How Much Did Bell Influence Obama's Ideology?

Remember this audio of a then-State Senator Obama speaking on civil rights and the courts on a Illinois radio station? Back during the 2008 campaign, the interview became a topic of discussion mainly centered on whether or not Obama is/was a socialist. Given the new attention being paid to Obama's relationship with radical Harvard professor Derrick Bell, some of the things said during the interview have a lot more context.

Could this be one of the reasons why Obama's relationship with Bell was downplayed?

Our friends over at Media Matters, in their attempt to prove people were calling Obama a socialist with no evidence, transcribed the full audio for us, so it pleases me to use their research staff's work so I don't have to do it myself. Also, the original, longer, audio clip isn't available as far as I can tell, and I couldn't transcribe the whole thing if I wanted.

Let's look at what Obama said about the Warren Court:

OBAMA: Right, and it essentially has never happened. I mean, I think that, you know, if you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order in, as long as I could pay for it, I'd be OK. But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.

Remember, back in 2008 the debate was about Obama's socialist leanings. All we really knew about about his background was that he had grown up around avowed Marxists. The "misinformation" Media Matters was allegedly correcting was a comment made by Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, where he said Obama claimed the Warren Court wasn't "radical enough." Media Matters claims this was false because Obama didn't actually say the words "radical enough." A farcical debunking, considering Obama essentially said what Scarborough stated, just not in the exact same words.

And, to that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it's been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted it in the same way that, generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties -- says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf, and that hasn't shifted.

As you can see, Obama clearly felt that the Court wasn't radical enough. In his view, the court didn't "break free" from the constraints placed by the Founding Fathers. Of course, Media Matters would argue that Obama's inclusion of the word "essential" before "constraints" indicates he wasn't saying the court was radical enough. But the next paragraph shows that Scarborough was right in how he characterized Obama's comments:

And one of the -- I think the tragedies of the civil rights movement was, because the civil rights movements became so court-focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing, and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change. And, in some ways, we still suffer from that.

Clearly, Obama would have preferred that the Warren Court was more radical. He sort of hedges his comments by saying that the real power comes from political and community organizing, but you don't say "we still suffer from that" if you don't feel that the courts and, by extension, the law, aren't adequate enough to provide the kind of change needed.

Now go back and read the three excerpts again.

Does it sound familiar? Recall this conversation is about the Civil Rights movement and the Courts. As we now know, but didn't know much about back during the 2008 election because the relationship wasn't explored, Derrick Bell was equally frustrated with the courts' ability to move the Civil Rights movement forward as much as he would like.

It's seems the young Obama really took Bell's teachings to heart. He wasn't kidding when he said Bell had spoken "truth" to him in the now widely viewed video. Why did the media downplay the video in 2008? Why are they desperately trying to downplay it now?

Perhaps they didn't want people asking what else Obama learned from Professor Bell. Maybe they didn't want Bell's radical and controversial words to be used to analyze Obama's words as I did above. Did/does Obama believe that this country's laws are inherently racist and designed to perpetuate white supremacy, as Professor Bell believed?

These questions weren't asked in 2008. Hopefully, Soledad O'Brien's reaction to the tapes isn't an indication of whether or not the media will fail to ask these questions in 2012. It's okay, though.

We will.


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