Born in November 1930, Derrick Bell may be considered the founder, or at least the godfather, of “Critical Race Theory,” an academic tradition in which race plays the same role as class plays in the Marxist paradigm. In the mid-1970s Bell was a pioneer in this field. He was not only angered by what he viewed as the slow progress of racial reform in the United States, but he also held that the gains brought about by the civil rights laws of the 1960s were being eroded in the 1970s.

  • Professor at New York University School of Law
  • Proponent of “Critical Race Theory”
  • Supporter of race preferences favoring nonwhites in business and academia
  • Died in October 2011

Obama_and_Bell_EmbracingObama: “Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell…………”Obama’s Mentor: ‘We Hid This Throughout 2008 Campaign

Bell believed then, as he did for the rest of his life, that whites would support civil rights protections for blacks only if those protections would also promote white self-interest and social status. Since Bell viewed racial minorities as a permanently oppressed caste — and he saw racism as a normal, permanent aspect of American life — he reasoned that equality before the law was unfair to blacks, whose moral claims were superior to those of whites. Bell endorsed a journal called Race Traitor, which is dedicated to the “abolition of whiteness,” and whose motto is “Treason to the white race is loyalty to humanity.”  

Professor Bell (and his fellow Critical Race theorists) held that existing legal structures are, like American society at large, racist in their very construction. Critical Race Theory suggests that to combat this “institutional racism,” oppressed racial groups have both the right and the duty to decide, for themselves, which laws are valid and are worth observing. Critical Race Theory also promotes the use of storytelling narratives in law-review articles to better reflect the “oral traditions” of black experience. Bell used the technique of placing legal and social commentary into the mouths of invented characters extensively in his writings. While acknowledging that this “style of storytelling” was “less rigorous than the doctrine-laden, citation-heavy law review pieces,” he employed it nonetheless. 

Bell earned a bachelor’s degree from Duquesne University in 1952 and a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1957. The first job of his legal career was in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. He left that position after a short time to work as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he became a protégé of Thurgood Marshall.

In the immediate aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination, members of Harvard University’s Black Law Students Association pressured their school to hire a minority professor; this led eventually to Bell’s hiring in 1971 as the first black faculty member in the law school’s history. From the very outset of his stay at Harvard, Bell was acutely aware of the fact that he lacked the qualifications that had traditionally been prerequisites for an appointment at Harvard: he had neither graduated with distinction from a prestigious law school, nor clerked for the Supreme Court, nor practiced law at a major firm. Yet he mocked such criteria as being nothing more than the exclusionary constructs of a racist white power structure that traditionally had sought to deny blacks an opportunity to teach at the nation’s elite schools.

In 1980 Professor Bell left Harvard to become the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. He resigned from that position in 1985, ostensibly as an act of protest against the fact that the school had failed to grant tenure to an Asian female professor. A number of Professor Bell’s colleagues at Oregon, however, viewed this as a contrived, face-saving pretext for leaving a position from which he was about to be fired. They believed that Bell, who had largely become an “absentee dean” known for spending more time on the lecture circuit than at Oregon, was slated for imminent termination.

Bell joined the faculty of Stanford Law School in 1986 and immediately became a source of controversy. Many of his students there complained that he was not using his lecture time to teach principles of law, but rather as a platform from which to indoctrinate his captive audience to his leftwing theories and worldviews. Cognizant of Bell’s glaring deficiencies as a teacher but afraid to openly address them, Stanford quietly instituted a lecture series designed to help his students learn the course material that Professor Bell was not teaching them. Perceiving this as a racial affront, Bell left Stanford and returned to Harvard in the fall of 1986.

In April 1990 Professor Bell demanded that Harvard Law School hire a black woman — specifically the visiting professor Regina Austin (who was also an adherent of Critical Race Theory) — as a tenured faculty member. Though Harvard had a longstanding policy that forbade the hiring of visiting professors during the year of their residence at the school, Bell made Austin’s hiring a “non-negotiable demand.”

When the law school would not cave to Professor Bell’s pressure, he protested by taking a leave of absence from his $120,000-per-year teaching post. He explained that black female law students were in desperate need of “role models” with whom they could identify. Although 45 percent of Harvard Law’s faculty appointments since 1980 had gone to minorities and women, none of them were both black and female — hence Bell’s objection. But even if Harvard had agreed to grant tenure to Professor Austin, Bell would not have been satisfied. As he would later write in a law-review article condemning schools for hiring “token” minorities: “The hiring of a few minorities and women — particularly when a faculty is under pressure from students or civil rights agencies — is not a departure from … this power-preserving doctrine” of white male supremacy.

In 1990-91, Professor Bell taught a civil rights course at Harvard without pay, though he later acknowledged that he had gotten himself placed as a “consultant” on the payroll of a “major entertainment figure.” To express his displeasure with Harvard in definitive terms, in the spring of 1991 Bell announced that he would take a one-year visiting professor’s position at New York University Law School. He later extended this to two years, and later still announced that he would spend a third year at NYU. This third year would require not only NYU’s waiver of time limits on visiting professorships, but also Harvard’s waiver of its firm policy forbidding professors to be on leave for more than two years. Harvard dean Robert Clark stated that if Bell did not return to his post, the latter would lose his place on Harvard’s faculty. Bell refused to return and thus lost his job. After that, Bell continued to teach at NYU.

Bell was a passionate proponent of racial preferences as a means of minimizing what he viewed as the potentially disastrous effects of white Americans’ inherent racist impulses. He viewed black professors who did not enthusiastically embrace affirmative action as traitors to the black race; they “look black but think white,” said Bell.

A few of Professor Bell’s more notable quotes (all of them from his 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well) on the subject of race include the following:

  • “Despite undeniable progress for many, no African Americans are insulated from incidents of racial discrimination. Our careers, even our lives, are threatened because of our color.”

  • “[T]he racism that made slavery feasible is far from dead . . . and the civil rights gains, so hard won, are being steadily eroded.”

  • “… few whites are ready to actively promote civil rights for blacks.”

  • “[D]iscrimination in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when employers posted signs ‘no negras need apply.'”

  • “We rise and fall less as a result of our efforts than in response to the needs of a white society that condemns all blacks to quasi citizenship as surely as it segregated our parents.”

  • “Slavery is, as an example of what white America has done, a constant reminder of what white America might do.”

  • “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. … African Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality of our permanent subordinate status.”

  • “Tolerated in good times, despised when things go wrong, as a people we [blacks] are scapegoated and sacrificed as distraction or catalyst for compromise to facilitate resolution of political differences or relieve economic adversity.”

Bell authored several books on race and the law, including Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (2004); Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (2002); Race, Racism, and American Law (2000); Constitutional Conflicts (1997); Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester (1994); Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992); And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1989); and Civil Rights: Leading Cases (1980).

Bell died of cancer on October 5, 2011.