The late Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. is considered the founder, or at least the godfather, of “critical race theory,” an academic discipline which maintains that society is divided along racial lines into (white) oppressors and (black) victims, similar to the way Marxism frames the oppressor/victim dichotomy along class lines. Critical race theory contends that America is permanently racist to its core, and that consequently the nation’s legal structures are, by definition, racist and invalid. As Emory University professor Dorothy Brown puts it, critical race theory “seeks to highlight the ways in which the law is not neutral and objective but designed to support white supremacy and the subordination of people of color.” A logical derivative of this premise, according to critical race theory, is that the members of “oppressed” racial groups are entitled—in fact obligated—to determine for themselves which laws and traditions have merit and are worth observing. Further, critical race theory holds that because racism is so deeply ingrained in the American character, classical liberal ideals such as meritocracy, equal opportunity, and colorblind justice are essentially nothing more than empty slogans that fail to properly combat—or to even acknowledge the existence of—the immense structural inequities that pervade American society and work against black people. Thus, according to critical race theorists, racial preferences (favoring blacks) in employment and higher education are not only permissible but necessary as a means of countering the permanent bigotry of white people who, as Bell put it, seek to “achieve a measure of social stability through their unspoken pact to keep blacks on the bottom.”1
Born in Pittsburgh on November 6, 1930, Derrick Bell earned a bachelor’s degree from Duquesne University in 1952 and a J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh Law School (where he was the only black student on campus) in 1957. Bell began his legal career by taking a job in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. But when his superiors there instructed him to give up his membership in the NAACP, saying that it posed a conflict of interest, Bell quit the Department. He then worked as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he became a protégé of Thurgood Marshall. Bell also taught briefly at the University of Southern California.
In the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, members of the Black Law Students Association at Harvard University Law School pressured their school to hire a nonwhite minority professor; this led to Bell’s hiring in 1969, and two years later Bell became the first tenured black faculty member in the law school’s history.
From the very outset of his stay at Harvard, Bell was acutely aware of the fact that he lacked the qualifications that traditionally were prerequisites for an appointment there: He had neither graduated with distinction from a prestigious law school, nor clerked for the Supreme Court, nor practiced law at a major firm. Yet Bell mocked such criteria as being nothing more than the exclusionary constructs of a racist white power structure seeking to deny blacks an opportunity to teach at the nation’s elite universities.
It was in the mid-1970s that Bell pioneered the field of critical race theory. He was angered by what he viewed as the slow progress of racial reform in the United States, and he contended that the gains brought about by the civil rights laws of the 1960s were gradually being eroded.
In 1980 Professor Bell left Harvard to become the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. Five years later he resigned from that position, ostensibly to protest the fact that the school had failed to grant tenure to an Asian female professor. A number of Bell’s colleagues at Oregon, however, viewed his resignation as a contrived, face-saving pretext for leaving a position from which he was about to be fired. They believed that Bell, who had largely become an “absentee dean” known for spending more time on the lecture circuit than at Oregon, was slated for imminent termination.2
In 1986 Bell joined the faculty of Stanford Law School and instantly became a source of controversy. Many of his students there complained that he was not using his position to teach principles of law, but rather as a platform from which to indoctrinate his captive audience to his leftwing theories and worldviews. Cognizant of Bell’s glaring deficiencies as a teacher but afraid to openly address them, Stanford quietly instituted a lecture series designed to help his students learn the course material that Bell was not teaching them. Perceiving this measure as a racial affront, Bell left Stanford and returned to Harvard Law School in the fall of 1986.3
Soon after his arrival at Harvard, Bell staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the University’s failure to grant tenure to two professors who espoused critical race theory.
In April 1990 Professor Bell demanded that Harvard Law School hire a black woman—specifically, the visiting professor Regina Austin (who was also an adherent of critical race theory)—as a tenured faculty member. Bell explained that black female law students at Harvard were in desperate need of “role models,” like Austin, with whom they could identify. Though Harvard had a longstanding policy that forbade the hiring of visiting professors during the year of their residence at the school, Bell issued a “non-negotiable demand” that Austin be given a faculty position.4 And even though 45 percent of Harvard Law’s faculty appointments during the preceding decade had gone to minorities and women, none was both black and female—hence Professor Bell’s objection.5
When the law school would not cave to Bell’s pressure, the professor protested by taking a leave of absence from his $120,000-per-year teaching post. It should be noted, however, that even if Harvard had agreed to grant tenure to Regina Austin, Bell would not have been satisfied. As he would later write in a law-review article condemning schools for hiring only “token” minorities: “The hiring of a few minorities and women—particularly when a faculty is under pressure from students or civil rights agencies—is not a departure from … this power-preserving doctrine” of white male supremacy.6
During his leave of absence from Harvard, Bell in 1990 took a position as a full-time visiting professor at New York University (NYU) School of Law.
In 1991, at the height of the controversy over Professor Austin, then-Harvard Law School student Barack Obama spoke at a well-attended campus rally in support of Bell’s position. Obama described Bell as a man known for “speaking the truth” and for an “excellence of … scholarship” that had not only “opened up new vistas and new horizons,” but had “changed the standards [of what] legal writing is about.”
Since Bell viewed racial minorities as a permanently oppressed caste—and saw racism as a normal, permanent aspect of American life—he reasoned that equality before the law was unfair to blacks, whose moral claims were superior to those of whites. Thus Bell was a passionate proponent of racial preferences (i.e., affirmative action) as a means of minimizing what he viewed as the inevitably harmful effects of white Americans’ inherently racist impulses. In 1991 Bell was among the first critics to condemn the nomination of Clarence Thomas (who opposed affirmative action) to the U.S. Supreme Court, stating: “To place a person who looks black and who, in conservative terms, thinks white, is an insult.”
Bell eventually extended his stint as an NYU visiting professor to two years and then, later still, announced that he planned to spend a third year at NYU. But a third year would have required not only NYU’s waiver of time limits on visiting professorships, but also Harvard’s waiver of its firm policy forbidding professors to be on leave for more than two years. Harvard dean Robert Clark warned Bell that if he did not return to his post, he would lose his place on Harvard’s faculty. Bell refused to return, and thus lost his job at Harvard. After that, he continued to teach at NYU until the end of his life.
In 1992 Bell published his most well-known book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. A few of the book’s most notable quotes on the subject of race include the following:
Also in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Bell described the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as “smart and superarticulate,” calling him “perhaps the best living example of a black man ready, willing and able to ‘tell it like it is’ regarding who is responsible for racism in this country.” In a 1992 interview, Bell elaborated: “I see Louis Farrakhan as a great hero for the people. I don’t agree with everything he says and some of his tactics or whatever, but hell, I don’t agree with everything anybody says.”
Many of Bell’s writings were in the form of parables wherein he placed legal and social commentary into the mouths of invented characters. One of his best-known parables was “The Space Traders,” which appeared in Faces at the Bottom of the Well. In the story, as Bell later described it, creatures from another planet offer the United States “enough gold to retire the national debt, a magic chemical that will cleanse America’s polluted skies and waters, and a limitless source of safe energy to replace our dwindling reserves.” In exchange, the creatures ask only that America hand over its black population, to be dispatched permanently into outer space. An overwhelming majority of whites accept the offer. (In 1994 this story was adapted as one of three segments in a television movie titled Cosmic Slop.)
In 1992 Bell again articulated to his low regard for white people: “I’ve accepted that as my motto—I liv[e] to harass white folk.”
In August 1993 Bell continued to impugn Harvard Law School—which he said was ever-eager to grant tenure to “the white boys”—for having failed to add “a woman of color” to its tenured faculty.
In 1994 Bell was quoted as having predicted that eventually America would witness the rise of charismatic new black leaders who, in the interests of retributive racial justice, would “urge that instead of [African Americans] killing each other, they should go out in gangs and kill a whole lot of white people.”19
In a New York Observer interview published on October 10, 1994, Bell denounced “all the Jewish neoconservative racists who are undermining blacks in every way they can.” The very same interview began with Bell stating: “We should really appreciate the Louis Farrakhans and the Khalid Muhammads while we’ve got them.” (Khalid Muhammad was a Farrakhan ally who referred to Jews as “bloodsuckers” whose “father was the devil.”)
Bell endorsed a journal called Race Traitor, whose stated aim is “to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin.” Moreover, the publication’s guiding principle is: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” In 1999 Bell signed on to a Race Traitor article that stated: “If the task of the nineteenth century was to overthrow slavery, and the task of the twentieth century was to end legal segregation, the key to solving this country’s problems in the twenty-first century is to abolish the white race as a social category—in other words, eradicate white supremacy entirely.” Among Bell’s fellow signatories were Pete Seeger, Cornel West, and Howard Zinn.
In 2002 Bell said, “I’ve sometimes wondered whether this society could exist without racism. Because this is a country built on property ownership, and most white people don’t have that much property … you know, land and bonds and money in the bank, what they have is a sense of entitlement based on being white. And that’s very hard to give up.”
In 2007 Bell came to the defense of Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado professor who had lost his job in 2006 because of academic misconduct. Churchill had previously gained notoriety for his 2001 essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” In that piece, the author disclosed his belief that the 9/11 attacks were logical reprisals for unjust U.S. foreign policy measures vis a vis the Middle East, and for the alleged ravages of global capitalism as spearheaded by America.
Bell authored several books on race and the law, including Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (2004); Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (2002); Race, Racism, and American Law (2000); Constitutional Conflicts (1997); Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester (1994); Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992); And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1989); and Civil Rights: Leading Cases (1980).
Bell died of carcinoid cancer on October 5, 2011.
1 Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (New York: Basic Books, 1992), p. 152.
2 University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Jim Scheurich, “Introduction to Systems of Human Inquiry,” The History of Critical Race Theory Project (Spring 2001), p. 34. Cited in David Horowitz, The Professors, p. 58.
4 David Horowitz, The Professors, p. 58.
5 Fox Butterfield, “Harvard Law School Torn by Race Issue,” The New York Times (April 26, 1990).
6 David Horowitz, The Professors, p. 59.
7 Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, p. 3.
9 Ibid., p. 4.
10 Ibid., p. 5.
11 Ibid., p. 15.
12 Ibid., p. 10.
[13.] Ibid., p. 12.
14 Ibid., pp. 12, 113.
15 Ibid., p. 10.
16 Ibid., p. 155.
17 Ibid., p. 196.
18 Source: Faces at the Bottom of the Well (Cited in D’Souza, The End of Racism, p. 17.)
19 Robert Boynton, “Professor Bell, Sage of Black Rage,” New York Observer (October 10, 1994), p. 1.