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 reconciliation 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.