www.wsj.com /articles/the-godfather-of-critical-race-theory-11624627522

The Godfather of Critical Race Theory

Adam Kirsch 9-12 minutes

In the life of any big idea, there comes a moment when it stops belonging to the thinkers who invented it and becomes public property. Today, critical race theory is undergoing that kind of transformation. When the term came into use in the 1970s and 1980s, it described the work of scholars like Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado and Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose work was hotly debated in legal academia but little known outside it. But over the last year, critical race theory has moved to the center of American political debate.

In their book “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” Mr. Delgado and Jean Stefancic list several of its core premises, including the view that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational,” and that it “serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group,” that is, for white people. In recent years, these ideas have entered the mainstream thanks to the advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was catalyzed by several high-profile cases of police violence against Black people, as well as the New York Times’s 1619 Project and bestselling books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.” Critical race theory also informs instruction at some schools and other institutions.

These ideas have now become a major target of conservative activism. In September 2020, the Trump administration issued a memo instructing executive branch departments to cancel “any training on ‘critical race theory,’” which it equated with teaching “that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country.” This year, legislators and school boards in many states have introduced proposals to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in schools, with Florida’s State Board of Education adopting such a rule earlier this month.

A rally against critical race theory in Leesburg, Va., June 12.


Far more Americans have learned about critical race theory from its opponents than from the theorists themselves. That may be inevitable, since their writing was mostly aimed at other scholars. But at least one major work is more accessible: “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” the 1992 book by Derrick Bell, who is often described as the founder or godfather of critical race theory.

Bell died in 2011, but the response to his work foreshadows today’s controversies. In “Faces,” he blends the genres of fiction and essay to communicate his powerfully pessimistic sense of “the permanence of racism”—the book’s subtitle. Bell’s thought has been an important influence on some of today’s most influential writers on race, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander.

Derrick Bell was born in Pittsburgh in 1930, and after serving in the Air Force he went to work as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Eisenhower Justice Department. He left the job in 1959 after being told that he had to resign his membership in the NAACP to avoid compromising his objectivity. That experience reflects a major theme in Bell’s work: Can traditional legal standards of objectivity and neutrality lead to justice for Black Americans, or does fighting racism require a more politically engaged, results-oriented approach to the law?

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In 1971, Bell became the first Black professor to receive tenure at Harvard Law School. As he writes in “Faces,” “When I agreed to become Harvard’s first black faculty member…I did so on the express commitment that I was to be the first, but not the last, black hired. I was to be the pioneer, the trailblazer.” But the school was slow to hire more Black faculty, leading Bell to leave in protest in 1990. He ended up spending the last part of his career at NYU Law School.

These experiences inform “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” which is made up of nine fables, some with a science-fiction twist. In one story, a new continent emerges in the Atlantic Ocean, with an atmosphere that only African-Americans can breathe. In another, the U.S. institutes a system where whites can pay for permission to discriminate against Blacks—a kind of cap-and-trade scheme for bigotry.

These far-fetched scenarios allow Bell to explore very real questions about belonging and trust. Are Black people at home in America, or should they think of themselves as sojourners in a land that will never belong to them? Is racism a social problem that can be solved, or is it a permanent condition like mortality, which can only be met with defiance?

Not every story in “Faces” has a dark ending, but most do—especially the last and most famous, “The Space Traders.” In this tale, aliens arrive on earth and make the U.S. government an offer: In exchange for miraculous technologies that can heal the environment and ensure prosperity, they demand to carry off the entire Black population of the U.S. in their spaceships. When a referendum is held on whether to accept the aliens’ offer, “yes” wins with 70% of the vote.

Bell suggests that the overwhelming majority of white Americans would agree to send their Black fellow citizens to an unknown fate.

Since the U.S. population was about 12% Black in the 1990 census, Bell is suggesting that the overwhelming majority of white Americans would agree to send their Black fellow citizens to an unknown fate. This conclusion reflects his theory of “interest convergence,” which says that white Americans will only act in the interests of Black people if it also serves their own interest. When the interests of whites and Blacks are opposed, Bell argues, whites will always choose to put their own interest first.

For Bell, this is the lesson of American history. As he observes in “The Space Traders,” “Without the compromises on slavery in the Constitution of 1787, there would be no America.” Similarly, after the Civil War, whites in the North and South sacrificed the rights of former slaves for the sake of sectional reconciliation. Bell suggests that the same thing would happen in the alien scenario, and the story ends with a nightmarish vision of Black Americans being herded onto spaceships: “Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forebears had arrived.”

The image suggests that 400 years of American history have changed nothing in the relationship between Blacks and whites. At the heart of the debate over critical race theory, then and now, is whether such a view is justified. Ms. Alexander, author of the 2010 bestseller “The New Jim Crow,” wrote in the foreword to a 2018 reissue of “Faces” that “As a law student, I read nearly every word Bell wrote; as a civil rights lawyer, I was haunted by his words and ultimately forced to admit the truth of them.”

Other commentators have strongly disagreed. The political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., whose work focuses on race and inequality, wrote about a conference he attended at Harvard Law School in 1991, where “I heard the late, esteemed legal theorist, Derrick Bell, declare on a panel that blacks had made no progress since 1865. I was startled not least because Bell’s own life, as well as the fact that Harvard’s black law students’ organization put on the conference, so emphatically belied his claim.” Mr. Reed dismissed the idea as “more a jeremiad than an analysis.”

Bell argues that the struggle for racial equality is worthwhile even though it will never succeed.

In the conclusion to “Faces,” Bell argues that the struggle for racial equality is worthwhile even though it will never succeed. Like the French existentialist Albert Camus, who saw Sisyphus’s eternal effort to roll a boulder uphill as a symbol of human endurance in an absurd world, Bell demands “recognition of the futility of action” while insisting “that action must be taken.”

To the journalist and historian James Traub, who profiled Bell for the New Republic magazine in 1993, this amounted to a recipe for paralysis: “If you convince whites that their racism is ineradicable, what are they supposed to do? And what are blacks to do with their hard-won victim status?”

For his supporters and critics alike, Derrick Bell remains a central figure. Nearly three decades after the publication of his most widely read book, his stark vision of the racial divide in American society and history has retained its power to provoke debate and activism across the political spectrum.

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