Oct 6, 2011

Civil Rights Legend Passes Away Into History

Derrick Bell, distinguished Civil Rights advocate and father of Critical Race Theory, died today at the age of 80, the New York Times reports.

Bell, the first African-American law professor at Harvard, and the first dean of a non-historically black law school, led an interesting life, influencing our own President Barack Obama, who compared him to bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks. He left Harvard Law School when they refused to change their hiring practices to allow minorities a chance to teach at the famous Ivy League school.

Perhaps more famous for rejecting high positions in education and government than accepting them, Bell once resigned from working at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in his 20s, after his superiors told him to give up his membership in the N.A.A.C.P., believing it posed a conflict of interest.

Professor Bell’s core beliefs included what he called “the interest convergence dilemma” — the idea that whites would not support efforts to improve the position of blacks unless it was in their interest. Asked how the status of blacks could be improved, he said he generally supported civil rights litigation, but cautioned that even favorable rulings would probably yield disappointing results and that it was best to be prepared for that.

Ever the pragmatist, Professor Bell's teaching style was unique, in that he would forgo dry, boring, legal analyses and employ an allegorical method of teaching. Short stories, fictional characters, and other literary devices marked a successful foray into story writing, an example of such was the short story, "Space Traders", which appeared in his 1992 book, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.” In the story, as Professor 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 for only one thing: America’s black population, which would be sent to outer space. The white population accepts the offer by an overwhelming margin. (In 1994 the story was adapted as one of three segments in a television movie titled “Cosmic Slop.”)

This teaching style, as revolutionary as it was, did have several critics, one of which was Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who “label[ed] critical race theorists and postmodernists the ‘lunatic core’ of ‘radical legal egalitarianism.’” He writes,

"What is most arresting about critical race theory is that...it turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative. Rather than marshal logical arguments and empirical data, critical race theorists tell stories — fictional, science-fictional, quasi-fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal — designed to expose the pervasive and debilitating racism of America today. By repudiating reasoned argumentation, the storytellers reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites."

Others lauded Bell's Critical Race Theory, such as Judge Alex Kozinski, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who writes that Critical Race Theorists have constructed a philosophy which makes a valid exchange of ideas between the various disciplines unattainable.

"The radical multiculturalists' views raise insuperable barriers to mutual understanding. Consider the Space Traders story. How does one have a meaningful dialogue with Derrick Bell? Because his thesis is utterly untestable, one quickly reaches a dead end after either accepting or rejecting his assertion that white Americans would cheerfully sell all blacks to the aliens. The story is also a poke in the eye of American Jews, particularly those who risked life and limb by actively participating in the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Bell clearly implies that this was done out of tawdry self-interest. Perhaps most galling is Bell's insensitivity in making the symbol of Jewish hypocrisy the little girl who perished in the Holocaust — as close to a saint as Jews have. A Jewish professor who invoked the name of Rosa Parks so derisively would be bitterly condemned — and rightly so."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three sons from his first marriage, Derrick A. Bell III and Douglas Dubois Bell, both of Pittsburgh, and Carter Robeson Bell of New York; two sisters, Janet Bell of Pittsburgh and Constance Bell of Akron, Ohio; and a brother, Charles, of New York.