Thinking Black: Derrick Bell and the Living of a Racial Realist Life.

The Negro, in the universities and colleges of Europe and America, has to do his thinking and his reading in…the white man’s language…Our environment makes us think white, and some of us think white so persistently that we haven’t the time to think Black. I urge upon you…to help, with voice and pen, to hasten the coming of the morning when Negroes all over this broad land will wake up to the importance of thinking Black. (John Edward Bruce—“The Importance of Thinking Black”—1917}

The academic production of “race theory” is itself fraught with a dishonesty that few care to admit. To speak about race without attending to the very real social, economic, and political consequences of racism, says Barbara J. Fields in “[w]hiteness, Racism and Identity,” is to afford whites a symmetrical parity in our academic discourse that not only contradicts reality, but exposes the very content of our academically approved “race theory” to be little more than the careful arrangement of euphemisms taught to us by our white oppressors to obscure the deliberate machinations of racism. The life of Derrick Bell stands in sharp contrast to this practice, as only a life lived with Black people in mind can. His body of work is not only a testament to John E. Bruce’s call, but a literature that shames, even today, our irreconcilable attempts to rationalize our cowardice and maintain détente with white racists, despite their tyrannical reign throughout the university and in American society.

It is standard practice of scholars to honor their intellectual fore-parents who have been caste into the shadows of history, we eulogize their memories and praise their life’s work as a goal to which we should all aspire, but Derrick Bell’s life is the stuff “Black thought” is made of and resists such “fluffy-ization.” Derrick’s courage rang with the testament of Black thinkers from beginning to end. When I dared to suggest back in October of 2007 that philosophers were trying to make sense of his work next to Marx and Nietzsche, he told me that he considered himself

the academic counterpart of Errol Garner, the late jazz pianist from my hometown, Pittsburgh, who never learned to read music fearing, as I understand it, that it would ruin his style. I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since. I am writing this in Pittsburgh where I have been celebrating my 50th law school reunion from Pitt Law School. I do care more about the thought and writings and actions of Du Bois, Robeson, Douglass, et al. I think during my talk at UCLA, I read from the 1935 essay by Ralph Bunche about the futility of using law to overcome racism. It made more sense than so much of the theoretical writings on law, past and present, that I can barely understand and have great difficulty connecting with my experience. And you are right. At almost 77, I do not care to write in ways that whites can vindicate.

Throughout our many exchanges concerning his thought, Derrick remained convinced that attacking racism, the deliberate system of social, political, and legal subjugation of Black people, was the task of the Black Intellectual. He believed whole-heartedly that equality, even under Obama, was little more than illusion. In a speech he sent me entitled “On Celebrating an Election as Racial Progress,” he said that

every aspect of Barack Obama’s election and Inauguration has been covered like a heavy rain on a parched landscape. His taking office as the first black president is deemed a racial breakthrough….[but], in our celebrations, we should not confuse progress with fortuity, as we have while celebrating so many earlier unique moments that appeared to signal significant racial advances.

As early as 1976, Derrick Bell had already formulated the basis of his now famous racial realist thesis—the idea 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”—in the realization that “white self-interest will prevail over [B]lack rights.

Following the teachings of his mentor Robert L. Carter, Bell understood well that integration offered Blacks nothing but proclamations of equality without daring to question the white supremacist organization of society. While the Black bourgeois continue to market  the suffering of poor, disenfranchised, brutalized and terrorized Black people as a means to gain visibility and compassion from white gatekeepers, Bell lived a life that demonstrated struggle amidst the permanence of white supremacy, not because he believed in a “mythical hope” in whites’ moral character, but because he saw Afrolantica and knew just as his hero Paul Robeson that Blacks could create a world here in America unseen by the tyrannical gaze of whites and unrecognizable to those who simply cannot “THINK BLACK.”

I will always remain grateful for his friendship; his time, and his patience in helping me understand the totality of his thought while writing my dissertation on his work. He has certainly earned his place at the table of our ancestors. To his remembrance.

Professor Curry teaches and researches philosophy at Texas A&M University


  1. cordoba blue

    If the goal is for whites to “think black” this is like trying to count the stars. It will never occur by its very nature.
    One solution is for Afican Americans to start their own country. Israel did it after the Holocaust and it worked. Blacks have been victimized for so long in America and Europe, it should be evident by now that this pessimism about unbiased white attitudes toward blacks is certainly valid. If whites can’t change then wouldn’t this be a great idea? I think it would allow blacks the economic and psychological freedom they’ve relentlessly longed for.
    It may sound unrealistic but it’s a better plan than waiting till doomsday for whites to change. Moving forward may mean doing something totally innovative. If African Americans had their own country, they could build up their own army (just like Israel) and have their own school system, own government, celebrate their cultural heritage without any intervention from whites. It makes so much more sense than saying, “When white people change and racism stops cold, then I’ll be happy.” Did the Jews say, “When racism terminates in Germany, then I’ll be happy” and proceed to attempt to convince the Germans that Anti-Semitism was cruel and unjust? No,,they just started their own country and told the Germans to go to hell.
    Makes sense to me. And millions of disenfranchised Jews finally found solace in a country of their own. I think it’s a beautiful concept. Exodus. And if the rebuttal is “America is the home of African Americans”, well, Jewish people in Germany considered themselves full fledged citizens of Germany before the Holocaust. They had every moral right to believe this, because they built Germany to becoming a powerful industrial nation just like ethnic Germanic people did. Some of the most prestigious scientists in pre-war Germany were Jewish. But the Germans had no appreciation of all the contributions the Jewish people made to Germany. Thus, the Jews took an entirely alternate course,,began their own nation where they call all the shots. I think this idea is what makes Israel such a powerhouse today. Strength through common culture, strength through collective experience, and an iron will to survive.

    • Seattle in Texas

      I know huh, the Jews used their iron will to just go and colonize their own land all by themselves and uphold Israel with their incredible collective will. And so totally true, Jews totally have a common culture–just like Christians in the U.S. and throughout the world.

      What about African American Jews though? Or Jews with African family, kin, ancestry in other parts of the world? I’m confused. Do they go to Africa or Israel? (the U.S. obviously is not an option…).

      I was thinking about something similar. But it was rather along the lines of whites all returning to Europe, their homeland. You know? Really, such a beautiful concept. To me it makes more sense. White’s should not have to understand others and make any effort to do so…they should all go back to Europe. And it’s like pay reparations for free land? Genocide? Slavery? Well. One way to get out of it is to of course send African Americans to Africa and snuff out the rest of the remaining American Indian populations, keep building the nation through wage slavery and exploit other groups of color, and so on. But I don’t know. It seems to me that sending whites back to Europe, their homelands, makes so much more sense. I mean, I’m sorry. I’m getting all emotional *fan myself*. But, if the whites just went back to Europe, they wouldn’t have to work to be understood and waste anytime being asked to try to understand those they define as “others”, oppress, etc. They wouldn’t have to worry about “racism” any more, you know? I mean, things like being an oppressor. Even more though, it’s got to be very hard on whites to seriously think about real, humane, solutions to social problems that negatively affect people/groups beyond their own. I think whites could really find solace back in their own countries, etc., etc., etc.

      On a very different note, your history of Germany, etc., is obviously poor. But let me guess, it couldn’t be–you’ve got a U.S. college education?? Was there not Gentile Germans who said/say, “when racism and antisemitism terminates in Germany, I’ll be happy?” Or was it that all Germans were white and Nazis and stayed that way after World War II and all Jews used their incredible will and strength to go make their own nation, etc., all by themselves? Did Germans too not die during Nazi Germany in opposition to the racist and antisemitic ideologies and governmental power? So oppressive groups and colonizers should not have to take any responsibility for the harms they cause in so many ways to others? If the victims don’t like it, they should just leave and go make their own place? (nevermind the situations of other groups in the world and if the victims are/were geographically displaced, colonized, or taken by brutal force to a foreign land, etc.)

      And how is it you think Jews “are so strong” and African Americans apparently aren’t? Let’s see here, surviving slavery, Jim Crow, and current times…over 400 years of oppression. Black Americans are not strong? Even though they built up this nation for free with too much blood, sweat, and tears, they should just leave? No serious strives for equality and no reparations, no apologies, no nothing. This isn’t their “home” too? While I take serious issue with your racist conceptions of Latino/a groups/societies, how is it you can be so apparently sympathetic in welcoming people from Latino nations into the U.S. but then suggest Black Americans should go to Africa? Then, what about American Indian people, groups, and societies here in the U.S.? Where do they go? Or is it that only Black grievances are problematic and the rest from the “other” groups are valid, if whites are somehow sympathetic with them? Or is it that their grievances are not a bit deal because they are largely hidden some how from the white worlds? (not on the news or in the spotlight–out of mind out of site)

      I could keep going and going and going…but I’m stopping here. I don’t know why you keep coming to this site and I don’t think you’re here because you genuinely care about issues of social inequality, to seriously learn (learning is a life long process…), or try to understand much of anything on here. I don’t know what your motives are–clearly one is to be taken seriously as an expert on issues racism and racial and ethnic inequality, etc. by who knows who. But I’m only speaking out one last time against your comments, as it appears you’re here to stay and determined to keep leaving your offensive comments. I’m seriously not reading anything you put up any more. Nothing else to say.

      • cordoba blue

        Seattle says: I’m seriously not reading anything you put up any more. Nothing else to say.
        Given the length of your reply to my comment, I find this really difficult to believe!LOL But since you offered, thanks for not replying anymore. Now I can type in peace.
        Actually, I wasn’t thinking about the continent of Africa as a place to form a new environment. I was thinking about Canada. If my idea sounds ridiculous, I find many of your ideas absurd also Seattle. Such as letting kids study anything they want in school even if it’s sucking their thumb all day or that school hours cater to the needs of white supremacists? When should school be in session, 8 o,clock at night? Or that the subjects taught are all about whites domineering blacks. Science is about domineering blacks? The laws of physics are subject to the dictates of race? Where do you get this stuff really.
        Thus, given the horrendous impracticality of your ideas, I think there’s certainly room for mine. Anywho, thanks for not responding to my stuff anymore. Much appreciated!

    • Dr. Tommy J. Curry Author

      Thank you for your reply. I hope my piece did not convey such a message–that the goal is for whites to think Black. The life of our ancestors should be the legacies that we use to inspire in ourselves and rear in our children a revolutionary consciousness. Martin R. Delany, John E. Bruce, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and W.E.B. DuBois saw white racism as a permanent fixture of America. I see no point in trying to argue that these conclusions are incorrect, especially given the work of implicit bias scholars, and critical sociologists like Bonilla-Silva and Joe Feagin. What we do with this knowledge however is of both political and theoretical import at this moment. While I understand the sentiment for a separate state, the fact is such a proposal does not completely separate from the economic and cultural ideology that sustains white supremacy and white racism. A true anti-colonial movement that seeks to remove itself from the clutches of the European mind must begin with a race conscious political movement that aims to bring about this reality. Currently, we are scholars that seek to benefit from the rhetoric of revolt without its substance.

  2. The use of Israel as an example and as the standard is quite concerning. Israel’s apartheid state is only ‘successful’ because it’s based on the exploitation and continued oppression of the Palestinian people.

    • Blaque Swan

      Also, I should add that to some extent, I agree with Derrick Bell’s analysis of the race problem in America, that in essence we’re struggling for peaks. It’s important to get as much as we can out of those peaks, get them as high as possible for as long as possible, and hopefully we can keep the valley from being both too deep and wide.

      • Dr. Tommy J. Curry Author

        Dear Blaque Swan,

        Thanks for the reply. I think it is important to recognize those peaks, which are little more than a subtle waning of the mode of terror most embraced by whites and their popular government, and the lows of various racist enforcements, however, what we must not do is take these peaks to be moments of progress, the amelioration and/ or the cessation of racism. Some readers of Bell have suggested that they could be well served to try and form interest convergences with the dominate white political agenda’s of America. I still believe that this view is short sighted, and commits Blacks, Latino/as, and Indigenous peoples to a respect for social, legal, and economic structures that at its core is averse to their very existence.

        • Blaque Swan

          Yeah, unless it’s for something like single-payer healthcare – that is, something singular and temporary – I don’t see the efficacy of converging, either. And even in the case of healthcare, equal access doesn’t mean equal care and treatment. I’m sure health outcomes would get better in the black community because everyone would get to see a doctor. But still, there’s the racism in the medical profession to contend with, plus the negative health impact of racism in general.

          In my local community, we have a group of blacks whom whites don’t see as “black” then everyone else. This first group of blacks can get elected to the school board and county commissioners, etc, because of the whites who support them. Their current tactic is to be present to speak out when possible but let the rest of the community get rowdy. As things currently stand, if all blacks were “blacks,” there’s little chance of anything being done in our interests. The thing is, though, I’m just not sure how effective that strategy is. Unless you’re the “pennies make dollars” type.

          Yes, the lecture is on lexis and Hein, but I don’t have access to those catalogues. I’m not even sure my library does. But, we’ll see. Thanks!

  3. cordoba blue

    In regard to my above suggestion that African Americans move to another location rather than white dominated America, I am not alone.
    You are all familiar with William Du Bois of course. After founding the NAACP, the most effective agitator for the legal and political rights of blacks in America, Du Bois himself became disillusioned with the slow progress of racial equality. And this was 100 years ago!
    He became a member of the Communist Party, which believed in the overthrow of capitalism, the equalization of wealth, and the elimination of poverty. Even this new philosophy didn’t satisfy his dream of true racial equality. So, near the end of his life HE MOVED TO GHANA, then a newly independent country in Afica because he believed that black people could gain true freedom only in their own countries.
    Thus, looks like I’m in good company regarding my idea that African Americans move to Canada to establish their own separate community. There are areas of Canada that are sparsely populated. I’m sure the Inuit Native Americans would welcome black people since the Inuit have been discriminated against by whites themselves.
    If I were black, and my ancestors had lived in a racist country for 400 years, this is what I would do.Du Bois’s own frustration with the “When whites change” meme supports my conclusions. Act on your own behalf, for your own behalf, without gauging when other people will change to suit your needs.

    • Dr. Tommy J. Curry Author


      You are correct that many Blacks suggested that we should leave America because they thought racism was permanant. The most well known advocates of this position was Martin R. Delany, Edward Blyden, Theodore Holly, and Mary Ann Shadd, who advocated emigration to Canada. Here is a piece I wrote a few years back concerning this very point entitled Who Knew: The Nationist Contour of Racial Identity in the Thought of Martin R. Delany and John E. Bruce. Available online here:

      DuBois towards the end of his life certainly believed that Blacks belonged in Africa and that whites could never change, but the idea behind this was based on a belief in the African personality, and the Pan-African potential of African descended people throughout the world.

      • cordoba blue

        “Despite the persistence of anti-Black racism in the United States, “African American” scholars continue to imagine the possibility of equality under American liberalism and the philosophical banner of pragmatism. In this regard, we have reached a point in Africana thinking where the preoccupations with creating moral ways of speaking about Black reality have fallen short of speaking to Black realities. The inability of “African American” theorists to cope with the political reality unveiled by racial realism leaves contemporary theories concerning Black solidarity devoid of any experiential substance and conditions such theories on the temperament of white racists. Africana thought is not white therapy, and as such, it should not focus on rehabilitating the white psyche or couching Africana scholarship under the rubric of intellectual engagement with various white traditions to demonstrate its importance.”
        Thank you for posting this site! My position is precisely that Africana thought should NOT FOCUS on REHABILITATING the WHITE PSYCHE.
        Many people who post here should read this because it may terminate the hand-wringing that relentlessly repeats,”What’s wrong with whites? Why can’t whites see it? Why are white people self-congratulatory? Take that White America! Whites are so dense. Whites get offended so easily! Typical white response! Oh no!..It’s the White savior meme. We have a long way to go before whites change (sigh).” Yes you do! A very long way. So maybe my suggestion wasn’t so inane after all.

  4. cordoba blue

    “In Critical Race Theory, Curry (that would be Dr Tommy J Curry) looks at the work of Derrick Bell and his theory of racial realism as an antidote to the proliferating discourses of racial idealism that continue to uncritically embrace liberalism through the appropriation of European thinkers as the basis of racial reconciliation in the United States.” Hope you don’t mind Dr. Curry that I looked up your biography. Also, you have studied philosophy extensively, which plays into my conclusions. I have a certain philosophy or manner of viewing race relations that posits that African Americans cannot depend on white liberalism to advance their state.
    If I may, you Dr. Curry, seem to have little faith in a racial reconciliation in America. I agree. This will most likely never happen. Racial realism is not about racial idealism. It’s about black Americans having a very separate identity from whites and embracing this identity.Please correct me if I misinterpret.
    It’s not about wanting, wishing, hoping to convince whites to do anything. It’s not about psychoanalyzing whites. And a bold move to another geographical location does not conflict with this thinking. Liberalism in America will not answer the needs of black Americans. This is wishful thinking in the extreme. Whites won’t change. Racism is here to stay. So other means must be considered to enable black Americans to be happy and productive. Just some of my thoughts. Thanks for reading Dr. Curry.

    • Dr. Tommy J. Curry Author

      I don’t mind at all. As you can see from my work. I took Derrick’s thesis seriously. I don’t have the same religious orientation of Bell, thus the idea or faith in perseverance for our spiritual well-being does not resonate with my views. Revolution, racial organization, Pan-Africanism/Pan-Colorism are the types of alternatives I support.

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