Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: David Shankbone (1974–) wikidata:Q12899557


* Founder of “Critical Race Theory”
* Longtime professor at New York University
* Also taught at Harvard and Stanford Universities
* Supporter of affirmative action
* Viewed America as an irremediably racist nation
* Died in October 2011


Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on November 6, 1930, the oldest of four children. His father, who operated a small garbage-collection business to support his family, explicitly told the young Derrick Jr. that white people, in his view, were not to be trusted.

Derrick Bell Jr. 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. He then 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 instead. He subsequently worked from 1960-66 as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he became a protégé of Thurgood Marshall.

In 1966, Bell returned to government work as a deputy director in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s (HEW’s) Office of Civil Rights, where he was tasked with enforcing compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Less than a year after taking the HEW job, Bell accepted a position as executive director of the University of Southern California Law School’s Western Center on Law and Poverty.

National Conference of Black Lawyers, “Legal Arm of the Black Revolution”

In 1968, Bell was a founding member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL), which quickly became an ally of the National Lawyers Guild and an affiliate of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, which was a Soviet front group. The nascent NCBL dubbed itself the “legal arm of the black revolution” and said, on the “Brief History of NCBL” page of its website:

“In 1968, young people of African descent in America were growing impatient with the slow pace of social change. Despite modest advances brought on by two decades of non-violent resistance, from one end of the country to the other, the cry for Black Power was raised in the midst of a sea of clinched fists. At the same time, this new militant spirit had moved many to don black berets and carry rifles. On street corners in practically every Black community, passers-by heard demands for Nation Time and Power to the People!”Inevitably, the powers-that-be responded to this activist renaissance with police brutality, frame-ups and a vicious counter-intelligence program that targeted scores of militants for harassment, prosecution or assassination. A small group of Black lawyers refused to sit idly by while the iron fist of government came down hard on the bravest and most intelligent of the Black community’s younger generation. This period forced the birth of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) which, as an organization, began to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with rifle-toting revolutionaries.

“NCBL walked into courtrooms around the country [… and] began to compile a list of impressive victories. The organization’s first clients included: The Attica Brothers, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and numerous other committed freedom fighters.”

Hired by Harvard Law School without Traditional Credentials

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 beginning of his stay at Harvard, Bell was acutely aware of the fact that he lacked the academic credentials 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.

Founder of Critical Race Theory

In the mid-1970s, Bell — angered by what he viewed as the slow progress of racial reform in the United States, and by his belief that the gains brought about by the civil-rights laws of the 1960s were gradually being eroded — pioneered the field 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]

University of Oregon School of Law

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 anyway. 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]

Return to Harvard Law School

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. 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 failing to teach them. Perceiving this measure by Stanford as a racial affront, Bell claimed that the students’ complaints were due to their having “viewed me as a token, visiting presence of questionable competence.” There was “an insult inherent in the lecture series,” Bell added, calling it “a denial of my status as a faculty member and my worth as a peron.” In the fall of 1986, a disgruntled Professor Bell left Stanford and returned to Harvard Law School.[3]

Five-Day Sit-In Protest

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 white professors, Claire Dalton and David Trubek, who espoused critical race theory.

Demanding That Harvard Hire & Grant Tenure to a Black Female Professor

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 nonwhite 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]

Support from Barack Obama

During a 1990 student demonstration in support of Bell’s call for more blacks to be placed on the Harvard Law School faculty, then-student and Harvard Law Review president Barack Obama publicly hugged Professor Bell and delivered a speech on his behalf. Moreover, Obama: (a) likened Bell to the civil-rights icon Rosa Parks; (b) lauded the professor for “speaking the truth”; and (c) stated that the “excellence of his scholarship” had not only “opened up new vistas and new horizons,” but had “changed the standards [of what] legal writing is about.”

NYU School of Law

During his leave of absence from Harvard, Bell in 1990 became a full-time visiting professor at New York University (NYU) School of Law.

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.

Supporting Racial Preferences, Deriding Clarence Thomas

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, he 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.”

Faces at the Bottom of the Well

In 1992 Bell published his most well-known book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Hoover Institution Fellow Thomas Sowell described the book as follows: “Bell’s thesis was that almost all whites are born evil (he allowed a few exceptions). And almost all blacks (not the likes of Justice Clarence Thomas) are born good. Melanin is destiny. Only an irredeemably depraved race could have ever owned slaves; the once-enslaved, however, have been permanently morally elevated by their subordinate status. They are a communal, cooperative people, with ‘warm, rich voices,’ a ‘tenacity for life,’ and a remarkable ability to experience freedom even under the most oppressive conditions.”[7]

A few of the book’s most notable quotes on the subject of race include the following:

  • “Despite undeniable progress for many, no African Americans are insulated from incidents of racial discrimination. Our careers, even our lives, are threatened because of our color.”[8]
  • “[T]he racism that made slavery feasible is far from dead … and the civil rights gains, so hard won, are being steadily eroded.”[9]
  • “[F]ew whites are ready to actively promote civil rights for blacks.”[10]
  • “[D]iscrimination in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when employers posted signs ‘no negras need apply.’”[11]
  • “It has begun to seem that blacks, particularly black men, who lack at least two college degrees, are not hired in any position above the most menial.”[12]
  • “We rise and fall less as a result of our efforts than in response to the needs of a white society that condemns all blacks to quasi citizenship as surely as it segregated our parents.”[13]
  • “Slavery is, as an example of what white America has done, a constant reminder of what white America might do.”[14]
  • “Black people will never gain full equality in this country.… African Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality of our permanent subordinate status.”[15]
  • “Tolerated in good times, despised when things go wrong, as a people we [blacks] are scapegoated and sacrificed as distraction or catalyst for compromise to facilitate resolution of political differences or relieve economic adversity.”[16]
  • “The fact that, as victims, we suffer racism’s harm but, as a people, [we] cannot share the responsibility for that harm, may be the crucial component in a definition of what it is to be black in America.”[17]
  • “Victimized themselves by an uncaring society, some blacks vent their rage on victims like themselves.”[18]
  • Racism remains “an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.”[19]
  • “Terms like merit and best qualified are infinitely malleable” and serve as justifications for “whites to treat one another like family.”[20]

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.

Lauding Louis Farrakhan & Khalid Abdul Muhammad

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.”

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 was famous for his virulent Jew-hatred.)

“I Live to Harass White Folk”

In 1992 Bell again articulated to his low regard for white people: “I live to harass white folk…. I’ve accepted that as my motto.”

Continuing to Impugn Harvard Law School

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.

“The Racism Is Permanent”

In the summer of 1993, Bell published a piece titled, “The Racism Is Permanent Thesis: Courageous Revelation or Unconscious Denial of Racial Genocide.” Some notable excerpts:

“The gains that some blacks have made, including the astronomical incomes of some black entertainers and athletes, as well as the increases in the black middle-class, should not obscure the reality of unemployment, which is serious for many segments of our society, but catastrophic for blacks, particularly black men…. [R]acism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society. Because this is true, not only will we not overcome in the sense that all of us believed so fervently in the 1960’s, but it also means that, Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.

“Only our most staunch white friends will even be able to comprehend, much less accept this statement…. [F]ew whites are ready to move beyond the abstractions of equality and actively promote civil rights for blacks where they work, or where they live.

“Because of an irrational but easily roused fear that any social reforms will unjustly benefit blacks, whites fail to support social reforms that are needed in this country to address the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, both black and white. Lulled by comforting racial stereotypes, and fearful that blacks will unfairly get ahead of them, all too many whites respond to even the most dire reports of race-based disadvantage with either a sympathetic head shake or victim-blaming rationalizations. Both responses lead easily to the conclusion that contemporary complaints of racial discrimination are simply put forward as excuses by people who are unable or unwilling to compete on an equal basis in a competitive society.

“For white people who both deny racism and see a heavy dose of the Horatio Alger myth as the answer to blacks’ problems, how sweet it must be when a black person stands in a public place and condemns as slothful and unambitious those blacks who are not making it. Whites eagerly embrace black conservatives’ homilies to self-help, however grossly such messages are unrealistic in an economy where millions, white as well as black, are unemployed and, more important, in one where racial discrimination in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when employers posted signs ‘no negras need apply.’ […]

“On the one hand, contemporary color barriers are certainly less visible as a result of our successful effort to strip the law’s endorsement from the hated Jim Crow signs. Today one can travel for thousands of miles across this country and never see a public facility designated as ‘Colored’ or ‘White.’ Indeed, the very absence of visible signs of discrimination creates an atmosphere of racial neutrality and encourages whites to believe that racism is a thing of the past. […]

“Modern discrimination is, moreover, not practiced indiscriminately. Whites, ready and willing to applaud, even idolize black athletes and entertainers, refuse to hire or balk at working with blacks. Whites who number individual blacks among their closest friends approve, or do not oppose, practices that bar selling or renting homes or apartments in their neighborhoods to blacks they don’t know. Employers, not wanting ‘too many of them,’ are willing to hire one or two black people, but will reject those who apply later. Most hotels and restaurants who offer black patrons courteous–even deferential– treatment, uniformly reject black job applicants, except perhaps for the most menial jobs. When did you last see a black waiter in a really good restaurant? […]

“We [blacks] rise and fall less as a result of our efforts than in response to the needs of a white society that condemns all blacks to quasi citizenship as surely as it segregated our parents and enslaved their forebears…. Tolerated in good times, despised when things go wrong, as a people, we are scapegoated and sacrificed as distraction or catalyst for compromise to facilitate resolution of political differences or relieve economic adversity. […]

“What is taking place with regard to black people is the empirical fact that black labor is no longer necessary to economic needs of capitalism or for the state economy; black people are increasingly becoming superfluous within the private and public economies. Without economic salvation there can be no possibility of black survival in this country; the socio-economic deterioration of blacks will continue and will do so to the point of extermination. Any effort to reverse this inevitable outcome will have to take the form of violent confrontation; to respond violently in a nation so dedicated to white supremacy over a black minority is an open invitation to extermination. […]

“On an average day in America, one of every four African-American men, ages twenty through twenty-nine was either in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole. But, as Jerome Miller points out in a recent paper, this study did not concentrate on inner-city males where arrest records are substantially higher. Other studies show that in the country’s largest fifty-six cities, fifty-one percent of non-white males will be arrested and charged with a felony and acquire a criminal record. This figure does not include misdemeanor arrests, which make up the largest share of arrests and booking into jails nationally. […]

“The fact is that despite their undeniable progress, no African-Americans are insulated from incidents of racial discrimination. Our careers, even our lives, are threatened because of our color. Whatever our status, we are feared because we might be one of ‘them.’ And, there are few of us who do not have family, former school mates, or neighbors, who are ‘them.’ Success, then, neither insulates us from mis-identification by wary whites, nor does it ease our pain when we consider the plight of our less fortunate brethren who struggle for existence in what some social scientists call the ‘underclass.’ […]

“While comforting to many whites, the goal of racial equality is more illusory than real for blacks. For too long, we have worked for substantive reform, then settled for weakly worded and poorly enforced legislation, indeterminate judicial decisions, token government positions, and even holidays. If we are to seek new goals for our struggles, we must first reassess the worth of the racial assumptions on which, without careful thought, we have presumed too much and on which we have relied too long.

“Perhaps those of us who can admit we are imprisoned by the history of racial subordination in America can accept–as slaves had no choice but to accept–our fate. Not that we legitimate the racism of the oppressor. On the contrary, we can only delegitimate it if we can accurately pinpoint it.”

Predicting the Rise of Radical Black Leaders Who Advocate the Murder of Whites

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.”[21]

Endorsing the Journal, Race Traitor

Bell endorsed a journal called Race Traitor, a now-defunct publication whose stated aim was “to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin.” Moreover, the journal’s guiding principle was: “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.

Suggesting That America Could Not Exist without Racism

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.”

Supporting Ward Churchill

In 2007 Bell served as a witness in support of Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado (UC) professor who had lost his job in 2006 because of academic misconduct. Churchill, who was now suing to be reinstated in his former UC position, had previously gained notoriety for his 2001 anti-American essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” As reported vis-a-vis the 2007 court proceedings:

“Bell [was] called by Churchill’s team to provide testimony to the following:

“(a) That he, Derrick Bell, was familiar with Professor Churchill’s work (indeed, Churchill is quoted in Bell’s legal casebook Race, Racism in Law) and it didn’t violate any academic standards;

“(b) [that] even if everything the disciplinary committee accused Churchill of was true, it was trivial and such things are routinely ignored by university administration depending on if they like the professor nor not;

“(c) that investigations into tenured faculty academic misconduct are extremely rare, almost unheard of;

“(d) that there is an historic pattern in the U.S. of First Amendment rights being trampled during times of war or national crisis, and academic institutions are often the focus of challenge to these rights; and,

“(e) that the judgment of the disciplinary committee was wrong.”

Affiliation with Socialist & Communist Publications

As of 2009, Bell was a sponsor of New Politics, a magazine administered and staffed almost entirely by members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Bell had at least one article published by Freedomways, a Communist Party USA propaganda magazine that was active from 1961-1986 and was subsidized by the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties.

Books Authored

Over the course of his professional career, Bell authored several books on race and the law, including Civil Rights: Leading Cases (1980); And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1989); Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992); Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester (1994); Constitutional Conflicts  (1997); Race, Racism, and American Law (2000); Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (2002); and Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (2004).


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.
  3. Ibid.  Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education, New York: The Free Press, 1993), p. 154.
  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. Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education, New York: The Free Press, 1993), p. 496
  8. Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, p. 3.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., p. 4.
  11. Ibid., p. 5.
  12. Ibid., p. 15.
  13. Ibid., p. 10.
  14. Ibid., p. 12.
  15. Ibid., pp. 12, 113.
  16. Ibid., p. 10.
  17. Ibid., p. 155.
  18. Ibid., p. 196.
  19. Source: Faces at the Bottom of the Well (Cited in D’Souza, The End of Racism, p. 17.)
  20. Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, p. 56.
  21. Robert Boynton, “Professor Bell, Sage of Black Rage,” New York Observer (October 10, 1994), p. 1.

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