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Remarks at launch of Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Let me, before I say anything else, thank Professor Ogletree for his leadership, for his dedication, for his commitment to tackling some of the most important questions facing our society. Charles Ogletree is the reason that we are here today, and we all owe him a profound debt of gratitude for all the work he has done to bring this Institute into being. But much, much more, Charles, we owe you a debt of gratitude, and many beyond these walls, owe you a debt of gratitude for what the Institute is going to accomplish in the years ahead.

You know, two years ago, when I had the great privilege of appointing Elena Kagan as dean, former Dean Bob Clark and I discussed what the appropriate shared professorship would be to bestow upon Elena in order to emphasize the importance of her appointment as dean and reflect the changing nature of the Law School in the 21st century. We settled on the Charles Hamilton Houston Professorship, a professorship named not for a famous justice of the Supreme Court, nor for a generous alumnus, but a professorship named for a man whose life has had a profound impact on our society. There is no more fitting professorship for the dean of Harvard Law School to hold.

Today, Charles Hamilton Houston’s legacies and name take on a significance that remains with all of us. His name and the institute it graces will serve as a constant reminder that his work is not done and we must not rest until there is equality and opportunity in our country. This Institute will be Charles Hamilton Houston’s living legacy.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the family of Charles Hamilton Houston for being here. As you know better than anyone, your father, or your grandfather as the case may be, has been an inspiration to so very many people.

Almost 12 years ago in Memphis, President Bill Clinton famously asked what Martin Luther King Jr. would have said if he had been present on that day. As I was reflecting on this event, I tried to ask myself a parallel question: I wondered what Charles Hamilton Houston would say if he were to appear at this podium and have an opportunity to let us know how he felt about everything that has happened in the 83 years since he graduated from Harvard Law School. I think he would tell us that we have much to be proud of.

He would tell us that he was thankful that the torch he lit so long ago was still being carried forward by Professor Ogletree, by Professor Guinier who I see over there, and many other members of the Harvard Law School faculty.

He would tell us that he was pleased that the experience of being an African-American law student was much less lonely than it had been in his day, especially this year, with 13 percent of our entering class being African American.

He would be proud that African-American women had taken their rightful place besides African-American men as students and graduates of this law school.

And I think he would be grateful that the civil rights victories he and his contemporaries fought so hard for have borne fruit and inspired successive generations in the fight for genuine equality. And he would surely be proud that it was many graduates of this law school who had carried the banner forward in the generations that succeeded him.

But I don’t think that that is all he would say. He would remind us of what every African-American member of this community knows all too well: that prejudice remains in who is asked for their ID and who is not asked for their ID when they enter buildings on this campus. That prejudice remains in who is searched in the nation’s airports when they come and go. That prejudice remains in countless ways, small and large, that affect every human interaction. He would remind us of studies at this university – and similar studies have been done at many other universities – that demonstrate that the same resume, sent to employers in America, with a typically African-American name often elicits a different response than that same resume sent with a typically Caucasian name.

He would remind us that for all the promise of Brown, the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students persists and is not shrinking at the rate we would like to see. That despite everything he did to lead others down the path, the United States still has an educational system that has profoundly unequal outcomes.

He would remind all of us at a great university, a university committed above all else to education, that the clock is ticking on Justice O’Connor’s admonition that she expects that, “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”

He would remind us that the struggle for equal opportunity and civil rights is far from finished. He would tell us that everything he and his peers managed to achieve, despite all of that, too many African-Americans are still denied a truly equal opportunity to participate in the politics of this country by voting at the polls and having that vote counted just the same as everyone else’s.

He would remind us that too many African-American children will gain first-hand experience with institutes of correction when they should be attending institutes of higher education – that far too many schools serve as a pipeline to prison instead of college.

He would remind us that for all the wonders of our market economy, 25 percent of African Americans do not have a bank account. And, I believe if he were speaking to us, he would tell us to look at our TV screens and ponder the images of New Orleans.

And I believe he would express the hope that if the events in the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s spurred a nation forward, and if what became manifest in Appalachia in the early 1960s spurred a nation forward, so too what we have seen in the Gulf region, must spur a nation forward. Not just because of the tragic handling of that situation, but much more because of what all of those images laid bare about our society.

If we are to be true to Charles Hamilton Houston’s legacy to this law school, we will need to address through this Institute, through this law school and through this University, all of these questions in new and compelling ways. That’s why I am so excited about the plans that Charles has described for this Institute. The way in which the Institute will bring together leading experts to discuss solutions to the problems of the achievement gap; seek new ways to address the vast inequalities in our nation’s educational system and the relationship between these inequalities and incarceration rates; work to apply scientific methods to establish questions of innocence or guilt; examine questions of immigration and criminal justice in collaboration with government agencies; and analyze the state of voting rights in this country.

And if I know Charles Ogletree, the Institute will be in the vanguard of thinking about the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, as well. This is an important day for Harvard Law School, an important day for Harvard University. I salute the Houston legacy and pledge the University’s commitment to this vitally important venture.

Thank you.