From his grave, Andrew Breitbart threw one last (hopefully) stink bomb into the public square this week. It started as an effort to create another Jeremiah Wright scandal for President Obama. When that failed, it morphed into rightwing media’s latest anti-academic rant, this time targeting one of the most well respected scholars in the history of race studies.
Now, it’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead, but I’ll risk it, since that’s precisely what Breitbart’s own post-humous smear hoped to do, too. Before his sudden death last week, the professional hit-job artist vowed that he had explosive, damning video that would redefine the public image of Obama. Yesterday, as Breitbart.com prepared to finally release the film, BuzzFeed scooped them. What was it? A video from the archives of WGBH in Boston that showed Barack Obama being, well, Barack Obama.
In 1990, Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review and spoke at a Harvard protest that demanded diversity in hiring. Specifically, those gathered were concerned about the low number of black women who were offered tenure at the law school. The late Derrick Bell, who is considered the intellectual father of critical race theory, had announced an unpaid leave of absence from his own job as an act of protest. Bell was by then a celebrity in the world of academia; he was Harvard Law’s first tenured black professor.
Bell’s protest was one example of his many contributions to both defining equity and articulating how we can achieve it—equity often demands that those with privilege be willing to make sacrifices. Bell explained during that 1990 rally that his own sacrifice was “not intended to coerce my colleagues, but rather to honor my commitment to those responsible for my being here.” He continued: “To be candid, I cannot afford a year or more without my law school salary. But I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe, if I do not practice my own precepts.” He added that he held his esteemed position only because activist students had taken risks to create the conditions for his hire. Equity is a positive feedback loop.
A baby-faced Obama introduced Bell before he gave that speech, saying “open your hearts and open your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell.”
I know, you’re waiting for the controversy here, but that’s really it. Obama introduced Bell at the rally. He said nice things about a famous professor who was sacrificing his job in order to support women and honor the student activism that got him the job in the first place.
Actually, what’s most striking about the video is how utterly Obama he was, even two decades ago. He introduced the man most associated with critical race theory at a rally entirely about racial and gender inequity—and appears to have not mentioned racial or gender inequity. Perhaps it’s not just political caution that keeps him silent on the topic today.
Breitbart.com editors Joel Pollak and Ben Shapiro argue the clip that BuzzFeed released has been edited selectively. They got on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show last night and made hay of it. PBS’ Frontline offers the whole truth: Yes, the clip was edited—way back in 1990, by the WGBH “Ten O’Clock News” producers who created it.
Frontline in fact aired the same video in 2008, during its election coverage and as part of a program exploring Obama’s time at Harvard Law School. Before that, the video sat in WGBH’s archives as the nothing footage that it is. Obama’s comments were so bland that they didn’t even make it into the news segment WGBH aired in 1990 about the protest. But as Frontline explains, the footage still exists because “the Ten O’Clock News practice was to store completed segments as aired along with any relevant additional footage that might be useful in the future.” Frontline has been kind enough to post the entire archival reel online. Here you go:
I spell out all of these details because they illustrate two points.
One, Breitbart and his cronies have proven with this stunt—actually, re-proven—that they are deliberate and systematic liars. There is nothing secret about the Harvard protest, Obama’s speech or the WGBH footage. There never has been. All of the utterly banal details of Obama’s utterly banal remarks have been readily available for two decades and were re-visited amid the first election. But like any professional liar, Breitbart knew none of those facts mattered. All that was important was that he scream bloody murder loud enough that someone pay attention to him. That someone, of course, is Fox News, which exists primarily to amplify deliberate lies promoted online by rightwing operatives.
Second, the right’s most professional hit men seem convinced—perhaps rightly—that there’s nothing so scary as a smart black man or a smart woman. With Obama’s remarks themselves proven noncontroversial, the attack has shifted to making Bell as scary as possible—in Shapiro’s words, he’s a “close associate of Jeremiah Wright.” This is a pattern with rightwing media’s anti-academic, anti-intellectual hits. The target always seems to fit a similar profile. Derrick Bell. Francis Fox-Piven. Shirley Sherrod. Heck, even Jeremiah Wright. And remember when Michelle Obama was supposed to be the modern Angela Davis? They seek not just to stir up trouble in contemporary partisan battles, but rather to undermine the credibility of a generation-old shift in the consensus over who’s ideas are valid. Racism is a negative feedback loop.
“Derrick Bell was an intellectual giant in the legal academy,” explains Dorian Warren, a Columbia University scholar and Colorlines.com board member. “Bell established an entire field and genre of legal scholarship examining the undeniably racial foundations of American democracy and law. His scholarship is now the mainstream of legal education—from property and employment discrimination to constitutional law—taught in the very best law schools around the country.”
That’s precisely the kind of outcome Breitbart spent his ugly, dishonest public career trying to undo. Sadly, his work goes on from the grave.