In 1991, students at Harvard Law School organized rallies to support Derrick Bell, an African American professor who was taking an unpaid leave of absence to protest the absence of any women of color on the law school faculty. A young Barack Obama spoke at one such rally, calling on his fellow students to “open up your hearts and your minds” to Derrick Bell.
Now, a few weeks after Andrew Breitbart’s death, bloggers for his site have released a video of that rally that Breitbart was preparing and have written numerous articles arguing that, because Professor Bell highlighted racial injustice in America and advocated for the equal treatment of blacks, he was somehow anti-white and by implication anti-American — the Jeremiah Wright of this election season. By dragging Professor Bell through the mud, Breitbart’s cronies hope to drag President Obama down as well. It’s ironic that while Breitbart’s fans lambast the left for supposedly dancing on Breitbart’s fresh grave, they waited to reveal these tapes until a few months after Derrick Bell, at age 80, died from cancer and could no longer defend himself. So I will defend him:
Derrick Bell was one of the first legal scholars to talk about race in America. The median net worth of white households in the United States is 20 times that of black households. Black students in our nation’s public schools are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Black rates of unemployment have been consistently double the rates of white unemployment since 1972 when the government first started tracking such data. Professor Bell argued that such statistics were not the result of inherent inferiority of African Americans but the persistence of “structural racism” — that the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination on which our nation was built has, intentionally or unintentionally, left indelible marks so that the rhetorical “level playing field” has never truly existed. His beliefs were not anti-American, as conservative critics have alleged, but rather fiercely patriotic, wanting to extend the promise of America to all.
His life experience drove his advocacy and scholarship. In the 1950s, Derrick Bell was a young lieutenant in the Air Force stationed in a small town in Louisiana. Bell was a devout Presbyterian, but the only Presbyterian church in town was for whites only. Lieutenant Bell put on his military uniform and showed up at the church, asking to be allowed to worship. Reluctantly, the white parishioners granted him a pew alone by himself in the balcony. Then, and for the rest of his life, Derrick Bell fought for his country, to form a “more perfect union” as our Founders wrote and as Barack Obama echoed the last time such smears were leveled at him.
I had the privilege of being Derrick Bell’s student and teaching assistant years later at New York University School of Law. His most aggressive posture was in trying to play matchmaker among the young people in his classes. He was always proud when any of his pairings resulted in marriage. If Professor Bell was a radical in any way, it was in being radically inclusive —in wanting to create an America in which all people were treated fairly and justly. That is precisely the kind of legacy I hope any president and anyone serving in politics would embrace.
It is absurd to suggest that just because President Obama once hugged Derrick Bell or assigned one of his legal essays for coursework, the President therefore embraces everything Professor Bell ever said or did. When the Founding Fathers enshrined free speech and freedom of association in our Constitution, they wanted to prevent us all for being pilloried for anything we might say but certainly for anything said by those with whom we’re loosely associated.
But at worst, these attacks create a dangerous chilling effect for scholarship that raises uncomfortable questions about our society, the sort of questions we should be facing head on, not hiding from. If you disagree with Professor Bell that racism remains with us in America today, you’re free to do so — just as free, I hope, as others are to agree with him. The smear itself is tenuous at best, but if its alleged “bombshell” is in suggesting that our first African American president acknowledges the ongoing problem of structural racism in America, then perhaps it’s those attacking the President and denying the reality of racism who need their minds and hearts opened.