Breitbart's Site Got Barack and Bell Wrong

Let's hope they have more video, because hug-gate just shows that once upon a time, Obama was black.

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I have a confession to make to the folks at Breitbart.com: I'm a biracial lawyer married to a black woman who is both better looking and more popular than I am. I've never served in the Illinois state Legislature, but I was in North Carolina on Wednesday. I've never hugged, or even met, the late former Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell. But I have heard of him. Sound familiar?

If I were taller, richer and smarter and killed Osama bin Laden last year, I could be Barack Obama.

Alas, I'm not. But if you factor in attendance at a few college diversity rallies in the '90s, I could be almost any middle-class black person you know.

Which is where Breitbart.com went wrong this week with its breathless release of archival video showing then-law student, now-President Obama introducing the controversial but well-respected Bell at a campus protest in 1990. The question isn't "What's Obama doing there?" -- it's "If you weren't there, then what were you doing?"

The video, which shows Obama warmly praising Bell and later hugging him, is meant to reignite a Rev. Jeremiah Wright-like controversy -- portraying Obama as the closet radical and reverse racist that the far right always told you he was. After all, Bell, a tenured Harvard professor, once wrote a civil rights parable (later made into an HBO short film) that had space aliens, Jews and slaves in it. Surely, then, Obama is racist.

Forward to the 6:33 mark and judge for yourself.

Watch Obama Speaks at Harvard Law in '90 on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

For now I'll let someone else critique Bell's oeuvre. Although I once took a seminar in critical race theory, the discipline for which Bell was known, I'm not exactly an expert. I took an incomplete and turned the paper in a whole semester late (true story). The point here is that if you were a black student at a major university in the '90s, you were in or around these kinds of debates all the time.

That's even true of black conservatives. If former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele had been at my school back then, I'm guessing he would have been at those sit-ins, too, way in the back, checking out the girls while pretending to read Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character.

Add in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Amistad, and you've pretty much got the 1990s covered.

Even for those who think that demonstrating for faculty diversity is an overwrought, politically correct and possibly elitist endeavor, you'd really have to strain to turn the issue into some sort of indictment of Obama. Presumably the folks at Breitbart.com -- and Fox News' Sean Hannity, who gave the video a prime-time airing -- aren't against free speech. And presumably they don't believe in guilt by association. Obama and Bell were friends, but that doesn't mean Obama's worldview involves space aliens, Jews and slaves.

Maybe the best way to understand just how unnewsworthy the hug video is is to imagine how Obama's two best-known liberal black detractors, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, might react to it. I can't say for sure, but they'd probably rip Obama for showing up to give a speech without having demonstrated any genuine commitment to the issue of faculty diversity. After all, Obama was busy studying and editing the Harvard Law Review. Surely, then, Obama is a sellout.

Again, judge for yourself.

Knowing the way that Breitbart.com slowly brings along its scoops, you can expect me to have egg on my face later on when they release videos of Obama cussing out his mother, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, voting for Michael Dukakis and eating well-spiced Pakistani food while drinking -- James O'Keefe style -- from a ruby-encrusted pimp chalice.

Which, apparently, makes him -- and me -- un-American. You see, I've done all those things, too.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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