[UF LAW eNews - a publication of the Levin College of Law @ the University of Florida]

Home | Print article | Contact eNews

Harvard's Ogletree welcomed for CSRRR spring lecture, discusses today's racial issues

Charles Ogletree

Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree spoke Thursday at UF Law on race issues in America today. (Photo by Nicole Safker)

By Nicole Safker (2L)

People don't normally expect to be arrested on their front porch on suspicion of burglarizing their own home.

But that is precisely what happened to a prominent African-American Harvard law professor in 2009.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct on the porch of his Cambridge, Mass., home after a confrontation with a police officer. The police officer had responded to a dispatch call made after a woman observed two men attempting to force a door open. The two men were Gates and his driver, and they were struggling to open the door because of a faulty lock.

The case raised issues at the intersections of race and class, and the constitutionally required presumption of innocence by the justice system. Gates' situation also cast serious doubt on the notion of America as a post-racial society.

It is the validity of that assumption — that Americans are treated the same regardless of the color of their skin — that served as fodder for Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr.'s talk last Thursday at UF Law. Ogletree was invited to campus to give the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations' (CSRRR) 8th Annual Spring Lecture.

About 120 students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom as Ogletree shared his unique perspective in his lecture, "Are We in A Post-Racial Society? Race in America Today."

Not only has Ogletree made a name for himself as a prominent legal theorist, criminal defense attorney and an influential champion of civil rights, he has written and lectured widely on issues of racial profiling, capital punishment, reparations and juvenile justice. He is currently the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard.

Ogletree first discussed the issue of a post-racial America in the context of his relationship with President Barack Obama and future wife Michelle Obama (born Robinson) while the two were Ogletree's students at Harvard Law School.

"(President Obama) had a vision that everyone has a voice in government ," Prof. Ogletree said. "That same idea that everyone's voice counts; that became part of his legend."

The year 2008 was a turning point for social and political relations in America. But, Ogletree said, Obama's election prompted the birth of a risky argument — furthered by politicians, lawmakers and citizens alike – that since Americans now have a black president, "we have overcome the vestiges of the past, and now we're in a post-racial America," and this new America can now safely abolish hard-fought protections and benefits intended to help place minorities on equal ground – such as the Voting Rights Act.

Obama also espouses the ideal of a post-racial society, but for a different reason. "It's amazing to see how race becomes a conundrum that undermines most of what he hopes to do because his campaign was based on (the idea that) race doesn't matter," Ogletree said.

Ogletree combined the experience of Gates with discussion of the possibility of a post-racial society in his most recent book, "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America."

After the talk, Ogletree met with students and others and signed copies of his book.

Professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the Center of Race and Race Relations, said the objective of the spring lecture is to "celebrate and recognize scholarship that focuses unblinkingly on race." She said that through Ogletree's diverse body of work, "he shows not just that race matters, but how and for whom and why all of us should care."

Russell-Brown said everyone involved was pleased with the turnout, which was the largest of any CSRRR spring lecture. The ability of Ogletree to speak to many different audiences and appeal to many different points of view was a main reason for the event's success, she said.

"Professor Ogletree has the deep respect of his colleagues, students, friends and family and it's a high compliment to say that someone speaks truth to power. It's appropriate to say that he also speaks the truth powerfully, both to those in power and to those less than powerful," Russell-Brown said.