Derrick Bell: Wikis


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Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell by David Shankbone
Born Derrick A. Bell, Jr.
November 6, 1930(1930-11-06)
Hill District of Pittsburgh
Nationality American
Education A.B. from Duquesne University
LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Occupation Author
Employer New York University School of Law
Known for Critical Race Theory

Derrick A. Bell, Jr. (born November 6, 1930) is a visiting professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law for the past 15 years and a major figure within the legal studies discipline of Critical Race Theory.


Education and early career

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 working for the Justice Department at the time.[1] 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. [2]

"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."[3]

Academic career



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.[3]

Protests over faculty diversity

In 1980 Bell became the dean of the University of Oregon Law School, 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.[1]

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.[3]

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 professor 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.[3]

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.[3] 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. He also argued that the system was self perpetuating. 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."[3]

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."[3]

Harvard ultimately hired civil rights attorney and U.S. Assistant Attorney General nominee Lani Guinier shortly after Bell left.[1] Bell has continued to write and lecture on issues of race and civil rights. He has remained at NYU Law since his resignation from Harvard.

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 in his writings on 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 and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.[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]


  1. ^ a b c Richard Pyatt (Sept-October 1998). "Derrick Bell: A career of confrontation opens doors for others". The New Crisis.  
  2. ^ Legal History Blog: New Archive: The Derrick Bell Papers
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Isaac Rosen. "Black Biography: Derrick Bell". Retrieved 2008-05-23.  
  4. ^ Kentucky Fried Cruelty :: Celebrity Support :: Derrick Bell
  5. ^ Cosmic Slop (1994) entry on

External links


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