Who Was Derrick Bell And Why Is Critical Race Theory So Scary And So Important?

What does racial equality mean to you? Is it when people, regardless of economic upbringing, are given the opportunity to succeed? Is it when the legal system is blind to the color of a defendant’s skin? Is it when there is truly no more segregation, when the south side of Chicago begins to resemble the north? Is it when people are allowed to prosper without assistance from the federal government? Is it when race stops being part of the American dialogue? Does a society cease to become racist when it becomes homogenous or when cultural differences are embraced without prejudice?

Those on the left would undoubtedly answer these questions very differently than people on the right. For example, those on the right might see the a world without racism as a world without the need to talk about racism, a time when people of color are left alone to succeed without our interference or our help. Those on the right might welcome a black person into their country club, but only if they act “right,” which means acting white. Those on the right believe that by addressing racial inequality, your actions are racist.

Those on the left tend to see the disadvantages people of color have from the get go. A person born of poverty and oppression is far less likely to even have access to the basic building blocks of a middle class life than a person who starts out in a middle class family. The law, according to those on the left, is far from color blind. There’s a reason, we say, that people often jokingly say that “driving while black” is a crime. We don’t want a homogenous world, a culture defined by white Europeans, only open to people of color if they make the effort to talk like us, dress like us, act like us. We want a world where people are accepted for their differences.

While it might sound like I am oversimplifying the views of the stereotypical right while lauding the views of the stereotypical left, perhaps the answer to racial discrimination lies in neither camp. Perhaps the problem is so deeply ingrained that we need to reexamine society from the top down.

Several days ago, political agitator, Andrew Breitbart died. Before his death, he spoke at the CPAC convention where he warned of a video that would soon be released. The video, he said, would tell us the real story of Barack Obama’s past. Breitbart didn’t have a chance to release the bombshell video, but this week, two of his colleagues, Charles Ogletree and Joel Pollak did.

Watch Sean Hannity barely contain his glee over this new revelation.

Here’s the videos of Hannity’s show:

Part I

Part II

I expected little from the video. President Obama is black. You either accept that fact or you don’t. If you don’t, a Breitbart style video might appeal to you, but you would never be an Obama voter anyway. If you have accepted the fact that he’s black, there’s little race baiting that could sway your vote. But, those on the right keep hoping that if they reveal the President to be blacker than he is, someone will care.

The video shows a 29-year-old man who, as President of the Harvard Law Review, was bound for a life of great import. The man was a young Barack Obama, over 20 years ago. In the video, he was shown introducing the first African-American tenured professor to grace the illustrious Harvard Law School. That man was his professor, Derrick Bell. In the end of the video, Obama is seen embracing Bell.

Who is Derrick Bell and why is his association with Obama considered by people like Breitbart, Hannity, Pollak and Ogletree to be the death knell for the reelection campaign of the 44th President of the United States? Why do they call him the “Jeremiah Wright of academia?”

Derrick Bell was born in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression. The decade before Bell’s birth was like no other time in American history. The women’s suffrage movement created political allies of blacks and women.

When the Nineteenth Amendment granting woman suffrage became law in the fall of 1920, black women across the South attempted to register and vote, with varying degrees of success. They acted as a wedge to bring African-Americans back into public life.After 1919, black and white southerners of both sexes forged tentative coalitions to prevent a recurrence of such violence. Called Commissions on Interracial Cooperation, black and white members worked to put an end to racial massacres and lynching and toward better “race relations.”

This arguably gave birth to the one of the basic tenets of liberalism, that all civil rights are intertwined; that no one is equal unless all are equal. As we’ll see, this is also one of the tenets of critical race theory.

The alliance was short-lived. The Great Depression hit. Compassion gave way to self-interest. In a time of massive unemployment, it was common for a black person to be fired so a white person could take his place. None of this was terribly surprising. Racism and white supremacy have always been about one thing and one thing only; money. The poor at that time saw African-Americans as competition for scarce resources and the wealthy saw African-Americans as exploitable, for cheap and sometimes even free (prison) labor.

Like most African-American families of the time, Bell’s was poor. Derrick was the first of the family to go to college. He joined the ROTC and after graduation, enlisted in the Korean War. After the war, he graduated law school and was hired by the US Justice Department, only to be forced out for refusing to end his relationship with the NAACP. Bell was recruited by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, to join the NAACP legal defense fund, where he handled desegregation cases. He then went back to the government, where he was named deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1968, he entered academia, at the University of Southern California. By 1971, he was offered a highly prestigious tenured position at Harvard Law School. These accomplishments would have been spectacular for a white man, even now, but for an African-American in the mid 20th century they were groundbreaking.

While at Harvard, Bell wrote a book called, Race, Racism and American Law, which introduced critical race theory. The book is considered to be mainstream and standard study in law schools across the country.

He left Harvard for a position as the Dean of Oregon Law School, but later resigned in protest after being told that he couldn’t hire an Asian American candidate for a faculty position. He returned to Harvard and once again resigned in protest of the school’s policy of discriminating against minority women. The video featured on Hannity’s show showed Harvard Law student, Barack Obama, along with dozens of other Harvard Law students of all races and genders, rallying in support of Professor Bell and in support of diversity, not just diversity for black men, but diversity for all. Diversity for all is in short the motivation behind critical race theory.

Critical race theory was born from the reality that during the 70s, civil rights advances had all but stopped. It acknowledges the intersection between race, class, sex, the law and power. We had dealt with institutional racism. Race was (in theory) no longer an obstacle to a job, a place to live, a school, etc, but only the most naive could believe that racism had ended. Critical race theory simply acknowledged that people treat each other differently based on race. One example I often see used is this:

Two people pass one another while walking down a street and the first person smiles at the second. Let us imagine that the second person either smiles in response as they pass, or stares down at the pavement and shuffles past. In the case where the second participant shuffles by uncomfortably, our first instinct may be to imagine that they are simply unfriendly, or have had a bad day. Now what if the first participant is a person of color, and second is white? We will probably be wary of some form of racist micro-aggression. What if both participants are people of color? What if the first participant is white, and the second is black? In each of these situations our understanding of the society’s race relations may be more nuanced than under a traditional approach.

Critical race theory disputes the idea that racial equality can be legislated, that human emotions and human prejudices can be removed from the justice system, even with the most stringent anti-discrimination laws. Critical theorists believe that change must come from organized protest.

African-Americans, according to critical race theorists, are not seen as individuals. Politicians see them as voting blocs. White liberals see them as a way to assuage guilt. Business people see them as labor and as customers. Everyone, they claim, sees African-Americans from their own narrow perspective, colored by their Caucasian view of the world.

This view might be cynical, but even as a white person, I have a difficult time denying it. But it’s also easy to see why many conservatives have an issue with critical race theory. It attempts to deconstruct long-held beliefs of white supremacy, not in the sense of men in hoods, but in the very real economic sense. Conservatives, by definition, resist change. The true elimination of racism means so much more than simply having black friends or coworkers. We might arrive at the same place, but we’ve each had different life experiences along our journey. Those life experiences will impact our decisions. If they don’t, we aren’t growing as human beings.

Derrick Bell could be accused of radical thought, but during his time, so was Einstein. People who acknowledge that people are treated differently because of race or gender or even beauty aren’t radical. They are realists. Derrick Bell’s words are taught in the most conservative law schools.

Some accuse Bell of being antisemitic, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact he often drew parallels between antisemitism and racism.

Bell’s teachings even went mainstream with a story and (not very good) video called, Space Traders. Space Traders is a cynical sci-fi view of what would happen if aliens agreed to solve all of our problems if we’d give them our black people. What’s left out of any conservative dialogue is that Jewish people are also targeted in the story. It’s only hinted at in the movie. It’s silly. It’s extreme, but it left me wondering. What would we do faced with that decision? Conservatives think that just by posing the question, Bell is threatening the powers that be. And perhaps he was, but who is a bigger threat to your well-being, a (now dead) Harvard law professor or the people who would like to see unions destroyed, the people who would like to strip us of our future, the people who would like to take away our choices, the people who will stop at nothing to protect their power?

Hannity, Pollak and friends would like nothing more than for Obama’s association with Bell to be the smoking gun, but there’s no more proof that the President is a critical race theorist than there is that any of the audience members in that video are. There’s nothing in President Obama’s history or his actions to indicate that he is a critical race theorist. There’s even less evidence that people care.


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