Charles Ogletree and Racial Justice in the United States: Reflections on a Lecture
“It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson By Ben Gee '18
When a University sponsors the time-honored tradition of an academic Lecture, it invites a person whom, as Emerson envisions, “...in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” The intellectual world of the 21st century is dominated by mass communication and social media, by image and statistical bombardment, by the process of ceaseless revisionism. At times we feel all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, only to despair a moment later as ignorance, conspiracy, theory, reconsideration, and other forces cast doubt upon any and all knowledge we think we possess. Now more than ever, academic scholarship remains vital to society’s ability to make sense of what it understands, hopes, and wants to know. This is why the lecture is so important – it facilitates exploration of meaningful content with an enthusiastic audience, spreading and debating ideas in a profound way.
The Mudd Center for Ethics’ keynote lecture this October 1st was intended to do just that. The Center’s goal of educating its participants about “Race and Justice in America” would be very well served, all in attendance reasoned, by inviting one of the nation’s foremost African-American lawyers and Civil Rights figures, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, to deliver a lecture. The proposed title of his talk, “My Brother’s Keeper: Incarceration and African-American Men” promised an enlightening examination of one of America’s centrally disturbing racial disparities from one of its most renowned scholars.
As Ogletree began his remarks, the full Lee Chapel audience listened with rapt attention. He began by referencing a couple he had taught separately at Harvard, praising their intelligence and talents. This couple - the Obamas - and his connection to them remained one of the few main themes he had to offer throughout the duration of his hour-long speech. Those assembled listened with mounting dismay as Ogletree recounted his relationships with prominent figures, passing from anecdote to anecdote as the audience struggled to find a shred of substance. The intended topic of his talk, incarceration and African American men, received a mere casual mention as an issue that he believes needs to be solved by the next generation (his audience!). The reason he was invited to W&L was to explore that important issue and to propose, possibly controversial but still well-articulated solutions to the problem. Instead he delegated his responsibility to the audience, electing rather to speak about his life, all the important people he knows, and what role he played in the 2008 election for Obama’s campaign.
Not to say Ogletree avoided his original topic or controversy altogether – actually, he touched upon several highly polarizing subjects. Defending Jeremiah Wright’s crazed “God Damn America” line, remarking on how the only Republicans elected to Congress nowadays are conservative fanatics, praising embattled Attorney General Eric Holder’s work to improve Civil Rights (with no specific evidence to support the conjecture), making his remarks generally rife with controversy but lacking academic substance or relevance. Statements that are brazenly political advance no knowledge, replace no ignorance, inspire no intellectual passion. What those comments and their presenter did do was leave a bitterly disappointed audience behind them.
Of all those Ogletree insulted by his lack of preparedness and presentation, first among them was the Mudd Center. Its admirable and successful effort (the inaugural lecture by NYU Professor Ann Morning was excellent) to educate people about the broad issue of Race and Justice in the United States has already inspired a compelling discussion at W&L, and that mission should not have been treated superficially by Professor Ogletree. He had a duty as a speaker, and he did not follow through on it. In his remarks Ogletree may have demonstrated being in Emerson’s “…midst of the [world’s] crowd,” and very prominent members at that, but more was expected and more was required – and would be of any speaker. On Wednesday, October 22, W&L will be welcoming to campus Martha Nussbaum, Professor at the University of Chicago, to deliver a Mudd lecture on “Anger and Revolutionary Justice.” A new speaker - a new opportunity to explore this meaningful subject. It is eagerly anticipated.