Derrick Bell, although a slight and professorial man, embodied what he wrote. One of the few who truly cared about extending social justice into all walks of life rather than remain complacent with the comforts of academia. He resigned twice to protest the lack of diversity in the higher-ed. In both cases, he did so for women of color (one Asian-American and the other black American). Bell himself was black American and had been a lawyer for the NAACP. Basically, he was a bad-ass, despite again, his glasses and nerdy veneer (gives hope for all of us I guess). Some would argue he was also a critical influence for the young Barack Obama who was attending Harvard at the time when Bell was there.
Bell was a major figure in critical race theory. If you don’t know what that is, it’s okay. That’s why I’m writing this. Critical race theory is pretty much what it sounds like: studying race in the social sciences and law. In essence, making race a key piece of our discussion of politics and society in the U.S. What Bell believed in, as did others in his line of work, that race was socially and politically constructed. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. Through laws passed, such as Jim Crow and decisions made by the Supreme Court, who was considered “black” or “white” was conceived. The “one-drop” rule is an example. Basically, even though you may not “look” black. You can still be considered such just cause someone in your family, even if it was found to be a great-great-great-grandaunt that was African-American. And under the auspices of the system that was functioning in the Deep South, you are, in the words of the Dalai Llama, “fucked.” This last part needs no explanation as to why. Read a history book, if you don’t know. But speaking of race as a political project, I do recommend checking out Whiteness of a Different Color by Jacobson.
In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Bell uses short stories (yes, short stories) as a brilliant way of explaining what he means with his theories and how he views race in America. At the time, it was the early 90s and we just survived a decade of Ronald Wilson Reagan (666). Right-wing conservatism was on the rise, and white folks acting crazy was in effect once more. Bell argued that racism would never be completely expunged from the American body politic, that in many ways, white America always needed black America as its underclass as to alleviate their own issues around class and gender. So, the way white America was kept together (despite their ethnic differences i.e. Italian v. Irish, religious i.e. Protestant v. Catholic, and class i.e. blue-collar v. white-collar) was through hating their black neighbors and blackness in general. It was what unified them.
Bell called this realization of how things really were in the U.S. as being a “race realist.” Instead of what he probably would’ve described an optimistic and naive sense that somehow, all whites would just learn to love black people and stop being dicks, Bell adopted the “race realist” view and pushed for this perspective as any starting-point for anyone interested in finding solutions. Now, I know this may sound pessimistic, but just remember the decade he was in, and the experiences he had as well. A proper analogy would be the feminist theorist, Simone de Beauvoir, as having survived the horrors of Vichy occupation in France and expressing her somewhat dim view of female and human solidarity post-WWII. You can still criticize the perceptive but be mindful of where it’s coming from.
In the end, I recommend Faces, and I also suggest reading more on critical race theory in general. Of course, we have a black President and things have changed considerably since the book’s publication. But it would be short-sighted to consider these changes as indicative of some golden-era when in fact, many of the problems that Bell talked about are around even today, especially with the rise in right-wing militias. Faces, as mentioned, isn’t difficult. It isn’t morose either, or dense. Short and deft, it’s another tool I hope you add to your growing armory of knowledge.
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