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.

Dorothy Height Dies: Key Civil Rights Leader

225px-DorothyHeight_Book_Nordstrom_VA_15feb97Civil rights activist, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, died today at age 98. In her long and distinguished career she was an educator and civil rights activist. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 during the Clinton administration.(photo: wikipedia)

President Obama made this comment on her life, calling her “the godmother of the civil rights movement”:

Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality … and served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement — witnessing every march and milestone along the way.

Wikipedia has this on key aspects of her long life:

Height was born in Richmond, Virginia. At an early age, she moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania. Height was admitted to Barnard College in 1929, but upon arrival, she was denied entrance because the school had an unwritten policy of admitting only two black students. She pursued studies instead at New York University, earning a degree in 1932, and a master’s degree in educational psychology the following year.

Height started working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department and, at the age of twenty-five, she began a career as a civil rights activist when she joined the National Council of Negro Women. She fought for equal rights for both African Americans and women, and in 1944 she joined the national staff of the YWCA. . . . In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held until 1997. During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi” . . . which brought together black and white women from the North and South to create a dialogue of understanding.

American leaders regularly took her counsel, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Height also encouraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government. In the mid 1960s, Height wrote a column entitled “A Woman’s Word” for the weekly African-American newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News.

She will be greatly missed.

Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Hooks Has Died

NPR has this important story today on one of the premier leaders of U.S. civil rights struggles, Benjamin L. Hooks (1925-2010):

Benjamin L. Hooks, a champion of minorities and the poor who as executive director of the NAACP increased the group’s stature. . . . “I don’t know anybody who lived a more triumphant life,” former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young told NPR. … Hooks became [NAACP] executive director in 1977, taking over a group that was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 200,000 members. … He pledged to increase enrollment and raise money for the organization. . . . “If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again,” he said. “If anyone thinks that we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts. If anyone thinks that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks.”

Hooks view of the current scene resonates well with the need for much more civil rights organization:

“Now, the fight is not over water fountains, it’s not over riding the bus, it’s over who’s going to drive that bus,” he said. “Now, once we start digging into these economic issues, resistance may grow.”

He was a path breaker in his own life:

In 1965 he was appointed to a newly created seat on the Tennessee Criminal Court, making him the first black judge since Reconstruction in a state trial court anywhere in the South. … nominated Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission in 1972. He was its first black commissioner, serving for five years before resigning to lead the NAACP. … Hooks also created an initiative that expanded employment opportunities for blacks in Major League Baseball and launched a program where corporations participated in economic development projects in black communities.

The NAACP has continued to be a source of white supremacist attacks since the 1960s:

In 1989, a string of gasoline bomb attacks in the South killed a federal judge in Alabama and a black civil rights lawyer in Savannah, Ga. Another bomb was intercepted at an NAACP office in Jacksonville, Fla., and an Atlanta television station received a letter threatening more attacks on judges, attorneys and NAACP leaders. “We believe that this latest incident is an effort to intimidate our association, to strike fear in our hearts,” Hooks said at the time. “It will not succeed. We intend to go about our business.”

Cherokee Nation Leader Wilma Mankiller Dies

The Tulsa World reports the death of Native American leader, Wilma Mankiller,

the once dirt-poor Oklahoma farm girl who grew up to become an activist for American Indian causes and women’s rights, an author and the first woman to hold the Cherokee Nation’s highest office, died Tuesday. She was 64.

President Barack Obama lauded Mankiller’s legacy. “As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the nation-to-nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America,” Obama said. “A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. ”

In the 1960s, married by then with two children, she took an increasing interest in Indian affairs. When a group of tribal activists took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, occupying it for more than a year to protest U.S. government treatment of Indians, Mankiller visited them and raised money for the effort. … Mankiller used her fame and position to speak out on cultural issues, something she never shied from. She once said that white culture was to blame for the sexism of Cherokees, who were traditionally more matriarchal, and that Thomas Jefferson deserved as much blame for the Trail of Tears as the more often villified Andrew Jackson. When she slammed country artist Tim McGraw’s hit song “Indian Outlaw” as racially offensive, many state radio stations stopped playing it at her request.

She will be greatly missed.

Pioneer in Ending Anti-Miscegenation Law Dies

When I taught a graduate seminar this past winter, I asked the class if anyone knew what the word “miscegenation” meant. No one did. And, when I teach at the undergraduate level, it’s the rare student who knows the meaning of that word at the beginning of the semester (they usually know it by the time the semester ends). So, I thought it important to recognize the passing of one of the pioneers in ending the anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S.

Mildred Loving, (pictured with her husband, Richard P. Loving, in a file photo dated 1965, from here), a black woman whose challenge to Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling, died Friday, May 2, 2008 at her home in rural Virginia, her daughter said today. She was 68. From the AP story by Dionne Walker (and a hat tip to my friend Paul at BS for telling me about this):

Loving and her white husband, Richard, changed history in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their right to marry. The ruling struck down laws banning racially mixed marriages in at least 17 states.

“There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the equal protection clause,” the court ruled in a unanimous decision.

Her husband died in 1975. Shy and soft-spoken, Loving shunned publicity and in a rare interview with The Associated Press last June, insisted she never wanted to be a hero — just a bride.

“It wasn’t my doing,” Loving said. “It was God’s work.”

While Loving may have diminished her role as an activist she nevertheless delivered a powerful statement on the 40th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision. Here’s a brief excerpt from Slaves of Academe (full text available there):

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all.

Powerful words from a woman who claimed not to be an activist. So, why does it matter that I teach my students about the meaning of “miscegenation” when the courts ruled anti-miscegenation laws illegal in 1967? I think it’s important for what it tells us about how white racism operates then and how that same (il)logic continues to work today. In an interesting analysis over at The Faculty Lounge, Katheleen Bergin writes:

Loving is usually described as an “inter-racial” marriage case, but it even goes beyond that. The statute in Virginia didn’t ban “racially mixed marriages ” as the article describes, but only some racially mixed marriages. It made it a felony for “any white person [to] intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person [to] intermarry with a white person.” In other words, Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, or any other persons of color could marry with each other, but could not marry someone who was White. The state’s need to defend “racial integrity” as Virginia claimed fell flat because the statute was designed to preserve White racial purity exclusively. Its one of the quintessential White supremacy cases of the era.

Bergin’s cogent analysis of the old “racial purity” arguments of white supremacy from another era should make us wary of similar kinds of arguments today about supposed racial purity in the era of DNA and genetic testing. And, Loving’s passing is a reminder of the difference that once person can make in fighting against white supremacy.

Obituary: George Fredrickson, Expert on Racism, 73

The nation, and indeed the world, has lost one of the great minds who shaped the scholarship on racism. George Fredrickson, 73 and historian at Stanford University, has died. The New York Times obituary quotes David Brion Davis, a Yale historian, as saying, that Fredrickson’s  White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (Oxford UP, 1981) was, in the field of comparative history:

“a landmark book and a model that has not been superseded”

Fredrickson’s work certainly influenced me and shaped my thinking about white supremacy as a system and a social structure rather than a feature of individual psychology.   Echoing a point I made here a couple of days ago, Douglas Martin, author of the Times obit goes on to say this:

“In the early history of the United States, Mr. Fredrickson wrote, whites needed an ideology of racial superiority to justify importing slaves and uprooting and killing American Indians while pushing to establish an agrarian economy in their new land.

South Africa, by contrast, historically had more tolerance of racial mixing and a more pragmatic definition of whiteness, in large part because of a shortage of “pure” Europeans, especially women, Mr. Fredrickson wrote.

The countries differed in laws governing race. The United States had founding documents promising equality that over many years it tried, fitfully, to live up to. In Mr. Fredrickson’s view, the United States, with its history of slavery before the Civil War, had a worse racial past than South Africa did but a better means, in law, to move on to better relations.

South Africa’s early race relations, while never smooth, were more benign, he said. But in contrast to the American experience, the country’s race relations dramatically worsened, with the establishment of apartheid in 1948, laws that required irrevocable racial segregation. (In 1992, more than a decade after Mr. Fredrickson’s book, South Africans voted to end apartheid.)

Yet in Mr. Fredrickson’s judgment both countries had a huge similarity: both required an ideology of equality of white males to justify ‘dehumanization of blacks.’ “

Fredrickson’s last book (he wrote eight books and edited four) was published this year, titled Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, is about Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted stance on slavery, emancipation and states’ rights.  His was a great mind and he will be missed.