Commentary: What's in Obama's "Secret Videos" From Harvard Law School?

A "new" video of the president protesting for "class warfare" and "racial division" 21 years ago at Harvard is misleading and just plain wrong.

Posted: 03/07/2012 05:42 PM EST
Barack Obama

The right-wing conspiracy theorists are apoplectic. This time they're fuming about the discovery of a supposedly secret video that purports to show a young Barack Obama protesting for "class warfare" and "racial division" 21 years ago at Harvard.


The problem is that's not what happened. I know. I was there.


The "new" video, listed online as "Obama Protesting at Harvard in 1991," was shot by a local Boston television station long before most Americans knew Barack Obama. But since it "emerged" again on Wednesday, conservatives have been busy trying to prove that it shows the president to be a racist.


The headline on the Fox News website described the "Obama Harvard Video" as showing a "Rally for Race-Based Hiring." The Drudge Report put up a grainy old black-and-white image of Obama over a screaming tabloid headline: "BREITBART OBAMA VIDEO SET FOR RELEASE." And writer Joel B. Pollak at breitbart.com breathlessly claimed the video included "footage that has been hidden by Obama's allies in the mainstream media and academia."


One news site reported that Andrew Breitbart "was said to be working meticulously on a series of unpublished videos of Barack Obama while a student at Harvard." But this video, hiding in plain sight for two decades, is not a Breitbart video and it's not even new. It's been around for years. I saw it myself back in 2008 when an ABC reporter/producer showed it to me and asked for a comment. There wasn't much to say. It was completely harmless. Why would any Obama supporter want to hide a video that showed the young Obama was just as engaging and eloquent in law school as he is today?


Here's what really happened back then. Harvard's first tenured Black professor, Derrick Bell, had just taken a leave of absence to protest the school's failure to hire a woman of color on the faculty. I was a leader of a student group that advocated for diversity, and we held a rally to support Professor Bell, who had been a groundbreaking legal scholar and a mentor to many of us.


Obama had recently been elected as the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, and we asked him to speak at the event. He did, using simple but elegant words to pay tribute to Professor Bell's contribution to the campus and the larger legal community. He also praised Bell as "the Rosa Parks of legal education."


That was it. There was no "class warfare" and no "racial division." In fact, most of the people at the rally that day were probably white. Nor was the event really a protest. Obama's speech that day focused on his support for Bell, not on his position about Harvard's hiring policies.


Sadly, the release of this Harvard video is only the latest effort by the right wing to demonize President Obama as a closet racist. Just last week, I received a phone call from a producer of the Sean Hannity Show asking if I would come on the air to explain or defend Obama's "racially divisive" decision to create a group called "African-Americans for Obama."


The producer directed me to a little known website that posted an article accusing Obama of playing the "race card" for setting up this committee. I've been involved in presidential politics since 1984, I informed the producer, and almost every campaign I've known has set up similar affinity groups. Even Republicans like George Bush and John McCain set up committees of African-American supporters. My fellow BET columnist Michael Steele served as a leader of African-Americans for Bush in 2004. Why, suddenly, is this an issue when Barack Obama does it?


Frustrated by a disappointing Republican primary campaign and President Obama's rising poll numbers, conservatives appear to have run out of ideas and have thus resorted to old-fashioned race baiting. Apparently, they can't make a convincing argument on the economy or foreign policy, so they've retreated to the 2008 narrative of Obama as a scary racist. The trouble is most Americans now know who Barack Obama really is and they know he's nothing like the caricature the right-wingers have created in their minds.


Barack Obama clearly supported diversity at Harvard, but he was never involved in any of the sit-ins and demonstrations we held. His mere presence and his voice as a campus leader and student-scholar conveyed the message that qualified minorities did exist who could teach at Harvard.


I did not know Obama well in law school, but he always struck me as a smart, principled guy with a good-natured demeanor and temperament that allowed him to get along with anyone. Nothing in this "new" video suggests otherwise.


Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He will also be providing political commentary for BET.com each week.


 The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


BET Politics - Your source for the latest news, photos and videos illuminating key issues and personalities in African-American political life, plus commentary from some of our liveliest voices.

(Photo: BuzzFeed)

From Our Partners