theory. As you know, that’s an actual theory and you could Google it and someone would give you an good definition, so that’s not correct.
Critical race theory does not have an absolute set of principles, but later in the interview O’Brien accurately describes it as a theory that “looks into the intersection of race and politics and the law.” CRT emerged from a broader movement known as critical legal studies, which examines how factors such as race, gender and social class can often skew legal decisions in favor of privileged groups. Critical legal theory is, by definition, critical of how our law has developed and often calls for significant departures from existing law—but its central premise that judges are prone to decide cases in ways that advantage their own social group has certainly been vindicated by cases such as Citizens United.
CRT looks specifically at how race and racial privilege shapes the law. The purpose of CRT isn’t to wage war against white people, as Pollak and others of his anti-liberal ilk would have us believe. Indeed, its entire goal is to ensure that race not be forgotten as a significant factor in the operation of society. The value of this perspective is certainly demonstrated through voter ID laws, immigration policies, and drug enforcement penalties that disproportionately impact non-white populations. Policies that target racial majorities, by contrast, would never become law in the first place because the majority possesses the power to veto them.
The President should be applauded for standing with great minds who do not accept that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked an endpoint in the fight for racial equality. It is those who seek to disregard the experiences of all people of color — lest they confront the persisting effects of racial injustice — who should be ashamed.