Posts Tagged ‘Derrick Bell’

Derrick Bell’s parables of despair

September 18, 2021

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.

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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.

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White privilege and affirmative action

September 16, 2021

The late Derrick Bell, pioneer of critical race theory, used to say that white people who oppose affirmative action in college admissions were hypocritical or naive.

Affirmative action for black people, he said, has much less impact on the chances of the average student than all the preferences given to the white elite.

Special consideration is given to children of donors, children of alumnae, graduates of expensive private schools and athletes skilled in sports such as rowing or polo that only rich people participated in.

Bell died in 2011, but facts, including a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, support what he said.

Some 43 percent of white Harvard students admitted between 2009 and 2014 got bonus points for being ALDCs – athletes, legacies (children of alumni), dean’s list (from families of big donors of potential donors) or children of faculty or staff.  Fewer than 16 percent of black, Hispanic or Asian students benefited from such preferences.

The study also indicated that three-quarters of the white students who got bonus points would have been rejected if they hadn’t got the points.   Most of them come from upper-crust families.  Such families are also able to give their children the benefit of private schools or well-funded public schools in rich school districts.

All this matters because Ivy League universities such as Harvard are gatekeepers for the top jobs in banking, law, government and academia, and only about 4 or 5 percent of applicants are admitted.

So why, asked Derrick Bell, is all the emphasis on the extra help African-Americans get from affirmative action policies?

One answer is that affirmative action for rich white families is seldom talked about, but affirmative action for racial minorities is talked about constantly, both by those who favor it and those who oppose it. 

When proponents of affirmative action bring up white elite privilege, they do not challenge white elite privilege; they use it as a talking point to defend their own programs.

Affirmative action for minorities is an example of what Bell called racial fortuity, although I am not sure he would have agreed.  

Racial fortuity happens when black people’s interests and white (usually elite white) people’s interests happen to coincide.  

Affirmative action serves the function of lightning rod for resentment of non-elite white students who can’t get into colleges such as Harvard.

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Do white Americans really benefit from racism?

September 6, 2021

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

The late Derrick Bell, pioneer of critical race theory, was of two minds about whites and racism in the USA.

He frequently wrote about how white racial prejudice hurts whites as well as blacks, and how whites have actually benefited from advances in civil rights, but that, despite these facts, racism is so embedded in the psychology of white people that we will never be able to see this.

At other times, and at least once in the same article, he wrote that the reason racism will never disappear is that white people benefit from racism. 

Which is it?  In his terms, if the first is true, there is a possibility, however dim, of waking up white people to our self-interest so that we join forces with black people for justice. 

If the second is true, there is little hope for African-Americans.  Demographic trends show black people remaining in the minority in the USA, and history shows white people can stay in the majority by expanding the definition of white.

The answer depends on how you look at it.  If there had never been plantation slavery, never been lynch law, never been a black underclass, all of us Americans, white and black, would be better off.

On the other hand, if all Americans had been white, but we still had plantation slavery, lynch law and an economic underclass, then white people would have taken the places historically filled by blacks.

Prior to our Civil War, many writers reported on how a slave economy hurt white people.  They contrasted conditions on opposite sides of the Ohio River.  On the Ohio side, they could see well-built farmhouses and barns, fields full of grain, thriving small towns and businesses, all the product of enterprising white people. 

On the Kentucky side, just opposite, visitors saw whites living in poverty and decay, ramshackle buildings, poorly-fed children.  This was the result of the inability of white workers to compete with slave labor, and the belief that physical labor was degrading and only black people should do it.

The heritage of slavery to this day affects white people as well as black people.  The poorest white people in the USA are the ones living in the areas where slave labor was most predominant.

Derrick Bell argued that just as slavery and racism held back the South in comparison to the rest of the USA, so the heritage of slavery and racism holds back the USA in relation to the rest of the Western world.  The USA is the Mississippi of the OECD nations.

In his essay, “Wanted: a White Leader Able to Free Whites of Racism” (2000), reprinted in The Derrick Bell Reader, Bell remarked on how the USA lags behind less affluent countries in terms of health care, housing, child care and care of the aged, and on how the USA refuses to abolish the death penalty or improve prison conditions.

The reason, he wrote, is that white people, consciously or unconsciously, are convinced that efforts to promote the common good will help black people at our expense.  So we cut off our noses to spite our faces.

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Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation

August 26, 2021

SILENT COVENANTS: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell (2004)

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears college liberal, I thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation meant the slow-but-sure end of racism in the USA.

I thought then that simply getting black-and-white children together in the same room day after day would make them recognize their common humanity and bring an end to racial prejudice.

In hindsight, I see how naive that was.  But I wasn’t alone.  The late Derrick Bell, who later became one of the founders of critical race studies, thought the same thing at the time.

His book, Silent Covenants, is about why he changed his mind.  I read it as part of a personal project to understand critical race theory from the viewpoint of its proponents.

As a lawyer for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he pursued many lawsuits based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional.  

But later, after he joined the Harvard Law School faculty, he came to believe he was pursuing a false goal.

He said the desegregation decision was based on a false choice between, on the one hand, sending black children to schools that were separate and inferior and, on the other, on the other, sending them to schools where they were unwanted and in the minority.

Desegregation, when it was implemented, was typically carried out by closing black schools, some of which provided excellent educations and were greatly beloved by students and graduates. 

Desegregation resulted in job losses by black teachers and principals, many of them outstanding educators.

Some 50 years later, Bell wrote, American public schools are still segregated, in practice if not by law, and the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites is as great as it ever was. 

The great mistake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision decision, he wrote, was to pretend that the Constitution is color-blind.

Racism is baked into the structure of American society and the consciousness of white Americans, he wrote; this will never change.

Any apparent progress made by black Americans is the result of a temporary convergence of their needs and the agenda of some group of white people. 

Slavery was abolished in Northern states because white workers there did not want to complete with slave labor.  Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union.  The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were intended to foster Republican political dominance of the South.

When limited civil rights for black people ceased to serve the interests of powerful white people, those rights were wiped off the backboard, Bell wrote.

Judges in the 19th and early 20th centuries held that racism was a fact, which was not created by law and could not be abolished by law, but which the law had to accommodate.

Why, then, did the Supreme Court in 1954 suddenly decide that the Constitution was colorblind?

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Derrick Bell and one little black girl

August 26, 2021

Derrick Bell Jr., a civil rights lawyer and one of the seminal thinkers in critical race theory, wrote a book, Silent Covenants, about the  U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and why it failed to achieve its purpose.

In 1961, he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filing lawsuits calling for desegregation

He was called upon for help by two sisters, Winson and Dovie Hudson, pillars of the community in the all-black town of Harmony, Mississippi. 

Their town’s school, built by the residents themselves in the 1920s with help from Northern philanthropists, had been closed in retaliation for their civil rights activism.

He told them that he would not file a lawsuit to reopen a segregated school, but he would represent them if they were willing to sue to desegregate the county school district.

They agreed.  Several families signed onto the suit.

A bitter struggle followed.  Night-riders fired guns into private homes.  Many of those who signed on to the lawsuit lost their jobs or credit.

But they won.  A federal judge ordered desegregation of Harmony’s schools, starting with the first grade in the fall of 1964.

Just one couple, A.J. Lewis and his wife, Minnie, sent their little daughter, Debra, to the all-white school.  She was accompanied by federal marshals armed with shotguns, who escorted her through a large, hostile crowd.

The next day Mr. Lewis was fired from his job and whites tried to burn down his house.

But the American Friends Service Committee provided some financial aid.  Debra eventually graduated from the local high school, left the area and “held several interesting positions.”  When she died of pneumonia in 2001, the Harmony community erected a memorial in her honor.

Was it worth it?  All this struggle and suffering for just one person?

Years later, Bell met with the Hudson sisters, and said he wondered if he shouldn’t have helped them reopen their school instead of what he did.

“Well, Derrick, I also wondered if that was the best way to go about it,” Winson replied.  “It’s done now.  We made it and we are still moving.”

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