Yesterday afternoon, a newly unearthed video of President Obama speaking at a rally in 1991 hit the Internet. The crowded outdoor demonstration was not about war or unions: It was about the diversity of Harvard Law School’s faculty at a time when only three professors were black and five were women. That’s right, it’s Obama protesting on behalf of working women.
Of course, the full story is slightly more convoluted than that: In the spring of 1991, Harvard had denied tenure to a black woman professor named Regina Austin. Another black professor, Derrick Bell, declared he would take a leave of absence and launch a hunger strike “until a woman of color is offered and accepted a tenured position on this faculty.”
Obama was the first black president of the school’s Law Review, and a leader on campus. Would he support Bell, who was known for a controversial legal theory emphasizing race, or would he side with the school in an issue that had become a major dustup on campus?
Obama spoke up for Bell, as the video shows, introducing him at a rally outdoors at the school’s Harkness Commons. The video is of a young Obama who nonetheless sounds very much like the president he is today, speaking to a crowd at Harvard who bear signs with slogans like “Diversity Now.” There’s nothing radical about the clip of his speech: It’s a warm, friendly, personal endorsement of Bell as a scholar and leader. “How has one man do all this? How has he accomplished all this?” Obama says. “He hasn’t done it simply by his good looks and easy charm, although he has both in equal measure.” Bell, who has looked grim until this point, breaks into a laugh.
The video immediately ignited a firestorm yesterday. Does it prove Obama’s supposed terrifying radicalism, as conservatives like the late Andrew Breitbart would like you to believe? That’s up to you to decide, although as Slate editor Dan Kois joked last night, “I bet that professor at Harvard Law School was a real crazypants bomb-thrower, like all professors at $47K/year law schools.”
But whatever you think about identity politics and the other ancient, thorny issues the video raises, it’s also something more than that: A video of the future president of the United States making a stand for gender diversity at one of the most influential workplaces in America. That matters.