- Founder of “Critical Race Theory”
- Longtime professor at New York University
- Also taught at Harvard and Stanford Universities
- Supporter of affirmative action
- Viewed America as an irremediably racist nation
- Died in October 2011
See also: Critical Race Theory Regina
late Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. is considered the founder, or at least
the godfather, of “critical race theory,” an
academic discipline which maintains that society is divided along
racial lines into (white) oppressors and (black) victims, similar to
the way Marxism frames the oppressor/victim dichotomy along class
lines. Critical race theory contends that America is permanently
racist to its core, and that consequently the nation's legal
structures are, by definition, racist and invalid. As Emory University professor Dorothy Brown puts it, critical race theory "seeks
to highlight the ways in which the law is not neutral and objective but
designed to support white supremacy and the subordination of people of
color." A logical
derivative of this premise, according to critical race theory, is
that the members of “oppressed” racial groups are entitled—in
determine for themselves which laws and traditions have merit and are
worth observing. Further, critical race theory holds
because racism is so deeply ingrained in the American character,
liberal ideals such as meritocracy, equal opportunity, and colorblind
justice are essentially nothing more than empty slogans that fail to
to even acknowledge the existence of—the
immense structural inequities that pervade American society and work
against black people. Thus, according to critical
preferences (favoring blacks) in employment and higher education are
not only permissible but necessary as a means of countering the
permanent bigotry of white people who, as Bell put it, seek to
“achieve a measure of social stability through their unspoken pact
to keep blacks on the bottom.”
in Pittsburgh on November 6, 1930,
Derrick Bell earned
a bachelor’s degree from Duquesne University in 1952 and a J.D.
from the University of Pittsburgh Law School (where he was the only
black student on campus) in 1957. Bell began his legal career by
taking a job
the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. But when
superiors there instructed him to give up his membership in the NAACP,
that it posed a conflict of interest, Bell quit
He then worked as an attorney for the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund, where he became a protégé of Thurgood Marshall.
also taught briefly at the University
of Southern California.
the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination
in 1968, members of the Black Law Students Association at Harvard
University Law School pressured their school to hire a nonwhite
minority professor; this led to Bell’s hiring
in 1969, and two years later Bell became the first tenured 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 traditionally were prerequisites for an appointment there: 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 Bell mocked such
criteria as being nothing more than the exclusionary constructs of a
racist white power structure seeking to
deny blacks an opportunity to teach at the nation’s elite
was in the mid-1970s that Bell pioneered the field of critical race
theory. He was angered by what he viewed as the slow progress of
racial reform in the United States, and he contended that the gains
brought about by the civil rights laws of the 1960s were gradually
In 1980 Professor Bell left Harvard to become
the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. Five years later
from that position, ostensibly to protest the fact
that the school had failed to grant tenure to an Asian female
professor. A number of Bell’s colleagues at Oregon, however, viewed
his resignation 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.
1986 Bell joined the faculty of Stanford Law School and instantly
became a source of controversy. Many of his students there complained
that he was not using his position 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 Bell was not teaching them.
Perceiving this measure as a racial affront, Bell left Stanford and
to Harvard Law School in the fall of 1986.
after his arrival at Harvard, Bell
staged a five-day sit-in
in his office to protest the University's failure to grant tenure to
two professors who espoused critical race theory.
April 1990 Professor Bell demanded that Harvard Law School hire a
the visiting professor Regina
Austin (who was also an adherent of critical race theory)—as
a tenured faculty member. Bell explained that black female law
students at Harvard were in desperate need of “role models,” like
Austin, with whom they could identify. Though Harvard had a
longstanding policy that forbade the hiring of visiting professors
during the year of their residence at the school, Bell issued
a “non-negotiable demand” that Austin be given a faculty
position. And even though 45 percent of
Harvard Law's faculty appointments during the preceding decade had
gone to minorities and women, none was both black and
Professor Bell's objection.
the law school would not cave to Bell’s pressure, the professor
protested by taking a leave of absence from his $120,000-per-year
teaching post. It
should be noted, however, that even
if Harvard had agreed to grant tenure to Regina Austin, Bell would
not have been satisfied. As he would later write in a law-review
article condemning schools for hiring only “token” minorities:
“The hiring of a few minorities and women—particularly
when a faculty is under pressure from students or civil rights
not a departure from … this power-preserving doctrine” of white
During his leave of absence from Harvard, Bell in 1990
took a position
a full-time visiting professor at New York University (NYU) School of
1991, at the height of the controversy over Professor Austin,
then-Harvard Law School student Barack
spoke at a well-attended campus rally
in support of Bell's position. Obama described Bell as a man known
for “speaking the truth” and for an “excellence of ...
scholarship” that had not only “opened up new vistas and new
horizons,” but had “changed the standards [of what] legal writing
Since Bell viewed racial minorities as a
permanently oppressed caste—and 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. Thus Bell was a
passionate proponent of racial preferences (i.e., affirmative
action) as a means of minimizing what he viewed as the inevitably
harmful effects of white Americans’ inherently racist impulses. In
was among the first critics to condemn the nomination of Clarence
Thomas (who opposed affirmative action) to the U.S. Supreme Court,
“To place a person who looks black and who, in conservative terms,
thinks white, is an insult.”
eventually extended his stint as an NYU visiting professor to two
years and then, later still, announced that he planned to spend a
third year at NYU. But a third year would have required 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 warned Bell that if he
did not return to his post, he would lose his place on Harvard’s
faculty. Bell refused to return, and thus lost his job at Harvard.
After that, he continued to teach at NYU until the end of his
In 1992 Bell published his most well-known book, Faces
at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.
A few of the book's most notable quotes on the subject of race
include the following:
at the Bottom of the Well,
of Islam leader Louis
Farrakhan as “smart and superarticulate,” calling him
“perhaps the best living example of a black man ready, willing and
able to ‘tell it like it is’ regarding who is responsible for
racism in this country.” In a 1992 interview, Bell elaborated:
see Louis Farrakhan as a great hero for the people. I don't agree
with everything he says and some of his tactics or whatever, but
hell, I don’t agree with everything anybody says.”
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."
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."
in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when
employers posted signs 'no negras need apply.'"
has begun to seem that blacks, particularly black men, who lack at
least two college degrees, are not hired in any position above the
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."
is, as an example of what white America has done, a constant
reminder of what white America might do."
people will never gain full equality in this country.… African
Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality
of our permanent subordinate status."
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."
fact that, as victims, we suffer racism's harm but, as a people,
[we] cannot share the responsibility for that harm, may be the
crucial component in a definition of what it is to be black in
themselves by an uncaring society, some blacks vent their rage on
victims like themselves.”
remains “an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of
Bell's writings were in the form of parables wherein he
placed legal and social commentary into the mouths of invented
of his best-known parables was “The
Space Traders,” which appeared in Faces
at the Bottom of the Well.
In the story, as Bell later described it, creatures from another
planet offer the United States “enough gold to retire the national
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 only that
America hand over its black population, to be dispatched permanently
into outer space. An overwhelming majority of whites accept the
offer. (In 1994 this story was adapted
as one of three segments in a television movie titled Cosmic
1992 Bell again articulated to his low
regard for white people: “I’ve accepted that as my motto—I
liv[e] to harass white folk.”
In August 1993 Bell continued
Harvard Law School—which
he said was ever-eager to grant tenure to “the
having failed to add “a woman of color” to its tenured
1994 Bell was quoted as having predicted that eventually America
would witness the rise of charismatic new black leaders who, in the
interests of retributive racial justice, would “urge that instead
of [African Americans] killing each other, they should go out in
gangs and kill a whole lot of white people.”
In a New York Observer interview published on October 10, 1994, Bell denounced "all the Jewish neoconservative racists who are undermining blacks in every way they can." The very same interview began with Bell stating: “We should really appreciate the Louis Farrakhans and the Khalid Muhammads while we’ve got them.” (Khalid Muhammad was a Farrakhan ally who referred to Jews as “bloodsuckers” whose “father was the devil.”)
a journal called Race
whose stated aim is “to
abolish the white race,
which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the
white skin.” Moreover, the publication's
is: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” In 1999 Bell
signed on to a Race
the task of the nineteenth century was to overthrow slavery, and the
task of the twentieth century was to end legal segregation, the key
to solving this country’s problems in the twenty-first century is
to abolish the white race as a social category—in
other words, eradicate white supremacy entirely.” Among Bell's
fellow signatories were Pete
2002 Bell said,
“I've sometimes wondered whether this society could exist without
racism. Because this is a country built on property ownership, and
most white people don’t have that much property … you know, land
and bonds and money in the bank, what they have is a sense of
entitlement based on being white. And that's very hard to give
2007 Bell came to the defense of Ward
Churchill, the former University of Colorado professor who had
lost his job in 2006 because of academic misconduct. Churchill had
previously gained notoriety for his 2001 essay,
People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.”
In that piece, the author disclosed his belief that the 9/11 attacks
were logical reprisals for unjust U.S. foreign policy measures vis a
vis the Middle East, and for the alleged ravages of global capitalism
as spearheaded by America.
authored several books on race and the law, including Silent
Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for
Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (2002);
Racism, and American Law (2000);
Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester
at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice
(1989); and Civil
Rights: Leading Cases
Bell died of carcinoid cancer on October 5, 2011.
Derrick Bell, Faces at the
Bottom of the Well
(New York: Basic Books, 1992), p. 152.
 University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Jim
Scheurich, “Introduction to Systems of Human Inquiry,” The
History of Critical Race Theory
Project (Spring 2001), p. 34. Cited in David
Horowitz, The Professors, p. 58.
 Fox Butterfield, “Harvard Law School
Torn by Race Issue,” The
New York Times
(April 26, 1990).
 Derrick Bell, Faces at the
Bottom of the Well,
 Ibid., p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 15.
Ibid., p. 10.
[13.] Ibid., p. 12.
 Ibid., pp. 12, 113.
 Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., p. 155.
 Ibid., p. 196.
 Source: Faces
at the Bottom of the Well (Cited in D'Souza, The End of Racism, p. 17.)
Robert Boynton, “Professor Bell, Sage of Black Rage,” New York
Observer (October 10, 1994), p. 1.