If you believe in equal justice, you're a "black radical"

We all know by now about the "radical hug" between Harvard Law Review President Barack Obama and the only contemporary tenured black professor at Harvard, Derrick Bell. The big "bombshell" moment is that two black intellectuals (didn't that just make a chill go down your spine?) embraced. Student Obama introduced a professor who was protesting the lack of ethnic diversity on campus.

The Right's "OMG Obama is a black radical" meme that's being fed here has two parts in this particular incarnation: first, portraying Professor Bell as a black radical, and second, intimating that Barack Obama too is a black radical - guilty by association with Prof. Bell. Neither of these narratives is true, of course. As Prof. Melissa Harris Perry pointed out on her segment on this subject on MSNBC yesterday, President Obama is being convicted in the court of conservative thought of the unforgivable crime of hugging a black man.



We are all aware that every word spoken by every person you have ever locked arms in a cause with is not your responsibility. But while the Breitbartians are busy digging up disagreeable things that Prof. Bell said outside of that rally (like his apparent qualified praise of Louis Farrakhan a few years after the rally at Harvard) to foist on President Obama as if he had said those things himself, I think that it's important to note just what about that particular rally that conservatives find so... radical. Evidently, it is the battle for racial social justice that is a 'black radical' idea.

What the Late Professor Bell subscribed to is a theory race consciousness that involved combating institutionalized racism rather than just legal discrimination or personal racism. Prof. Bell is known as the father of critical race theory, which challenged certain notions of race-neutral justice.
It’s an academic movement that looks at society and the law through a racial lens, and these days it’s more controversial than radical. The theory came around in the 1970s and ’80s as Bell and other law professors and activists became disillusioned with the results of the civil rights movement. Though blacks had supposedly gained equality before the law, they pointed out that whites continued to wield disproportionate power and enjoy superior standards of living. Classical liberal ideals such as meritocracy, equal opportunity, and colorblind justice, they 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—sometimes expressed through accidental slights, as when a white person praises a black person as “clean” and “articulate”—would keep minorities down.
One need not agree in entirety with the whole of critical race theory to recognize the immense value in it. I, for example, do believe that meritocracy, equal opportunity, and truly colorblind justice are goals worthy of pursuing and attaining as a country. But there is no denying deep-seated institutionalized racism, the social and institutional consistency of white privilege, and the devastation of minority communities through desperately insufficient resources. From black inner city schools vs. schools in wealthy white suburbs to institutions of higher education, media, law, government and business, white privilege is looking you in the eye.

There are those whose very political being rests upon denying white privilege and institutional racism even as they reap the benefits of it themselves. There is a whole political party in this country that thrives on the southern strategy - a political strategy based on outright racism, denying white privilege, and portraying measures to address deep social and political inequities as "reverse racism." For these institutions and individuals, any discussion of racial inequality is 'radical,' just as any discussion of economic disparities is 'class warfare.' For these folks, that Barack Obama is black and president is bad enough, but that he dared to support a call for diversifying a faculty that had only one tenured black professor is absolutely outrageous.

And so here we are with a desperate attempt to start a race war by the Breitbartians and the Fox "News" people. Oh, they are talking radical alright. They are talking about a few 'radical' notions: the first 'radical' notion is white privilege. Secondly, in their view, it is 'radical' to simply point out institutionalized racism. Their third and final 'radical' notion is intellectualism in discussing the issues of race.

"Black radical" - the term these conservative media outlets are using to describe Prof. Bell, and by association, President Obama - is nothing more than a thinly veiled synonym for "uppity nigger." It is meant to limit the movement for racial equity to minorities only, denying the immense contributions of - and trying to end the future participation of - white people who have dedicated their lives to equal justice. It is meant to demean, delegitimize, and marginalize minorities (especially African Americans) demanding equal justice. It is meant to shut down any meaningful evaluation of socio-economic public policies that perpeuate institutional racism. And in no small part, it is directed to delegitimize President Obama by scaring old southern white people of smart black people.


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