Derrick Bell was a compassionate scholar and intellectual force. He was a champion of civil rights for African Americans, but with unwavering commitment, pursued racial and social justice for all Americans. His analysis of race and racism was insightful, poignant and disturbing because of its raw truthfulness.
Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1991), Derrick Bell’s seminal analysis of race, describes racism as “an integral, permanent and Indestructible component of this society.” He argues that no matter what policies are adopted to better Blacks’ condition, they will not succeed as long as the majority of whites do not see their well-being threatened by the status quo.
He reminds us, “Our forbearers, though betrayed into bondage, survived the slavery in which they were reduced to things, property and entitled to neither respect nor rights. Somehow, they managed to retain their humanity and their faith that evil and suffering were not the extent of their destiny……We must do no less than they did, i.e., fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face and enables us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed living and humane service.”
On the contemporary relevance of racism, Bell asserted that during slavery, racism’s terrifying dangers, although exclusively from without, were hardly more insidious than those Blacks face today, indirectly, especially in inner cities. “Victimized by a callous, uncaring society, many young Black men vent their rage on others like themselves, thereby perpetuating a terror once invoked only by whites.”
Bell insisted America’s myth of automatic progress never included the marginalized: “Blacks, the poor and others whom the myth ignores, are conspicuously in the center of current conservative race-based tirades. Slaves had no choice but to accept their fate. De-legitimizing the racism of the white majority first requires accurately describing it; racism remains at the center, not the periphery of the lives of everyone in America.” He firmly believed that in order to extract lessons from slaves’ survival, as well as our own, we must first honestly face the horrific oppression, in that survival, with the kind of commitment that Black people have had to display since slavery.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 2011), Derrick Bell: The Scholar Remembered by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, recalls “his pursuit of racial and social justice and dogged critique of liberal incrementalism in universities and elsewhere that was like a persistent wind that changed the landscape of law schools and influenced the larger academic world, as well.” Bell was one of the pioneers of critical race theory, which challenged liberalism for failing to go far enough in opposing the entrenched interests that historically benefitted from the racial caste system. According to that theory, the defining elements of postwar racial liberalism were its pragmatic devotion to a single strategy of litigation, static view of American racism, and its focus on top-down social reform, which emphasized the corrosive effect of individual prejudice and the importance of interracial contact in promoting tolerance.
As an early proponent of the theory, Bell freed scholars from an old fashioned reliance on fixed racial categories and introduced the idea that “race” was a verb, not just a noun. Thus, people are “raced” by the larger society rather than simply by their genetic make-up. Thus, litigation alone would not produce significantly new and inventive policy solutions.
Judicial decisions by themselves, in Bell’s view, were never enough to produce social change. Even the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education did not escape his critique of the limits of the law. He argued that the attorneys in Brown, and their liberal allies, enabled the Justices to consider the effects of racial discrimination without fundamentally disrupting the privileges enjoyed by upper- and middle-class whites. Therefore, he penned a hypothetical dissent that illustrated that Brown, failed to confront the true meaning of separate but equal.
“Derrick Bell traversed the world of ideas with the practitioner’s know-how, a lawyer’s aptitude for controversy, a professor’s appreciation of rigor, a rock-solid integrity and an abiding passion for justice.” We should all heed Derrick Bell’s admonition that “combating racism calls for engagement and commitment, first recognizing and acknowledging (at least to our ourselves) that our actions are not likely to lead to transformative change. However, renewed dedication will result in policies and sustained efforts that are less likely to worsen our condition and more likely to convey to the powers that be that we are not only against them, but determined to stand in their way.”
Derrick Bell believed strongly that race transcends the cult of its denial and despite contemporary camouflage its manifestations are no less ubiquitous, “This society is based on the power of the majority to control others, principally on the basis of race and ethnicity and failure to acknowledge the continuing role of race ensures its prominence.”
Blacks, in particular, should acknowledge the pre-eminence of race and lead the fight for alternatives to its pervasive acceptance as irrevocable.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.