The Vetting: Cassandra Butts – Bell Devotee, Obama Advisor, Judicial Scout
The story of Cassandra Butts is an important example of how Critical Race Theory and its adherents continue to shape President Barack Obama’s worldview and his administration.
At Harvard Law School from 1988-1991, Butts was one of the student advocates of Professor Derrick Bell’s strike for “faculty diversity.” She was also a fast friend of Obama’s, whose career she has helped to promote from the halls of the Harvard Law Review to the White House.
Her role in the Obama White House is not a mystery. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. noted on MSNBC on January 22, 2009–shortly after Obama’s inauguration–that Butts is “a dear, dear friend of the president” who “will watch his policy back,” and “will be willing to sort of reach out into Washington and sort of delve deeper and try to find some serious public policy answers.”
But just what sort of “policy answers” does Butts support? Her relationship with her mentor, Bell, yields some answers.
It was Butts who invited Obama to speak in front of the audience in that now infamous 1990 video in which Obama hugged Bell (Remnick 213), and it is Butts who is apparently pictured next to Bell at that rally. Bell thanked Butts in the forward to Bell’s controversial 1992 textbook, Race, Racism and American Law, for contributing research and editing. Obama later taught Bell’s texts in his own course on racism and the law at the University of Chicago Law School.
In an interview with the PBS Newshour on May 10, 1990, Butts explained the need for scholars like Bell and his radical Critical Race Theory (emphasis added):
We’re asking simply for a person of color or someone who’s underrepresented here. We’re asking for people of color who have a scholarship that has a particular perspective on the law. We’re not divorcing the fact that we’re asking for people of color from their colorship [sic] and that is the way it is being perceived. And it’s really, it’s very safe, and it’s very easy for you to make the claim that there is a diverse faculty and the diversity is a diversity of ideologies, which I would agree, but diversity goes just beyond ideology. And I think that in your perspective, and until you know what it’s like to be a person of color here and not have a, a woman of color I should say, and not have representation here on the faculty, it’s difficult, it’s impossible for you to see my position.
Such a position is in keeping with Derrick Bell’s more pessimistic teachings on the permanence of racism, and raises doubts about whether racial reconcilation is possible.
Butts all but worshipped her teacher, Bell. Butts told The Pittsburgh Press on July 1, 1990 that Bell was an “inspiring teacher” who was “especially supportive of a student group that held two campus sit-ins earlier [in 1990] to urge the hiring of a minority woman law professor.” Butts went on to describe Bell’s decision to leave Harvard for New York University as “a big loss for [Harvard] law school.”
“He is very special and we need him there,” Butts said. “But we also need what he is asking for.”
(The same article quoted Randall L. Kennedy, “a black professor at Harvard Law School,” as stating that Bell’s writings “reveal significant deficiencies,” and that Bell had failed to show evidence of racial exclusion or that black scholars produced “racially distinctive” research.)
Butts continued Bell’s mission in her career in politics and public service. For example, she defended race-based affirmative action tenaciously. “It is essential that any amendment to limit affirmative action in admissions be defeated,” Butts told Higher Education and National Affairs in 1998, when she was advising Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO).
Butts has also cited America’s alleged structural racism as a critical factor in America’s health care disparities. In 2004, when she worked for the left-wing Center for American Progress, she wrote an op-ed entitled, “Bush and Race: Policies Matter,” accusing Bush of an “assault on the interests of people of color” for declining to propose broad health care reform.
Throughout, Obama remained very close to Butts, as he had been since law school. According to David Remnick, author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, the future president “engaged in [the affirmative action debate] with some passion at the [Harvard] Law Review“ (Remnick 215). While at Harvard, Butts wrote a critique of an anti-affirmative action book, The Content of Our Character, by black conservative Shelby Steele, which ran in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in 1991. Obama, according to Remnick, helped Butts with the piece, even though she was the general editor of the review.
The two shared a circle of friends, as Politiconoted in 2008, and a vision for how the world worked. As she later told the Chicago Tribune on January 17, 2008, Butts and Obama would spend time together “just sitting around and talking about how we were going to change the world…How do you take this thing we’re learning in law school and make a difference on the issues we care about?”
Despite the supposed permanence of racism, Butts soon found a welcome home for her views in the Democratic Party and in liberal Washington think tanks.
Butts began her time in Washington as legislative counsel to Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, and assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She went on to serve as both deputy director and general counsel of the Democratic Policy Committee under then-House Minority Leader Gephardt, a position she described to The Washingtonian in September 2001 as being “Gephardt’s eyes and ears.” As Gephardt’s expert on information technology and judiciary issues, she became the Democratic Caucus’s counsel during the Clinton impeachment hearings. She also advised Gephardt in his 2004 bid for the presidency.
When Obama won election to the Senate in 2004, Butts took two months off as a senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress to help him establish his Senate office. That advice continued during his time in the Senate, where Butts would meet Obama once a month for dinner, according to The Washington Post (November 24, 2008).
She advised Obama’s campaign on policy and outreach–especially financially–to Harvard Law School alumni. When Obama was elected president, Butts served as general counsel to his transition team, then as his White House staff secretary, helping to pick who would serve in the White House with him. She later served as White House Deputy General Counsel.
Butts was also instrumental in convincing other alumni to support Obama’s candidacy. Butts introduced Obama to Broderick Johnson, a black lobbyist and film producer who has since signed on to help re-elect Obama, and to Thomas J. Perrelli, who, until this February, served as Obama’s associate attorney general. Perrelli also allegedly ordered career attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division to drop a civil case against members of the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation in the 2008 election.
(We don’t know exactly what Butts’s involvement in the infamous case may have been, but it does seem to have ended her hitherto meteoric rise in Democratic politics. Whereas once she was tipped to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–a position once held by Clarence Thomas–she instead went off to become Senior Advisor to the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s CEO.)
Butts also worked with the Holder DOJ to stop anti-fraud voter I.D. laws, which she had long opposed at the Center for American Progress, providing intellectual heft behind the controversial policy that still remains a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s agenda, legally and politically.
Crucially, at the White House, Butts was trusted to put Obama’s stamp on the judiciary. According to The Washington Post, she “spent lots of time” filling 69 vacant judicial spots.
One of those candidates for the judiciary she selected was Sonia Sotomayor, who provoked controversy when she suggested that a “wise Latina,” by nature of her race and gender, would hand down better decisions than a white man in some circumstances. Butts was, according to The Frontrunner, “heavily involved” in Sotomayor’s vetting (The Frontrunner, June 2, 2009). At her confirmation hearing, Sotomayor reported that she had “near daily phone calls” with Butts in the month after Justice Souter resigned (McClatchy-Tribune News Service, June 4, 2009).
Butts was not the only practioner or supporter of Critical Race Theory in the Obama administration. There was also Preeta Bansal, who served as Obama’s General Counsel at Office of Management and Budget and Senior Policy Advisor until 2011. Bansal is also a leader at the American Constitution Society (ACS), a group that, contrary to its name, believes in a “living Constitution” and supports radical critiques of the document. Bansal even co-authored a 1988 Yale Law Review article with none other than Bell himself; the article that suggests white racism was at the heart of the Reagan Revolution.
Still another supporter of Critical Race Theory is Gilda Daniels, a former Obama DOJ official who opposed voter I.D. laws. According to J. Christian Adams’s indispensable book, Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department, Daniels has argued that DOJ resources shouldn’t be expended to bring serial voting fraudsters like Ike Brown to justice for deliberately canceling ballots cast by white voters.
A lucidly written and compelling work, Our Undemocratic Constitution asks hard questions about the nature of our founding document. Levinson, who is one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars, argues here that much about the Constitution stands in need of dramatic change. This is a timely and important book, and our country would benefit if its ideas provoked real debate.
In sum, Butts and many of her friends and associates have long seen American politics through a Bell-style radical prism, sharing a belief in the permanence of racism and/or the need for radical transformation of the Constitution.
Butt’s mentor, it should be noted, did not see the election of Barack Obama to the Harvard Law Review as indicative of any real change in race relations.
Likewise, despite the wishes that Obama would be a “post-racial” president, Butts toldThe Wall Street Journal just days after Obama’s election that he doesn’t consider himself “post-racial.”
“When people say that, they seem to suggest that we are beyond the issue of race, that issues of race don’t matter,” she said. “I don’t think that is necessarily the case. I don’t think Barack considers himself post-racial in that way. He will tell you he thinks race does matter.”
Having worked to remake the judicial branch in harmony with Bell’s theories, Butts is now at work remaking American development aid as Obama’s appointee to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, doling out millions in American taxpayer dollars.
She is both a symptom, and a cause, of the important role Critical Race Theory plays in the Obama administration’s governance.