The Brilliant Derrick Bell Dies: A Loss for All Humanity

The great Professor Derrick Bell died yesterday, arguably the founder of critical race studies in the US, and no one would dispute he was one of the two or three original founders. He was the first tenured black faculty member at Harvard Law School and a leading constitutional scholar, as well as an activist fighting for racial change — including the desegregation of Harvard Law School along racial and gender lines.

Derrick Bell brilliantly pioneered in critical race thinking when few were doing that in legal studies, and he generated brilliant new ways and methods of talking about racism in the law and society, such as by creating fictional and allegorical narratives to make critical conceptual and empirical points. His method has revolutionized some legal presentations and theories, and his work on innovative methods in the law journals was (and still is) in my view way ahead of the mainstream presentation methods that are standard in social science journals’ work on racism issues. He also pioneered in critical and provocative and influential concepts such as interest convergence and racial realism.

One biographical account from summarizes some of his views and impacts this way:

The allegorical “chronicles” in 1987’s And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice and his 1992 publication, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism attempt to expose the transparency of nominal, virtually meaningless civil rights advances. “Racism is not a passing phase but a permanent feature of American life,” the New York Times summarized. “Despite all the change over the years, [Bell maintains that] blacks are worse off and more subjugated than at any time since slavery.” In a conclusion that is particularly grim for a crusading civil rights lawyer, Bell claims that legal victories are hollow if society’s mind-set remains unchanged. He often refers to the Brown v. Board of Education case as an example, claiming that the 1954 school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court was neutered when whites began to abandon public schools and flee the cities. In general, Bell judges that civil rights laws and decisions are worthless because America’s white-dominated society continues to undermine black advancement while allowing racism to prevail.

And the bio makes this later point:

In a speech to Harvard students quoted in the Boston Globe, Bell urged the future scholars and activists to continue the moral fights that he had championed, saying: “Your faith in what you believe must be a living, working faith that draws you away from comfort and security, and toward risk through confrontation.”

This link suggests that the legal profession has not yet come to grips with the racial realism of a true genius and great US intellectual leader (note the word “renegade” for him) and the evidence for his racial realism view that we regularly demonstrate on this blog. May he rest in peace, finally.