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Paul Rosenberg
Paul Rosenberg
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Derrick Bell was a radical, thankfully
The late Harvard Law professor, recently derided by US conservatives, helped pioneer critical race theory.
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2012 12:40
Like Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Derrick Bell was a radical [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, CA - The right-wing noise machine has been viciously attacking the late Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell as a black radical racist. Surprisingly, they got two out of three right: Bell was black and he was a radical - from the Greek radic, meaning "root".  His quest to see through surface appearances and get to the root of things made him an analytical radical, and his quest to take the resulting understanding, to seek justice, to make a difference and to live with integrity made him a radical in action as well - just like Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both men came to a similar realisation: that the dissolution of formal racial barriers was the easy part, costing white America's power structure almost nothing. The hard part - gaining substantive social and economic justice - would require far more. Dr King was assassinated near the beginning of his engagement in the hard part, a year after he had spoken out unambiguously against the Vietnam War, earning the scorn of the liberal establishment press, and months before the planned Poor People's Campaign, which went on without him, but lacked the impact his presence would have given it.

The real, historic, radical King has been lost to most white and many black Americans, too, through a process of "Santa Clausification". But if you want to grasp what he'd be like had he lived on into the 21st century, then Derrick Bell was an ideal model. On one level, Bell was a classic American success story - the first in his family to ever go to college, then law school. He went on to become dean of the University of Oregon School of Law and a tenured professor at Harvard Law School, the first African American ever to hold either of those two posts. This Derrick Bell was a man conservatives could love - an individual pathbreaker, whose success they can use to shame others and make the case that everything was just fine as it was: See, he did it, so what's the problem? 

But on another level, the real Derrick Bell was the very antithesis of what conservatives want. At this level, Bell repeatedly sacrificed his own hard-won success to extend a hand in solidarity with others still struggling. When he was brought into the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, he refused to give up his NAACP membership, ultimately leaving his job instead. In the 1980s, he gave up his position as dean at the University of Oregon in protest against the school's refusal to grant tenure to two Asian-American women. Then, in 1990, he gave up his tenured position at Harvard over the school's failure to hire women of colour for tenure-track positions.

On a third level, Bell went further still in realising that existing civil rights practice was not sufficient to the task of liberation, since every advance gave rise to new forms of white resistance. This attitude has always made whites uncomfortable - even (sometimes especially) liberal ones, but virtually every black activist knows this all too well. After Brown v Board of Education, many saw the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an unnecessary distraction, but it turned out to be indispensable - as did the Freedom Rides and the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins as well. King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" squares off directly against a similar status quo mentality which opposed them all. Did Bell's break go further and deeper? Yes and no: "Yes" for those reluctant to follow, but "no" for those who joined him, and gained a previously unimaginable perspective in doing so.

Consider this fundamental fact of "evolving" civil rights law, described by David Kairys in "Unconscious Racism": in the 1960s, discriminatory acts were commonly identified by having a "disparate impact" on people of different races. White attitudes and intentions were irrelevant: what mattered was the objectively observable impact on black lives, about which blacks were natural authorities. But things went dramatically backwards in the mid-1970s, when the standard became much more difficult to prove - one now had to prove an individual discriminatory intent. Not only was this far more difficult to prove, but it shifted focal attention away from minority subjects - their experience, suffering and injuries - and to the intent of the majority, which automatically privileged the individual suspected racist. At the same time, it also drew sympathetic attention to him from other whites, afraid that they could be in that position next.

This reactionary posture is how race relations have predominantly been framed since the late 1970s: after a brief hiatus, the central subjects are once again white males. Bell was one of the leading voices in shaping a creative legal theoretic response to this, a response that became known as Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is partially described at the UCLA School of Public Affairs:

"CRT recognises that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture."

Bell's website adds:

"Professor Bell saw social injustice as forever changing, requiring constant reevaluation and reassessment. Attaining perfection was neither the objective nor the yardstick by which progress or success was to be measured."

Shorter version: Freedom is a constant struggle. A classic observation of radical common sense.

As a pioneer, Bell broke with convention in numerous ways: in his use of storytelling, for example. Yet, Bell himself stressed continuity:

"I do not consider my stories a major departure in legal education. The use of hypotheticals is a staple of discussion in law school classrooms. In addition, final examinations are generally presented in a series of fictional facts, out of which law students are expected to recognise and apply legal precedents to support their conclusions. Building on this foundation, I began extending these fictional stories to reflect the contradictions and dilemmas faced by those attempting to apply legal rules to the many forms of racial discrimination."

This is what an organic radical looks like - one who is absolutely not an "other", an alien outsider, but rather a courageous, intelligent, self-critical, deeply rooted native son.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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