Black History Month keynote speaker Charles Ogletree talks about race in America

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By Clarissa J. Walker

University of Rhode Island doctoral student

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – Wearing tennis shoes and a navy sport coat, Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. strides from his Hauser building office to the cafeteria to buy a vegetable soup medley.

“It’s a part of my New Year’s resolution. I turned 60 in December,” he says of his resurrected commitment to a veggie-laden meal plan.

“Are you going to the inauguration?” a colleague calls out across the salad bar.

“Of course.”

This is Professor Ogletree’s second trip to Washington D.C. for a President Barack Obama Inauguration.

Although he is publicly noted as a mentor to Barack and Michelle Obama, a Harvard Law School professor, a political theorist, a high-demand international lecturer and a writer, Professor Ogletree, at age 60, is likely on the cusp of actualizing his most influential moves. This public figure is an expert on the role of race in politics, education, the death penalty and the law and he has cultivated a career that reflects unprecedented accomplishment that he humbly summarizes as “fortunate.”

As we crossed the Cambridge campus in heat uncharacteristic for a Monday in January, students and colleagues summon the professor. In a citywide legal conference hosted by the law school, he greets an assembly of attorneys and lawmakers with handshakes and hugs; among them are his comrades from decades of community and legal work. In this Harvard environment, where he has been an educator, law scholar and lecturer for 30 years, his unassuming demeanor reaffirms his reputation for being an extraordinary mentor. In addition to the Obamas, several of his former students have published numerous tributes to their teacher and griot. His collegial accessibility (his nickname is “Tree”), at times, masks historic and large-scale public achievements.

He served as legal counsel for high-profile clients including Professor Anita Hill during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. In 2000, Professor Ogletree was selected by the National Law Journal as one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” and the reach of his work’s influence has garnered acknowledgement from the tiers of academia: He holds honorary doctorates of law from North Carolina Central University, New England School of Law, Tougaloo College, Amherst College, Wilberforce University, and the University of Miami School of Law. After graduating with distinction from Stanford University, Professor Ogletree received a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1978 and has served on the law school’s faculty since 1984. Currently, he is the law school’s director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and its first Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, a chair created at Harvard in 1998 to emphasize the practical aspects of the law.

His most recent publications Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty? (2012) and The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America (2010) are added to a bibliography of eight books, 11 shorter works in collections and nearly 50 articles in journals and newspapers.

The professor’s office wall chronicles his relationship with the Obamas.

“On this one we both have grey hair. Well, we both had hair then,” he says of one of the images of him and President Obama.

The Obamas’ engagements with their mentor vary from White House celebrations showing Professor Ogletree’s wife, “Pam,” and Michelle Obama, the professor and a laughing Barack; to a more private dinner at the Ogletree home when President Obama recently passed through Massachusetts.

As the University of Rhode Island prepares to host Professor Ogletree Feb. 5 as the Africana Studies Marlen S. Bodden Lecture Series speaker for Black History Month, Vanessa Wynder Quainoo, the program’s director, says that Professor Ogletree’s body of work and life’s achievements are in accord with the vision of Africana Studies and the URI community.

“I believe that Professor Ogletree’s consistency, depth and grasp on race and race relations in this country will crystallize who we are as a program and where we are going,” Professor Quainoo says. “Black History Month is certainly a time for reflection about progress. But it is also a time for us to project forward. Professor Ogletree has proven over the years that he has the strength to do both.”

For the launch of Black History Month at URI, Professor Ogletree chats with Clarissa J. Walker, a URI Rhetoric and Composition Department doctoral candidate, about the month’s significance and changes in the education landscape with regard to race and gender. He also offers a report card on the nation’s progress on becoming “a post racist” (as opposed to a “post racial”) society with the 2008 election and 2012 reelection of the country’s first black president.

On Black History Month

Clarissa: While Black History Month is a celebration of the achievements of African Americans, the month’s events encourage the participation of people from all ethnic backgrounds who benefited from the achievements of blacks in this country. Will you contextualize this national acknowledgement and offer a current definition of this celebration?

Professor Ogletree: The whole goal is to see how people of African descent, in particular after centuries of slavery, have made an enormous amount of progress in America at every single level. People who were once enslaved and who were once denied very basic American attributes like the right to vote, the right to sit on juries, the right to eat at restaurants or sleep at hotels (have been repositioned.) It has all changed as a result of political changes and law changes in the 20th century. And now we celebrate Black History Month as more of a sign of overall progress that we have made in the last two centuries rather than the very difficult and painful process of change that we saw in the three centuries before the 20th century. I think it is what Thurgood Marshall said in the 20th century: “This country is not a melting pot, but a salad bowl.” And what makes it strong is the diverse attributes of people of many descents, many immigrants who have made America as strong as it is. As we celebrate the wonders of the immigration of people from every continent coming to the United States from the 17th century and beyond, it is important to see the contributions of people of African descent who were brought here as slaves in the 16th and 17th centuries who now include leaders in industry, elected officials and the President of the United States. An important amount of progress has been made in the last three centuries – something that everyone should celebrate.

Clarissa: As this year’s URI Africana Studies Marlen S. Bodden speaker you will address a community in Rhode Island, which is only 7 percent black. How should this community position itself and position our students and our faculty to celebrate this month in 2013? In predominantly white communities, describe the most purposeful approach to Black History Month?

Professor Ogletree: Rhode Island should be happy and pleased but not satisfied that it has contributed to the diversity of its community in many respects. And it should see this as an opportunity to celebrate the contributions that people of different ethnicities can make to a community like Rhode Island. It is one of the states where many of the (slave) ships would pass through and some were constructed in Rhode Island during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, in Rhode Island, Brown University had its first African American president with Ruth Simmons who was the descendant of slaves and who undertook a careful study of reparations for slavery as a means of determining her own history, as well as making recommendations for what Brown should do to address it. And she had some pretty remarkable ideas. This celebration in February is another way of enlightening young people about the amount of progress that has been made and how far we still have to go.

On the Obamas

Clarissa: You met Barack Obama when he came to Harvard Law School in 1988. How would you describe President Obama as a student? What were the most striking qualities that you noticed in him?

Professor Ogletree: He was very smart. He was very incisive. He was incredibly collaborative. Although he was by far the smartest person in the classroom, he had a commitment to sharing both his views with others and making sure that other faculty members appreciated the contributions that others made in their responses and comments. That, to me, was not a politician, but a colleague, a peer, a friend saying that everybody has something to offer. That’s what made him great in the 1980s and that is what makes him great even now. He was willing to sacrifice his own success to make sure that those who are leading instruction appreciate that there are other brilliant, thoughtful, insightful and perceptive people in a classroom who may not be noticed in the normal give and take of a highly charged academic class.

Clarissa: Michelle Obama was a Harvard law student in 1985, three years before Barack arrived. They never crossed paths there, but they both acknowledge you as a teacher and mentor. What was Michelle like as a student and community member when you met her 28 years ago?

Professor Ogletree: She was a brilliant student who had a love for public service. I was convinced, from her work and her representation of poor clients at the Legal Aid Bureau at Harvard, that she had the ability to be a phenomenal public-interest lawyer. And, her commitment was to public service more than to making money. She and Barack didn’t meet until he began working in Chicago after his first year. I was very impressed with her from the moment I met her. And she still impresses me as someone with an enormous amount of talent and vision and incredible love and support for everybody she meets. Although, she has made it clear she is not going to run for office, she just has incredible capabilities and skills. She is a born leader. And I am not surprised at all that she continues to be at the top of world views of who are the most powerful and influential people in the world. That is who she is. Her focus on nutrition, diet health, and kids, and her commitment to military families making the transition when they come back from war, that’s the real Michelle.

On the Obama Administration and “a post racial society”

Clarissa: Since the start of the Obama administration you often mention the concept of a “post racial society.” You argue that some misguidedly believe that a black president is an indication that the country has evolved beyond socio-political tensions rooted in race disparities. In a 2009 article titled “From Dred Scott to Barack Obama,” you confirm that we are not a “post racial society.” (At best, you stated there are “ebbs and flows.”) What are the characteristics of a “post racial” society? Where are we deficient?

Professor Ogletree: I think we are deficient in the aspiration to even have a post racial society. Race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class are all things that are a part of America, a part of our collective diversity. That’s why we are called the United States, not the divided states. We shouldn’t rush to eliminate them, but try to celebrate them. In that sense, I applaud the idea of a “post racist society,” but that is different than a post racial society. It’s a reflection of the fact that people from all over the world came to America and are able to celebrate their diversity in ways that they couldn’t celebrate either in their own countries or in places where they were held captive. The strength of America is its commitment to diversity in every conceivable way. If you look at Massachusetts, no one could have imagined that this would be the state that would have the first (popularly elected) African American senator in modern history with Sen. Edward Brooke, a Republican. And, Governor Deval Patrick was elected in 2006 and reelected in 2010. At the same time, you look at Illinois where you have the first African American woman as the first senator, Carol Moseley Braun, and then Barack Obama. Seeing that same kind of diversity creeping into corporate board rooms, academic institutions, and other fields show that the doors have been opened in the last century and this one. It makes an enormous amount of difference in people’s ability to see that they can make great progress, if given an equal opportunity.

Clarissa: With what we have seen with the Obama administration since 2008 what is the revised role of race in politics? Has it changed? Where is the country headed under the leadership of the Obama administration? Are you hopeful that we will become post racist? What changes have you observed that best sustains this hope?

Professor Ogletree: I have seen some very hopeful signs along race and gender lines during the Obama administration. We have the first African American attorney general ever – who was appointed by Barack Obama. That is Eric Holder. At the same time, we have the first woman ever elected as our U.S. Solicitor General, highest-ranking lawyer in the country, Elena Kagan. Elena Kagan was a distinguished dean from Harvard Law School. There are three women on the U.S. Supreme Court now because President Barack Obama nominated and the U.S. Senate approved Sonia Sotomayor, a woman of color and a very distinguished graduate from Princeton University and Yale Law School. One of three women of color is not enough, but a significant change from what it looked like 25 years ago. When it comes to race, it seems that the disappointing point is that there is one African American slot held previously by Thurgood Marshall, who was replaced in 1991 by Justice Clarence Thomas. I expect to see other people of color including Asian Americans and Native Americans as well as other ethnicities included on the U.S. Supreme Court. We still have an incredibly long way to go. We see 21 women now in the U.S. Senate and 100 or so in the House of Representatives. In my view, the numbers in the Congressional Black Caucus are still miniscule. However, I am optimistic about what diversity will look like in the later half of the 21st century.

On the 2013 Higher Education Landscape and the University Culture

Clarissa: You have published about racial inequality and kept a watchful eye on imbalances in education admissions and enrollment over the years. For Black History Month 2013, what wisdom do you have to impart to universities that have low enrollment of students of color? What are the implications of that for all community members?

Professor Ogletree: The reality is that admitting a more diverse population is an important step all universities should consider. As I know from my own experience at private institutions like Stanford University and Harvard Law School, diversity has been an incredible plus for the reputation of the university’s undergraduate schools. And the fact that you are an Affirmative Action admittance doesn’t mean that it is going to benefit you in terms of the tests you take, the grades you receive or the jobs you get. All those things are earned on merit once you are let in the door. So the advantage of Affirmative Action is to open up opportunities to folks that didn’t exist before. Whenever we are the first, it really means we are the last. It means it has taken the institution a long time to realize it is better equipped and much more beneficial for all when it opens up its doors to the whole community.

Clarissa: As a celebrated mentor, how would you advise an instructor to nurture and best empower students – students like the Obamas and students who are not like the Obamas? What would you say to instructors who have young leaders watching them?

Professor Ogletree: Every one of us who are mentors should have as our mission and our obligation to mentor whether there is a difference in race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or other matters. Students appreciate that. My students don’t see me as a black professor. My students see me as somebody who is an open professor with ideas and goals and challenges and opportunities for them, and yet, making sure they understand that I expect them to not only be great at what they do, but be great mentors for the next generation that’s coming through the same door they went through.

Clarissa: Is it important to teach all students to talk about race in order to evolve into a post racist society? Whose responsibility is that ultimately and how should that responsibility best be accomplished? For example, in communities that are not yet as diverse, where those doors are opening, but slowly, the onus to teach students to speak about race is largely on white instructors.

Professor Ogletree: I think that’s good. I think the reality is that it is not new. It’s an historical issue. Many of us would not be where we are if it weren’t for white instructors taking on the challenge or responsibility of teaching not only themselves, but also their students, what diversity means and why it’s important. I don’t think there is a color you can put on who can teach race. It’s who has the commitment and desire to learn these complicated difficult and troubling subjects, but also convey what they learned to, not only African American students, but all students. The more you see the benefits of diverse teaching, then you will see the benefit of a diverse faculty and a diverse student body and a diverse student alumni association. The more you see diversity, the more you have to think about it. That’s where the world is going.

Clarissa J. Walker is a first-year doctoral candidate in the Writing and Rhetoric Department at the University of Rhode Island. A native of Georgia, Clarissa is a journalist and has published in the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, the Augusta Chronicle, and Pacific Daily News. Her research as a graduate student considers uses of Internet-based platforms to empower the voices of the African diaspora.

Pictured above:

Clarissa J. Walker, a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island, and Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and the keynote speaker for URI’s Black History Month. Photo courtesy of Clarissa J. Walker

Vanessa Quainoo, director of Africana Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

Photo courtesy of Professor Vanessa Quainoo