By Jueseppi B.
Let’s see what the very dead Andrew Breitbart was going to ”expose” on President Barack Obama before his untimely death.
Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. (November 6, 1930 – October 5, 2011) was the first tenured African-American professor of Law at Harvard University, and largely credited as the originator of Critical Race Theory. He was the former dean of the University of Oregon School of Law.
Education and early career
Born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Bell received an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952 and an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957. After graduation, and after a recommendation from then United States Associate Attorney General William Rogers, Bell took a position with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was the only Black person working for the Justice Department at the time. In 1959, the government asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. Bell quit rather than giving up his NAACP membership.
Soon afterwards, Bell took a position as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), crafting legal strategies at the forefront of the battle to undo racist laws and segregation in schools. At the LDF, he worked alongside other prominent civil rights attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter and Constance Baker Motley. Bell was assigned to Mississippi, the cradle of the deep South, where racism was at its most virulent and entrenched. While working at the LDF, Bell supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases and spearheaded the fight of James Meredith to secure admission to the University of Mississippi over the protests of Governor Ross Barnett.
“I learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality,” Bell was quoted as saying in The Boston Globe … “I also learned a lot riding those dusty roads and walking into those sullen hostile courts in Jackson, Mississippi. It just seems that unless something’s pushed, unless you litigate, nothing happens.”
USC and Harvard
In the mid-1960s Bell was appointed to the law faculty of the University of Southern California as executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. In 1969, with the help of protests from black Harvard Law School students for a minority faculty member, Bell was hired to teach there. At Harvard, Bell established a new course in civil rights law, published a celebrated case book, Race, Racism and American Law, and produced a steady stream of law review articles. As a teacher, Bell became a mentor and role model to a generation of students of color, but he played a delicate balancing act at the university. Bell became the first black tenured professor in Harvard Law School’s history and called on the university to improve its minority hiring record. But shortly after his tenure in 1971, a white university vice-president tried to purchase a house that Bell had been previously offered through the university; Bell saw this as a case of discrimination. This was the first case in which Bell’s charges of racism would mobilize his supporters, who championed his efforts to stand up for principle, and anger his detractors, who accused him of being too quick with his allegations of bigotry.
Protests over faculty diversity
In 1980 Bell became the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, becoming one of the first African-Americans to ever head a non-black law school. He resigned in 1985 over a dispute about faculty diversity. Bell then taught at Stanford University for a year.
Returning to Harvard in 1986, Bell staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two legal scholars on staff, both of whom adhered to a movement in legal philosophy that claims legal institutions play a role in the maintenance of the ruling class’ position. The administration, not giving an inch, claimed substandard scholarship and teaching on the part of the professors as the reason for the denial of tenure, but Bell called it an unambiguous attack on ideology. Bell’s sit-in galvanized student support but sharply divided the faculty.
Bell reentered the debate over hiring practices at Harvard in 1990, when he vowed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the school appointed a female of color to its tenured faculty. At the time, of the law school’s 60 tenured professors, only three were black and five were women. The school had never had a black woman on the tenured staff.
Students held vigils and protests in solidarity with Bell with the support of some faculty. One of these students was future U.S. president Barack Obama, who spoke at a protest at Harvard Law School on behalf of Bell. Critics, including some faculty members, called Bell’s methods counterproductive, and Harvard administration officials insisted they had already made enormous advances in hiring. The story of his protest is detailed in his book Confronting Authority.
To some observers, Bell’s lament about Harvard amounted to a call for the school to lower its academic qualifications in the quest to mold a diversified faculty on the campus. But Bell argued that academically able faculty were being ignored and that critics of diversity invariably underplay the value of a faculty that is broadly reflective of society, and, more importantly, that the credentials demanded by institutions like Harvard perpetuate the domination of white, well-off, middle-aged men. As he commented in the Boston Globe, “Let’s look at a few qualifications–say civil rights experience … that might allow [a chance at a tenured teaching position for] more folks here who, like me, maybe didn’t go to the best law school but instead have made a real difference in the world.”
In 1992, Bell, who had taken a visiting professorship at New York University, was formally removed from the Harvard faculty. 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.”
Harvard ultimately hired civil rights attorney and U.S. Assistant Attorney General nominee Lani Guinier shortly after Bell left. After resigning from Harvard, Bell remained at NYU Law where he continued to write and lecture on issues of race and civil rights.
Bell is arguably the most influential source of thought critical of traditional civil rights discourse. Bell’s critique represented a challenge to the dominantliberal and conservative position on civil rights, race and the law. He employed three major arguments in his analyses of racial patterns in American law: constitutional contradiction, the interest convergence principle, and the price of racial remedies.
Bell continued writing about critical race theory after accepting a teaching position at Harvard University. Much of his legal scholarship was influenced by his experience both as a black man and as a civil rights attorney. Writing in a narrative style, Bell contributed to the intellectual discussions on race. According to Bell, his purpose in writing was to examine the racial issues within the context of their economic and social and political dimensions from a legal standpoint.
For instance, in The Constitutional Contradiction, Bell argued that the framers of the Constitution chose the rewards of property over justice. With regard to the interest convergence, he maintains that “whites will promote racial advances for blacks only when they also promote white self-interest.” Finally, in The Price of Racial Remedies, Bell argues that whites will not support civil rights policies that may threaten white social status.
Bell is also the author of a number of books and short stories, including “Ethical Ambition” and “The Space Traders,” a fictional story in which white Americans sell black Americans to space aliens in order to pay off the national debt. Bell also wrote the book, The Faces at the Bottom of the Well, which allegorically tells the story of people who are disenfranchised.
Derrick Bell was a supporter of animal rights.
In popular media
His short story “The Space Traders” was adapted in 1994 by director Reginald Hudlin and writer Trey Ellis. It aired as the leading segment of a three-part television anthology entitled Cosmic Slop, which focused on minority centric Science Fiction.
- The first of Breitbart’s Obama college tapes (fellowshipofminds.wordpress.com)
- Video Shows Law Student Obama Introducing Professor Derrick Bell at 1990 Campus Rally (studentactivism.net)
- Obama pushes for diversity at Harvard in unearthed early-90s video (thegrio.com)
- At Harvard, Obama Dived Into Diversity Fight (buzzfeed.com)
- At Harvard, Obama Dived Into Diversity Fight (kaystreet.wordpress.com)
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