Derrick Bell and the Struggle to Silence Black People

Andrew Breitbart’s much ballyhooed video “vetting” Barack Obama hit the internet, slamming the President for embracing (literally), the late Derrick Bell. This Derrick Bell controversy is, mercifully, being largely dismissed by the mainstream media, but in the coming days, conservatives are going to attack Bell as a dangerous radical. Do not expect any effort to consider and engage Bell’s works, but rather a smear campaign to prevent serious consideration of his ideas. It’s an effort to silence African-Americans attempting to seriously discuss race in America.

For full disclosure, Derrick Bell was my Constitutional Law Professor, and he was an amazing professor. He structured his class as a series of debates, hypothetical Supreme Court oral arguments that students had to argue covering major Constitution conflicts. It was a celebration of dialogue and argument. Research, argument and discussion brought better understanding. In many ways the course of this controversy is a sad rejection of everything Professor Bell’s class was about.

Nothing in the video suggests anything more liberal than a protest to increase faculty diversity at Harvard. But editor-in-chief Joel Pollak and contributor Ben Shapiro appeared on Sean Hannity’s show last night, and Pollack said that the rally:

“was not about diversity, which is a noble and good cause. This is about radical ideology, racial ideology. When Barack Obama says open your hearts and open your minds to the words of professor Derrick Bell… he’s talking about some very radical things.”

In fact, there’s little to suggest that Pollack believes in diversity, being a noted opponent of affirmative action policies. Remember the whole purpose of the rally was to pressure Harvard Law School to increase faculty diversity — the soul of affirmative action. But Pollack needed to frame the following diatribe, and by making a nod to diversity and disingenuously suggesting that he supports affirmative action, he can position his attacks on Bell as something “worse” than affirmative action. But Pollack and Shapiro do not engage Bell on specific ideas, but say he has a radical ideology (because when you think radical, you think of a professor at institutions like Harvard and NYU and the Dean of the University of Oregon Law School) and a “racial ideology.”

How does someone write about race without having a racial ideology, at least on some level? The answer is they don’t — Pollack and Shapiro don’t want anyone talking about race in America.

We’ll see a number of “expose” pieces on Professor Bell, but this piece, by Mytheos Holt in The Blaze, is emblematic of the conservative effort to silence and dismiss Bell rather than engage him. As you read the piece, note that there is never even an attempt to say that Bell is wrong. It’s as though arguing against Bell gives the argument too much credibility. His statements are provided, divorced of their support, to cast him as a crazy man, tossing inflammatory phrases that he is unable to support.

Holt begins by summarizing Bell’s “Critical Race Theory” with a pair of passages and then concludes:

In other words, Bell could care less what the law actually says — as far as he’s concerned, that’s irrelevant. What matters is making sure the right legal results are achieved.

This ignores Bell’s entire argument of course. It is a dismissive statement that “Bell does not believe in the law.” On the contrary, Bell argued that “the law” is open to judicial interpretation, and if “the law” is systematically applied in ways that frustrate its stated purpose. This is hardly a controversial position, and one that can be seriously discussed.

Look at the Fourth Amendment, “the law” prevents warrantless searches and seizures, yet we all know that courts have created multiple exceptions and work-arounds. Pointing that out doesn’t mean I don’t care about the law, but rather that I understand the law.

Indeed, conservatives are among the first to make this same argument when they decry gun regulations — frustrated that “the law” of the Second Amendment, is not enough to provide the real results they want (i.e. owning a private missile launcher). One could argue that there is symbolic value to statute But there’s no effort to confront why this claim is untrue, just the implication that Bell should be ignored because he doesn’t “care what the law actually says.”

Holt then quotes one of Bell’s more famous hooks:

Racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society.

Now we’re getting somewhere! Why does Bell say this and why is he wrong? Oh. No, we’re just going to move on to the next argument. It’s as though Bell just made this statement and didn’t write a series of books and journal articles that systematically attempted to prove this sentence.

Then they attack “Space Traders,” a short story that Bell wrote as a parable for race relations in America that posited that, if an alien civilization promised to solve all of America’s problems if the country would sell them all of the black people, America would take that trade. The Blaze describes this as “disturbing.” Why? Is there a response to the logic of the piece? Do you think Americans, who frame almost every policy dispute as a matter of cost-benefit analysis, would stand on principle and reject the panacea offered by the aliens? In fact, The Blaze offers no response beyond deriding the piece.

My hope for this controversy is that more people read his work in context, and whether or not you agree with Bell or not, actually consider and engage the questions he raises.

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