Friday, February 12, 2010

On Gilligan's Island, Professor Meant... Professor

It's quotes like the ones by Charles Ogletree that make me wonder about whether the value of my law school degree is declining...
Barack Obama has been called a lot of things since he hit the national stage: Celebrity, elitist and even one who “pals around with terrorists.” But as his poll numbers come back down to earth, and an emboldened conservative movement sharpens its attacks, the label that seems to be sticking to Obama as much as any lately is that of “professor.”

Speaking to Tea Party activists in Nashville last week, Sarah Palin did her part to keep the “professor” dig in circulation.

"They know we're at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern,” the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee told a frenzied crowd.

...Watching the “professor Obama” label bandied about again, one of the president’s longtime mentors says he doubts it will gain traction outside of Tea Party rallies. Taken to its logical conclusion, the message just doesn’t make sense, says Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard professor who has known Obama since he was a law student there.

“I think anyone who examines it closely and carefully will see this type of criticism of Obama will ultimately be counterproductive,” Ogletree says. “Do you want to tell your children we don’t want smart people in government?”

Ogletree, founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says he sees the “professor” label as a thinly veiled attack on Obama’s race. Calling Obama “the professor” walks dangerously close to labeling him “uppity,” a term with racial overtones that has surfaced in the political arena before, Ogletree said. Describing his divisive confirmation hearings as a “circus,” Justice Clarence Thomas called the proceedings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.…” It is perhaps ironic, then, that Ogletree, who represented Anita Hill when she made harassment allegations against Thomas in 1991, now sees a bit of the “uppity” label being placed on Obama.

“The idea is that he’s not one of us,” Ogletree says of the professor label. “He has these ideas that are left wing, that are socialist, that he’s palling around with terrorists -- those were buzzwords, but the reality was they were looking at this president as an African American who was out of place.”
A few points, if I may...

1. President Obama is/was a Con Law professor. I can't really say whether he was any good at it, but he was a professor. If it's racist to call him professor, even though that was his job, it might also be racist to refer to him as a former state legislator and Senator. To be fair, calling someone a "Senator" nowadays is pretty demeaning, since it means you belong to the same club as John Kerry.

2. When I think "professor", I think of Gilligan's Island and college, usually in that order. I don't think of people palling around with terrorists, nor do I think of professor as a buzzword for making me think of that. When people want to reference President Obama palling around with terrorists, they simply need to say the name William Ayers.

3. Actually, I want smart people in business more than government. But I want them in government as well. But smarts aren't just obtained working in academia -- real world practical experience would be helpful. One of the problems with president Obama and his coterie of advisors is that most of them have spent the vast majority of their careers working in government or the public sector. The lack of private sector experience means that they may not have the perspective to relate to problems being experienced by people in the private sector. That has little to do with book smarts. It also has nothing to do with race.

4. I have no idea how calling someone "professor" translates into calling them "uppity." I agree it can be a derogatory term, in that it translates to calling someone an "egghead." I've never seen anyone say "egghead" is a racist term, although I don't know what Professor Ogletree would say about it.

5. Full disclosure: I was once a student at HLS and interacted with Professor Ogletree. I like him a lot. I just think his ideas may be loopy. I hope saying that doesn't make me a racist.

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