Derrick Bell

As a founder of critical race theory, Derrick Bell (1930-2011) is one of the most important theorists of the late twentieth century. Bell has published multiple books and articles investigating the state of racial inequality in America, with a particular focus on the legal and political systems. His texts are now widely studied, and regarded by many as an invaluable way to view American race relations.

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    Critical race theory is a field of academic study founded by Derrick Bell in the 1970s. The theory evaluates and deconstructs racial biases and how they impact the day-to-day lives of people of colour. Critical race theory is mostly focused on America. It argues that the American judicial and political systems are inherently racist. This results in a society that benefits white people above all others.

    Derrick Bell, content warning, StudySmarter

    Derrick Bell: biography

    Derrick Bell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 6th November 1930 into a working-class family. Bell was the oldest of four children. After finishing high school, Bell was offered a scholarship to Lincoln University, which he declined as he did not receive sufficient financial aid to attend university. Instead, Bell went to Duquesne University, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1952. Bell was also the first member of his family to go to university. He spent time in the U.S. Air Force after finishing university.

    Upon returning from the Air Force, Bell went to the University of Pittsburgh's Law School, where he got his law degree. He was the only black person in his graduating class. As a newly graduated lawyer, Bell worked for the American Department of Justice for a period, investigating the impact of racism on legal rulings. However, Bell was asked to give up his membership in the NAACP as his superiors claimed it could cause a conflict of interest. Bell refused, instead opting to leave the Department of Justice. The NAACP then recruited Bell as part of their legal team fighting racial injustice.

    The NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. It is an advocacy group founded in 1909 to fight for the rights of people of colour in America. The NAACP challenges racial prejudices and injustices, often in the court system. They were particularly prominent during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century.

    During a time of divisive segregation in America's southern states, Bell worked on over three hundred desegregation cases, mostly focused on schools. In 1966, he was given a position in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, specialising in civil rights. After this, Bell began working in academia, where he would remain for the rest of his professional life. Bell's first teaching job came at the University of Southern California's law school.

    In an American context, segregation was the legal separation of the races, prominent mainly in the southern states during the early and mid-twentieth century. Segregation was legalised by the 'Jim Crow Laws' which claimed that the races were separate but equal. This was not the reality. Instead, African Americans were discriminated against under these laws, and forced into separate schools, housing, public bathrooms, etc. These facilities were significantly inferior in comparison to facilities for white people.

    In 1971, Bell became Harvard Law School's first full-time African American professor. This is where Bell began to define his idea of critical race theory, a field that would go on to be hugely impactful on the world of academia. He began to reevaluate the desegregation cases he had dealt with as a young lawyer and realised many of them had not had the positive impact that he had expected. This led Bell to conclude that racism was more woven into the fabric of American society than he had originally thought. Today, critical race theory is an important and much-discussed area of study in America.

    While at Harvard, Bell wrote and published an important text entitled Race, Racism and American Law (1973), a study inspired by his experience in civil rights law. Bell taught this text to many of his classes, and it is still taught today in universities. In 1980, Bell took a job at the University of Oregon, which he then left in 1985 in protest at the university's failure to hire diverse staff. Returning to Harvard, Bell again refused to work in 1992, protesting the lack of diversity in the university. Harvard had failed to hire minorities on their teaching staff, particularly women of colour.

    After losing his position at Harvard over sustained protests, Bell moved to the New York University School of Law. This is where he would remain for the rest of his life. Derrick Bell passed away from cancer on 5th October 2011, at the age of eighty. He never retired, teaching up until his death.

    Derrick Bell: critical theory

    As a law professor in the 1970s, Derrick Bell founded the influential study of critical race theory. The theory investigates the structural racism present in America, particularly in its judicial and political realms. A key motivation behind critical race theory is to explain why racism is so prevalent in America despite the fact that both slavery and segregation have been abolished. Below are some key beliefs of critical race theory.

    1. Racism is a common experience for people of colour in America.
    2. America's legal and political systems are inherently racist.
    3. Only obvious cases of racism are covered under the law, and more subtle incidences are ignored.
    4. American society was set up to exclusively benefit white people, and many of these effects are still felt daily by people of colour.
    5. The modern conception of race is a social construct used to suppress people of colour.
    6. The interest-convergence principle: The white elites only solve issues of racial inequality if they, too, benefit from the solution.

    Critical race theory encourages a questioning of social norms and how they may be used to oppress people of colour, particularly African Americans. It proposes that racist biases are part of how American society operates, and this is a significant reason behind the racial inequality that many people of colour face in America. In founding critical race theory, Derrick Bell questioned both right and left-wing positions on the question of racial equality.

    He believed even those in government who aided the civil rights movement left too much up to chance and failed to acknowledge the inherent racism of American society. For example, the law is often assumed to be neutral and unbiased. However, critical race theory argues that laws were set up mostly by white people in a time when racism was the accepted norm. This led to many laws being either inherently racist or not taking into account the disadvantages that people of colour may face.

    Derrick Bell: books

    Bell published multiple theoretical books during his career, the vast majority of which focused on racial inequality in America.

    Derrick Bell: Race, Racism and American Law (1973)

    Race, Racism and American Law was one of the first legal case studies to perform an in-depth investigation of the impact of racism on American law. The text has become key in the teaching of many law degrees today. In his book, Bell gives extensive examples of cases that set precedents in American law for discrimination against people of colour, particularly African Americans. One such example is Dred Scott V. Sandford (1957). The ruling of this case is considered to have been one of the most overtly racist in American history.

    In Dred Scott V. Sandford, the American Supreme Court ruled that the American constitution was never intended to extend citizenship rights to black people and, therefore, they would not receive any of the benefits or treatment that goes along with citizenship. This ruling applied whether a person was free or enslaved. While widely condemned for its racism, this was still a conclusive ruling passed by the powerful Supreme Court. Bell uses this to exemplify the inherent racism in the American judicial system.

    Derrick Bell, a large white building with columns, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The U.S. Supreme Court, where the Dred Scott V. Sandford case was decided.

    Derrick Bell: Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992)

    Faces at the Bottom of the Well corroborates many of the points made by Bell on critical race theory in previous publications. This book consists of various fictional stories that illustrate the issues of racism in modern American society. Many of the stories contain the figure of the law professor, likely a stand-in for Bell himself.

    One chapter consists of a short story in which America gives up on progressive racial policies as the country seems unable to achieve racial equality. Instead, a license is given to individuals to discriminate racially, but only if they donate to a fund helping African Americans. Another chapter contains a story about Harvard's law department. The university only agrees to increase the diversity of its staff after a bombing kills all their African American faculty. This is likely inspired by Bell's experiences at Harvard in the 1990s.

    Derrick Bell: articles

    In addition to his books, Derrick Bell also published many impactful articles in the area of critical race theory. One such article that has proved to be influential is 'Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma' (1980). In this article, Bell exemplifies the interest-convergence principle, which has become a central tenet of critical race theory.

    As a reminder, the interest-convergence principle refers to the belief that issues of racial inequality are only addressed by white leaders when it also benefits them. Here, Bell is providing the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as an example. This Supreme Court case ruled that educational segregation was fundamentally unconstitutional.

    While seen as a positive development at the time, in hindsight, Bell's article views Brown more as a case of interest-convergence. Protests against segregation had been getting more worldwide attention and were beginning to damage America's reputation on the world stage. Bell believes that education may have never been desegregated if doing this did not also benefit the white elite.

    Derrick Bell, a group of black silhouettes of people protesting and holding banners and signs, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Anti segregation protests were common throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

    Derrick Bell: critical race theory quotes

    As one of the founding figures of critical race theory, Bell's work in the area is of high importance. It is key to be aware of his own words on the topic.

    'Beyond the ebb and flow of racial progress lies the still viable and widely accepted (though seldom expressed) belief that America is a white country in which blacks, particularly as a group, are not entitled to the concern, resources, or even empathy that would be extended to similarly situated whites.'Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (2004), Conclusion.This quote encapsulates one of Bell's central ideas: that America sees itself primarily as a white country that African Americans are encroaching upon. This idea is one of the key barriers to progress in terms of racial equality.
    'Slavery is, as an example of what white America has done, a constant reminder of what white America might do.'Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Introduction.Slavery, as one of the darkest periods of America's history, is also a reminder for Bell of how white America views African Americans. The subjugation of people of colour in American society goes back centuries but still continues in new forms today.
    'Since whites in general were not held responsible for harm to blacks, it followed that only those whites who were found liable for intentional discrimination should be penalised.'Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, Conclusion.This quote is linked to a key belief of critical race theory. In American society, it is often only the obvious issues of racism that are punished. The more subtle, day-to-day incidences of discrimination that people of colour experience are disregarded.

    Derrick Bell - Key takeaways

    • Derrick Bell (1930-2011) was an American civil rights lawyer, theorist, and professor.
    • He founded the study of critical race theory.
    • This theory investigates why racial discrimination is still prominent in America, viewing American society as inherently racist.
    • Race, Racism and American Law (1973) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992) are two of Bell's most important books.
    • 'Brown V. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma' (1980) is a key article by Bell on critical race theory.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Derrick Bell

    Why did Derrick Bell leave Harvard?

    Bell left Harvard due to the lack of diversity amongst its staff.

    What did Derrick Bell do?

    Bell was a civil rights lawyer, professor, and theorist.

    Is Derrick Bell dead?

    Yes, Bell passed away from cancer in 2011.

    Who is Derrick Bell?

    Derrick Bell was a civil rights lawyer and theorist who founded the study of critical race theory.

    How did Derrick Bell participate in the civil rights movement?

    Bell participated in the movement as a lawyer fighting for desegregation in schools. 

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