Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Professor Derrick Bell the Founder of Critical Race Theory Dies
Jim Fitzgerald
October 10, 2011.

NEW YORK — Derrick Bell, a civil rights scholar and writer who was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, has died. He was 80.

Mr. Bell died Wednesday (October 5) night of carcinoid cancer at a Manhattan hospital, his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, said Friday. He had been diagnosed with the disease a decade ago, she said, but was still teaching at New York University Law School as recently as last week.

The dean at NYU, Richard Revesz, said, "For more than 20 years, the law school community has been profoundly shaped by Derrick's unwavering passion for civil rights and community justice, and his leadership as a scholar, teacher, and activist."

Mr. Bell was long dissatisfied with the progress of race relations in America despite his own success. He helped establish a field known as critical race theory by urging that U.S. laws be examined for racism embedded within them.

His 1973 casebook, "Race, Racism and American Law," is still in use in law schools in updated editions.

Mr. Bell attained several lofty positions in his field, but more than once he left them in protest.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh law school in 1957 — The New York Times reported that he was the only black student — he was hired at the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. But he resigned when he was told his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a conflict of interest.

He later worked at the NAACP's legal defense fund, in Pittsburgh and Mississippi. He supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi.

In 1969, Mr. Bell was recruited by Harvard Law and two years later became its first tenured African-American professor. He left in 1980 to become dean at the University of Oregon Law School, but he left Oregon five years later to protest the school's decision not to hire an Asian-American woman.

Mr. Bell returned to Harvard, but in 1990 he took a leave of absence to protest the absence of black women on the law school faculty.

"I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe if I do not practice my own precepts," he said. He never returned to the school.

Harvard Law dean Martha Minow said Mr. Bell "inspired and challenged generations of colleagues and students with imagination, passion, and courage."

In 1998, Harvard hired its first female African-American law school professor, Lani Guinier. She told the Times that Mr. Bell "set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy."

Mr. Bell wrote two autobiographies and a series of allegorical stories about race. One of them, "The Space Traders," was made into a movie for television.

"He's always been all about the students," his wife said. "He taught by example, by inspiration, by encouragement."

Mr. Bell is survived by his wife and three sons, Derrick, Douglass and Carter, from his first marriage to the late Jewel Hairston Bell.

Janet Bell said a memorial service will be held Nov. 3 at Riverside Church. NYU Law School has scheduled a tribute for Feb. 28.


Comment: Derrick Bell exemplified what it meant to be a scholar-activist.  Throughout his career he locked horns with the system choosing to confront and to fight rather than to rely on the safety of replicating its "commonsense" from inside.

Bell also proved that at times it is just not reasonable to stay immersed in an untenable situation.  On several occasions in his distinguished academic career he just walked away in principled frustration. 

His book "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism" is a devastating critique of the liberal pretense that racism can be countered by individual goodwill gestures and legal manipulations.

I used his book in my racism classes over the years and asked students to think about a world where racism is permanent.

The point of the exercise was to push students to appreciate how structure informs and reproduces racism.

This was, in short, Bell's purpose.  His critical race thinking highlights the intersection between power and political interests.

As an academic Bell had his choice of lofty jobs but he never sold out on his principles.  He would simply protest vehemently even when his colleagues and others labeled him divisive.

We owe his pioneering work a great intellectual debt and I am saddened to know that his material form is not with us anymore.

But, I know that Derrick Bell will live forever through his intellectual contribution and I pray that his example will inspire many more of us to stand firm against those who would buy our consent.

May Professor Derrick Bell rest in peace until that day.


Picture Credit


Anonymous said...

One correction...Harvard did not recruit Professor Bell. After Professor Bell applied to Harvard on countless occasions; and after Kings assassination, then Harvard relinquished and hired him. It was mentioned at his Memorial last night at Riverside Church from his own words. Ingrid, UWS

Ridwan said...

Thank you for pointing this out Ingrid.

It is an important piece of contextual information.