Derrick Bell’s parables of despair

THE DERRICK BELL READER edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic (2005)

I’ve been reading up on critical race theory to prepare for a presentation I’m going to do Sept. 21 at a Zoom meeting at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y.

At the time I agreed to do the presentation, I’d read a college textbook called Critical Race Theory: an Introduction.

I thought I understood the topic reasonably well, although I was turned off by the authors’ rejection of ideas that I hold hear—liberalism, universalism, the possibility of solidarity across racial lines.

Since then I’ve been reading more about the topic, and especially works of the late  Derrick A. Bell Jr., who is considered the father of this school of thought.

Although I haven’t changed my mind about CRT,  I have come to respect Bell and take his ideas and the ideas of his followers more seriously than before. 

Bell had a distinguished career as a civil rights lawyer for the U.S. government and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a second distinguished career as a law school professor, scholar and writer.

Bell was the first African-American to be a tenured professor at Harvard Law School.  He resigned in 1992 in protest against Harvard’s failure to hire a black woman as a tenured law school professor. 

The video above shows young Barack Obama, then a Harvard law school student, speaking at a protest in support of Prof. Bell.  The video then segues into a review of Bell’s life.

Bell thought that racism is baked into the white American mind.  The only times that African-Americans advance is when these advances benefit elite white people, and such advances are small and temporary.  He said black people should protest racial inequality, not because there is a realistic hope that it will be overcome, but for the sake of self-respect and honor.

Some of the most interesting parts of The Derrick Bell Reader are a series of fantastic stories, or parables, illustrating his ideas and feelings.  They are not proof of anything, but they are windows into his mind.  They are thought experiments.  You are invited to think about them and decide whether you agree.


The Chronicle of the Space Traders

In this story, extraterrestrials land on the East Coast on Jan. 1 and offer the USA a bargain.  They will provide the means to solve the USA’s international trade, pollution and energy problems.  In return, they ask one thing: the nation’s African-American population.  The country is given 16 days to decide.

There are some objections.  Black Americans are a cheap labor force, but also a market for U.S. business.  More importantly, they serve as a target for the resentments of poor and working-class whites, which might otherwise be targeted a white elites.

But the benefits of the trade to white America outweigh the benefits.  A Constitutional amendment is rushed through, and, on Martin Luther King Day, the USA’s black population leave the country the same way their ancestors arrived, naked and in chains.

Bell said that when he tells this story to his law classes, almost all his students, both black and white, agree that US Americans would make the trade.

This kind of situation is not unique in literature.  The Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt wrote a play, The VIsit, about a multi-millionairess who offers to make the people of her home village rich if they were do only one thing, kill one of their leading citizens, who seduced and abandoned her in her youth.  The villagers have more qualms than the characters of Bell’s parable, but eventually they overcome them.

This, of course, would not have been the first time US Americans sacrificed marginal people to achieve a benefit. Think of the Trail of Tears, when peaceful Cherokee Indians were forcibly ejected from the homeland in Georgia and sent to Indian territory just because whites wanted them.

Is there some group who would not be sacrificed in return for prosperity?  Bell said US Americans would never, for example, give up red-haired, green-eyed white women, nor corporate CEOs who have undermined the USA by shipping jobs overseas.  How about sacrificing uneducated, unvaccinated white people?

The Chronicle of the Constitutional Contradiction

Geneva Crenshaw, a black female civil rights lawyer with superpowers, is a recurring character in Derrick Bell’s parables.  In this one, she travels back in time to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and confronts George Washington, James Madison and other Founders with the fact that their draft of a Constitution makes provision for slavery, which is in contradiction to the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of the right of all to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Founders reply that there is one right that is more fundamental than these rights, and that is the right of property.  Unless property rights, including property in human beings, are recognized, there will be no United States.  As she argues with them, militiamen haul up a cannon and blast her back into the 20th century.

The Racial Preference Licensing Act

Congress enacts a law authorizing employers, landlords and proprietors of public facilities to exclude or discriminate against black people, providing they pay a licensing fee, which would go into a fund to underwrite black businesses, provide interest-free loans to black homebuyers and scholarships to black students.

If racism in U.S. life really is permanent and can never be overcome, why not?

The Chronicle of the DeVine Gift

Geneva Crenshaw, teaching at a majority-white law school, is told that the school would hire more black professors, if only qualified applicants could be found.  A black billionaire named DeVine Taylor secretly finances a search for  excellent applicants, who are accepted until the school reaches a tipping point.  The dean says he can’t afford to have a predominantly black faculty because white students would be less likely to enroll.

This has a real life parallel.  In public housing, in order to achieve racial integration, white applicants were sometimes given preference over more needy black applicants.  That was to avoid a “tipping point,” in which the percentage of black tenants was so high that whites stopped applying.

My response is that if the basis for hiring is qualifications, the dean was wrong.  If the principle is representation of African-Americans, representation has a maximum number as well as a minimum number.

The Chronicle of the Slave Scrolls

A black minister visits Ghana and discovers scrolls written centuries before by newly-enslaved black people about their experiences and how they found the spiritual resources to resist.  He returns to Atlanta and begins preaching from the scrolls.  

Inspired by his preaching, large numbers of  African-Americans are gripped by a fierce desire to excel.  Soon they surpass whites in business, education and education

Congress then enacts a Racial Toleration Law, which forbids teaching that promotes racial animosity by focusing on past injustice.  Soon African-Americans are pushed back to where they were before.

This is almost a prophecy of  proposed laws forbidding the teaching of critical race theory.  There also are parallels in the attacks on successful black people in Wilmington, N.C., and Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

But the strongest parallels are in the attacks on Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan for their teachings, which, like Bell’s imaginary Slave Scrolls, focus on black suffering and white iniquity.

Racism: a Major Source of Property and Wealth Inequality in America.

A bunch of ignorant, racist Southern white men are sitting around a gas station, talking about how they resent affluent, educated white people who look down of them, but they are consoled by their right to despise and abuse black people.  

Geneva Crenshaw stops to make a phone call.  The yokels are enraged by the black woman’s elegant white linen suit, Jaguar and other marks of superiority.  

When she drives off, one of them goes after her in his pickup truck.  Rather than flee, she accepts a game of “chicken,” which results in a collision and her death.  But she has superpowers and rises again to take part in other Bell stories.

The Chronicle of the Amber Cloud.

A mysterious amber cloud affects only the teenage sons of affluent white people.  It turns their skins amber and causes personality changes.  They become lethargic, apathetic, suspicious, withdrawn and hopelessly insecure, and start committing increasingly serious crimes.

The government pays for a crash program to develop a psychological conditioning program and mind-altering chemicals, which, however, costs $100,000 per treatment.  Minority parents ask their own teenage sons share in the program.  The government’s response is that the treatment is only for those affected by the amber cloud, not by property, disadvantage and racial prejudice.

The Afrolantica Awakening.

An island suddenly arises in the Atlantic.  Its environment is a paradise to African-Americans, but toxic to everyone else.  Black people in the USA organize a movement to settle the island, akin to Zionism among Jewish people.  Whites put obstacles in their way, but an expedition of a few hundred thousand sets out.  Before they arrive, the island sinks back into the ocean.  But the would-be settlers and their supporters are energized by even the possibility of freedom from white domination.

Redemption Deferred: Back to the Space Traders

Once in interstellar space, the Space Traders tell African-Americans that they offer them equal citizenship on their planet because they have traits, learned through suffering, that the Space Traders value.  But if they don’t want to come, the Space Traders will take them back to Earth.  The African-Americans are torn between hope and nostalgia, and the spaceship circles endlessly through the galaxy.


There are more stories and parables, as well as essays on racism, the law and law school education, all of interest, which I’m not going to discuss in detail.

Derrick Bell’s pessimism is justified, provided you accept his premise that white American racism will never change, and all the more so if you think that the law courts are the main place to seek change.

Things will get better only if whites and blacks can unite on the basis of self-interest and common moral beliefs, and use the tools of politics and direct action.


Derrick A. Bell Jr.’s biography in brief.

He was born in Pittsburgh in 1930, and was the first of his family to attend college.  He graduated from Duquense University in 1952 and, after military service, the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1957.

Bell was hired by the U.S. Justice Department after graduation, but left in 1959 over his refusal to quit his membership in the NAACP; subsequently, Thurgood Marshall recruited him to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where he oversaw three hundred school desegregation cases.

In 1966, Bell was named deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, before becoming a teacher at the University of Southern California law school and director of USC’s Western Center on Law and Poverty in 1968.

In 1971, Bell became the first African American to become a tenured professor at Harvard Law School.  He established a course in civil rights law and wrote Race, Racism and American Law, which today is a standard textbook in law schools around the country.

Leaving Harvard, Bell became the first African American dean of the University of Oregon Law School.  In 1985, he resigned in protest after the university refused to let him hire a certain Asian American candidate for a faculty position.

Returning to Harvard Law School, Bell resigned again in protest in 1992 over the school’s failure to hire and offer tenure to minority women.  He was offered a visiting professorship at New York University law school, whose dean was one of his former students.  He served there without tenure until his death in 2011.


Derrick A. Bell Jr.’s Biography for HistoryMakers.  The web site includes taped interviews with Bell covering his whole life.

Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Cases by Derrick Bell for the Yale Law Review (1976)

The Referendum: Democracy’s Barrier to Racial Equality by Derrick Bell for the Washington Law Review (1978)

The Constitution at 200 – Reflections on the Past, Implications for the Future by Derrick Bell for the New York Law School Journal of Human Rights (1988)

Racial Realism by Derrick Bell for the Connecticut Law Review (1992)

Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory? by Derrick Bell for the University of Illinois Law Review (1995)  Another link.

Racial Liberation Day, chapter one of Afrolantica Legacies by Derrick Bell (1998)

The Unintended Lessons in Brown v. Board of Education by Derrick Bell for New York Law School Law Review (2005).

Derrick Bell’s Toolkit–Fit to Dismantle That Famous House? by Richard Delgado for the New York University Law Review.

The Conspicuous Absence of Derrick Bell–Rethinking the CRT Debate by Patrick D. Anderson for the Black Agenda Report.

The Man Behind Critical Race Theory by Jelani Cobb for The New Yorker.

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