Friday, October 7, 2011

DERRICK BELL, 1930-2011: Author, Law Professor, Legal Scholar, Innovative Social Theorist, and Political Activist

Derrick A. Bell: 1930-2011

Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images
Derrick Bell walking with a group of Harvard law students after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the lack of tenured minority women professors.


The world has just lost another GIANT of great ethical, moral, and political courage and integrity and that rarest and most profound example of the contemporary academic as a committed social activist--a genuine 'public intellectual' in every important and compelling sense of that often greatly misunderstood and distorted phrase. Dr. Bell was also an inspiring intellectual hero of mine whose extraordinary theoretical and practical contributions to legal and historical scholarship and social activism were a major guiding force and influence in the lives of two generations of American college students and legal scholars throughout not only this country but the world. Dr. Bell never wavered in his always highly principled commitment to real democracy, justice, freedom, and equality in the academic and legal worlds as well as the general society and always put his own sterling reputation and actual body on the line for the uniquely radical and innovative ideas, principles, and values that animated all of his tireless work and truly exemplary life. To say that the passing of this African American visionary leader and teacher who embodied the advanced DuBoisian tradition of meticulously fusing the very best in scholarship, critical theory, and political/cultural activism is a tremendous loss is a great understatement. However Dr. Bell's immense legacy will live on in the many students and professional workers in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America who were and continue to be deeply affected and transformed by his work and life. Thank you Dr. Bell for the glorious sacrifices rooted in love and discipline that you always insisted on making in spite of the insidious racism and endlessly patronizing tokenism that you so often found among your professional colleagues and adversaries alike. RIP brother...


Derrick Bell, Law Professor and Rights Advocate, Dies at 80 by FRED A. BERNSTEIN
October 6, 2011
New York Times

Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who saw persistent racism in America and sought to expose it through books, articles and provocative career moves — he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices — died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 80 and lived on the Upper West Side.

The cause was carcinoid cancer, his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, said.

Mr. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and later one of the first black deans of a law school that was not historically black. But he was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them.

While he was working at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in his 20s, his superiors told him to give up his membership in the N.A.A.C.P., believing it posed a conflict of interest. Instead he quit the department, ignoring the advice of friends to try to change it from within.

Thirty years later, when he left Harvard Law School, he rejected similar advice. At the time, he said, his first wife, Jewel Hairston Bell, had asked him, “Why does it always have to be you?” The question trailed him afterward, he wrote in a 2002 memoir, “Ethical Ambition,” as did another posed by unsympathetic colleagues:

“Who do you think you are?”

Professor Bell, soft-spoken and erudite, was “not confrontational by nature,” he wrote. But he attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992, he told The New York Times that black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. And he wrote that in light of the often  violent struggle that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, things might have worked out better if the court had instead ordered that both races be provided with truly equivalent schools.

He was a pioneer of critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law,” became a staple in law schools and is now in its sixth edition.

Mr. Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy,” said Lani Guinier, the first black woman hired to join Harvard Law School’s tenured faculty, in an interview on Wednesday.

At a rally while a student at Harvard Law, Barack Obama compared Professor Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

Professor Bell’s core beliefs included what he called “the interest convergence dilemma” — the idea that whites would not support efforts to improve the position of blacks unless it was in their interest. Asked how the status of blacks could be improved, he said he generally supported civil rights litigation, but cautioned that even favorable rulings would probably yield disappointing results and that it was best to be prepared for that.

Much of Professor Bell’s scholarship rejected dry legal analysis in favor of stories. In books and law review articles, he presented parables and allegories about race relations, then debated their meaning with a fictional alter ego, a professor named Geneva Crenshaw, who forced him to confront the truth about racism in America.

One of his best-known parables is “The Space Traders,” which appeared in his 1992 book, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.” In the story, as Professor Bell later described it, creatures from another planet offer the United States “enough gold to retire the national debt, a magic chemical that will cleanse America’s polluted skies and waters, and a limitless source of safe energy to replace our dwindling reserves.” In exchange, the creatures ask for only one thing: America’s black population, which would be sent to outer space. The white population accepts the offer by an overwhelming margin. (In 1994 the story was adapted as one of three segments in a television movie titled “Cosmic Slop.”)

Not everyone welcomed the move to storytelling in legal scholarship. In 1997 Richard Posner, the conservative law professor and appeals court judge, wrote in The New Republic that “by repudiating reasoned argumentation,” scholars like Professor Bell “reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.”Professor Bell’s narrative technique nonetheless became an accepted mode of legal scholarship, giving female, Latino and gay scholars a new way to introduce their experiences into legal discourse. Reviewing “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” in The New York Times, the Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote: “The stories challenge old assumptions and then linger in the mind in a way that a more conventionally scholarly treatment of the same themes would be unlikely to do.”

Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was born on Nov. 6, 1930, in Pittsburgh, to Derrick Albert and Ada Elizabeth Childress Bell. After graduating from Schenley High School near Pittsburgh’s Hill District, he became the first member of his family to go to college, attending Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1952.

A member of the R.O.T.C. at Duquesne, he was later an Air Force officer for two years, one of them in Korea. Afterward he attended the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where he was the only black student, earning his degree in 1957.

After his stint at the Justice Department, he headed the Pittsburgh office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, leading efforts to integrate a public swimming pool and a skating rink. Later, assigned to Mississippi, he supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases.

In 1969, after teaching briefly at the University of Southern California, he was recruited and hired by Harvard Law School, where students were pressuring the administration to appoint a black professor. Mr. Bell conceded that he did not have the usual qualifications for a Harvard professorship, like a federal court clerkship or a degree from a top law school.

In 1980 he left Harvard to become dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, but he resigned in 1985 when the school did not offer a position to an Asian-American woman. After returning to Harvard in 1986, he staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved critical race theory.

In 1990 he took an unpaid leave of absence, vowing not to return until the school hired, for the first time, a black woman to join its tenured faculty. His employment effectively ended when the school refused to extend his leave. By then, he was teaching at New York University School of Law, where he remained a visiting professor until his death. Harvard Law School hired Professor Guinier in 1998.

Mr. Bell said his personal decisions took a toll on his first wife, Jewel, who had cancer when he left Harvard in 1990 and died that year. In 1992 he began a correspondence with Janet Dewart, who was the communications director of the National Urban League. Ms. Dewart proposed marriage before the couple even met. A few months later, Mr. Bell accepted.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three sons from his first marriage, Derrick A. Bell III and Douglas Dubois Bell, both of Pittsburgh, and Carter Robeson Bell of New York; two sisters, Janet Bell of Pittsburgh and Constance Bell of Akron, Ohio; and a brother, Charles, of New York.

In “Ethical Ambition,” Mr. Bell expressed doubts about his legacy: “It is not easy to look back over a long career and recognize with some pain that my efforts may have benefited my career more clearly than they helped those for whom I have worked.”

But Professor Guinier, who continues to teach at Harvard, differed with that view. “Most people think of iconoclasts as lone rangers,” she said on Wednesday. “But Derrick was both an iconoclast and a community builder. When he was opening up this path, it was not just for him. It was for all those who he knew would follow into the legal academy.”…/derrick-bell-esteemed-professor-a…/

Derrick Bell, Esteemed Professor and Civil Rights Advocate, Dies at 80 

OCTOBER 06, 2011  
by Cynthia Wright
Madame Noire

Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who continuously worked to expose the racism that exists within society has passed away. Mr. Bell, 80 died early this morning at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital with his wife, Janet Dewart by his side. Mr. Bell was born on November 6, 1930 in Pittsburgh, where he eventually ended up attending the University of Pittsburgh Law School. At that time, he was the only black student. He also served in the Air Force for two years, with one taking place in Korea.

Afterward, he briefly joined the Justice Department, soon after he went to work for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund. In 1968, he moved out west to teach at the University of Southern California, where he was courted by Harvard Law but turned them down. During the early 80′s he worked as the dean at the University of Oregon but left when an Asian woman was denied tenure there. He eventually returned to Harvard in 1986, where he stayed until the law school refused to tenure a black female. Bell, then decided to take a position at New York University Law School, where he remained until his death.

Not afraid of being seen as a controversial figure, even though he described himself as not “confrontational by nature”, he always led by example and on his own terms. While in his 20′s, when working at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, he was told to relinquish his ties with the N.A.A.C.P., instead of holding on to his Justice Department position, he opted to quit.

A pioneer of “critical race theory,” in which the law is examined to see how race benefits or hinders those that come into contact with the law or legal institutions. Mr. Bell also believed that whites were not quick to assist with the issues surrounding blacks, unless they had something to gain from the interaction.

Mr. Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and the first black dean of a law school that was not historically black. Yet, even with obtaining such prestigious jobs throughout his career, which never stopped him from stepping away from any position – if he felt that what they were doing was unjust. I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe if I do not practice my own precepts, he often stated.

That line of thinking led him to leave his tenured position at Harvard Law School, 30 years after accepting their offer, due to the school not being willing to tenure any of other black professors.Ms. Dewart and three sons survive him from his first marriage, Derrick Albert Bell III and Douglas Dubois Bell, both of Pittsburgh, and Carter Robeson Bell of New York; two sisters, Janet Bell of Pittsburgh and Constance Bell of Akron, Ohio; and a brother, Charles Bell of New York.Cynthia Wright is an avid lover of all things geeky. When she isn’t freelancing, she can be found on her blog BGA Life and on Twitter at @cynisright.!

"The Space Traders" adapted screenplay by Trey Ellis from an original short story by Derrick Bell. Television film of story was aired on the science fiction omnibus series "Cosmic Slop" on HBO in 1994:

Derrick Bell
Born Derrick A. Bell, Jr.
November 6, 1930
Hill District of Pittsburgh
Died October 5, 2011
Manhattan Island, New York, New York
Nationality American
Education A.B. from Duquesne University
LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Occupation University Professor, Author
Employer New York University School of Law
Known for Critical Race Theory

Derrick A. Bell, Jr. (Nov. 6, 1930 - Oct. 5, 2011) was the first tenured African-American professor of Law at Harvard University, and largely credited as the originator of Critical Race Theory.

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 give 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. [1]

"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."[2]

In the mid-1960s Bell took a short term position with the University of Southern California. In 1969, with the help of protests from black students for a minority faculty member, Bell was hired to teach at Harvard Law School. 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 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.[2]

Protests over faculty diversity

In 1980 Bell became the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, becoming the first African American to ever head a non-black law school. He resigned several years later 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.[2]
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.[2]

Students held vigils and protests in solidarity with Bell with the support of some faculty. Critics, including some faculty members, called Bell's methods counterproductive, and Harvard administration officials insisted they had already made enormous inroads in hiring.[2] 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."[2]

Visiting professorship

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."[2]

Harvard ultimately hired civil rights attorney and U.S. Assistant Attorney General nominee Lani Guinier shortly after Bell left. Since resigning from Harvard, he remained at NYU Law where he continued to write and lecture on issues of race and civil rights.

Academic contributions

Bell is arguably the most influential source of thought critical of traditional civil rights discourse. Bell’s critique represented a challenge on the dominant liberal 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 even 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".

Derrick Bell is a supporter of animal rights.[3]

On October 5th, 2011, Derrick Bell succumbed to Carcinoid Cancer at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, at the age of 80. [4]

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.[5]


^ Legal History Blog: New Archive: The Derrick Bell Papers
^ a b c d e f g Isaac Rosen. "Black Biography: Derrick Bell". Retrieved 2008-05-23.
^ Kentucky Fried Cruelty :: Celebrity Support :: Derrick Bell
^ Derrick Bell, Law Professor and Rights Advocate, Dies at 80
^ Cosmic Slop (1994) entry on

External links

NYU Law Faculty Profile
Derrick Bell's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
The HistoryMakers Biography
Rules Of Racial Standing