Andrew Breitbart's last gotcha was to bring to public attention a film clip of a law student speaking in support of Derrick Bell. Bell was the first African American to win tenure at Harvard Law School. The student, of course, was a young Barack Obama.
I haven't read any of Bell's writings in a long time, though I once used his book Faces At The Bottom Of A Well: The Persistence of Racism, in a course called Minority Politics. I don't have the text in front of me right now, but I recall thinking that Bell was a gifted writer and thinker and that his work was both readable and thought provoking. To put it mildly, I did not find it convincing.
The late Professor Bell was a proponent of Critical Race Theory. The word "critical" links it to an especially impressionistic version of Marxism. Here is a sample explanation from the UCLA School of Public Affairs:
CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal "truth" by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege. CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.
Those first two sentences reveal the heart of the idea. It wouldn't matter if there were not a single genuine racist left in America (as of course, there are). Racism could still be "engrained in the fabric and system of American society," and "pervasive in the dominant culture." This relieves the CRT scholar from any need to actually demonstrate racism on the part of anyone he or she chooses to criticize.
Critical Race Theory is not a theory at all, except in the sense that conspiracy theories are theories. The point is not to build a set of hypotheses organized around a general idea in order to tell you what evidence to look for, as genuine theories do. The point of CRT is to build a narrative that is both politically powerful and immune to evidence. Critical theorists are contemptuous of the very idea of science. All theories are merely "narratives" that serve the will to power of one group against others.
For a brief but devastating judgment on this, I offer Peter Wood from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Critical race theory has next to nothing going for it as a descriptive analytic of how American jurisprudence works. It doesn't fit the facts of American life from Brown v. the Board of Education, to court enforcement of the Voting Rights Acts, the Civil Rights Act, or hundreds of other pieces of legislation. Critical race theory is weirdly and wildly wide of the mark in either explaining how Americans have made and interpreted their laws for at least the last fifty years, and arguably long before that. CRT might have been useful as a historical frame for interpreting the Jim Crow era, but even then it fails to provide any sort of reasonable account of the 14th Amendment and Reconstruction.
That would be the problem. Of course CRT cannot tell us anything useful about the actual history and nature of the law, for its entire modus operando is to bend whatever it sees until it fits its "analytical lens." I would go further than Wood to point out that it is insulting to all those magnificent people, both Black and White, who struggled fearlessly to push the Civil Rights agenda and who sometimes gave their lives for it. CRT is both intellectually and morally pernicious.
All that said, does it matter that Barack Obama once stood up and spoke on behalf of Professor Bell? No. You can't tell anything about Obama from his brief remarks other than the fact that he was already a very good public speaker and that he admired Professor Bell. What he thought about Bell or Critical Race Theory isn't evident from his remarks.
Even if he was a CRT believer at that point, he was still a law student for Heaven's sake! Students in graduate institutions are typically young. They are immersed in an intense, frequently concentrated intellectual culture. They spend most of their time talking to their professors and other students. What happens after they leave that rarified atmosphere is what matters.
To be sure, if someone unearthed a tape of young Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum endorsing some whacky right wing theorist, you can bet that would be front page news at the New York Times. It is nonetheless stupid for conservatives to try to use Obama's association with Bell against him. No one is likely to care much, nor should they. It is only a distraction from the real issues that might matter in the present campaign.