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Defending Derrick Bell

The day after Derrick Bell passed away, I wrote a tribute to him for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Bell has been a hero of mine since I was in graduate school. Having met him many times, I can tell you he was a beautiful soul. He was intelligent, eloquent, caring, and reflective. I find it deeply disturbing that hate-filled and uninformed individuals are dragging his name through the mud in order to disparage President Obama. What is truly sad is that these individuals don’t understand Bell’s work or his intellectual capacity and wit.

Breitbart.com has led this smear campaign with others piggy backing on it. Instead of reading Bell’s work, these individuals are merely taking his words out of context and using them as sound bites to incite racial hatred and fear.

I’d like to point out a few of the issues involved in this smear:

Issue one: The smear of Bell is being used to attack President Obama. Because Obama introduced Derrick Bell at a Harvard rally (and hugged him), it is said that Obama is advocating the policies and theories of a radical and segregationist. That’s ridiculous on many levels. First, it is perfectly natural for Barack Obama to have had a relationship with Bell as Obama was one of a few black law students and Bell was one of only five tenured, black law professors at the time. Students look for mentors with similar experiences and often these mentors are of the same race. Second, Derrick Bell was an esteemed legal scholar and author who wrote countless important books related to race and the law. He was and is admired by many scholars, students, judges, and attorneys throughout the country. Third, Derrick Bell had a sense of integrity that most of us could never muster up—could never have the courage to show. Bell gave up his tenured faculty position at Harvard in protest; he was protesting the institution’s failure to tenure a woman of color in the law school (not a black woman, but any woman of color). There are few individuals who would give up a tenured faculty job at Harvard. Bell wrote about his struggle in a book called Confronting Authority. I have assigned the book over the years in my classes because it fosters conversations about bravery, integrity, race, gender, and academic politics. It makes students wonder if they can be as brave as Bell when advocating for the issues near to their heart.

Issue two: Breitbart.com has also been putting forth the idea that Derrick Bell believed in segregation or ‘separate but equal.’ This is a bald-faced lie. Bell fought his entire career for equal rights and civil rights for all. Bell was an intellectual and as such, he questioned ideas and was deeply reflective. In his later years, he wrote a book called Silent Covenants, in which he told a ‘counter story’ (a technique used by Critical Race Theorists to demonstrate the role of race in law and policy); basically he turned history on its head for the purpose of an intellectual exercise. He wanted to make people think. The ‘counter story’ speculated on a nation in which ‘separate but equal’ was the law of the land and was enforced equally. Bell wondered if blacks would have been better off if the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education had ruled in favor of ‘separate but equal’ but enforced equal funding. He was not advocating for ‘separate but equal’ but forcing his readers to consider that the Civil Rights Movement may not have brought about full civil rights for blacks given the economic, social, and political disparities that still exist in the nation. I am particularly disturbed by Breitbart.com’s interpretation of Bell’s intellectual exercise because the Web site used my memorial essay (mentioned above) in its smear campaign. My words were used completely out of context and without noting that Bell was telling a ‘counter story’ when discussing ‘separate but equal.’

Issue three: Breitbart.com and other conservative pundits are using President Obama’s college relationship with Derrick Bell to say that our President believes in ‘separate but equal’ and wants to take our country back to a time when segregation prevailed. This is also ridiculous. Why would a black person in America want to go back to segregation? Why would a black person want to be treated as a second-class citizen and denied all civil rights? I can think of others who might want to bring back ‘separate but equal,’ but not Blacks. I find it hard to believe that anyone can even utter this idea.

Issue four: Breitbart.com also tried to disparage both Bell and Obama by providing an uninformed and skewed interpretation of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Developed by legal scholars, including Bell, CRT argues that laws and policies are influenced by race and racism and challenges dominant ideologies. If you study American history, there are countless examples of the ways that race and racism have shaped our laws and policy. To deny this is to deny history. CRT is a useful intellectual tool for helping us to see the influence of race on decision-making, the law, policies, and American society. It is not a sinister, diabolical idea.

I believe wholeheartedly in the American political process. People are entitled to their political opinions and perspectives. However, it is an injustice to disparage people and manipulate their ideas in this way. By identifying President Obama with what it refers to as radical individuals, Breitbart.com and its supporters are trying to portray Obama as ‘not one of us.’ Instead, critics of President Obama should vet his record. Unfortunately, some individuals dislike President Obama because of the color of his skin rather than his policies. For them, the idea of a black person leading the United States is reprehensible. Shame on them.

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