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It’s too bad right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart never met Derrick Bell, because it might have made him a better man.
Of all the news that surfaced after Breitbart’s sudden death, I was most stunned by the evidence that he was preparing to use Professor Bell to attack President Obama. Perhaps you’ve seen the clips of The Hug, taken by WGBH in 1991 while Obama was a student at Harvard Law School. Student Obama introduced Professor Bell to a crowd protesting the lack of faculty diversity. Then, they embraced. This happened the year after Bell had lost his tenured position owing to his taking unpaid leave in protest the school’s failure to hire a black woman as a tenured professor. He was one of three black men on the faculty, but he recognized that black women need a role model, and there were none. Harvard dragged its institutional feet, and he never returned to teach. But his legacy lived on there long after he accepted a position as Visiting Professor at New York University.
Looking for a new symbol of black radicalism with which to tar the president, Breitbart must have been gleeful when he found this grainy footage. He was a master of electronic doctoring, having used it to unscrupulously undermine both ACORN and U.S. Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod. Nevermind, if crucial context was sacrificed. Nevermind, if Bell was a respected academic rather than a firebrand preacher like Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who was also injudiciously edited.) He had his clip, and he was ready to use it to prove that….
Ironically, Breitbart’s work proves a critical tenet of Derrick Bell’s views that helped lay the foundations for Critical Race Theory. Racism, he believed, is a permanent feature of U.S. society.
How else can one explain the persistent claim that President Obama was not born in the United States? That former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin complains he was “not vetted”? That even after proclaiming Jesus as his lord and savior, he is labeled a Muslim? That a U.S. congressman calls him a liar during his State of the Union Address? That another white congressman felt free to comment on the anatomy of his beautiful brown wife? And what else explains the work of Andrew Breitbart and the team that vows to continue what Breitbart started?
This is not to say, of course, that every American believes or condones these sentiments, but if anyone has found a way to put them to rest, I haven’t heard about it. And who can deny that racism continues to be a forceful dynamic in U.S. public life?
Bell, who had worked for both the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Justice Department (in Mississippi) came to believe that remedies of civil rights legislation (desegregation, busing, among them) failed to improve the lives of black children. He came to see legal interventions as contrary to the wishes of many black communities, who were more interested in quality education than in integration.
Those are views, of course, that many white conservatives argue, while white progressives like myself maintain we would all be better off with a racially integrated society. I was naïve to believe that integrating public education would pave the way toward a society in which people were, in the words of Martin Luther King, judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Unintentionally, I believe, up against recalcitrant racism, legal mandates for integration have weakened public education for everyone.
But these philosophical and legal attacks are not what most angered me about Breitbart’s misrepresentation of Derrick Bell. It was his hijacking of the very spirit of the man when he was no longer able to respond. If Breitbart had encountered the living Bell, he would have found a man far less angry than himself. For all his pessimism about the persistence of racism, Derrick Bell showed an abiding faith in and respect for individuals.
I remember his telling of an encounter with white law students who were angry about affirmative action. He tried to convince them that they were angry at the wrong people. Ahead of his time perhaps, Bell was conscious of the power of the one percent. The students who got undeserved entrance to their class, he argued, were the white sons and daughters of large donors and alums, not students of color. But like so many Americans, Bell observed in telling the story, the working class white students found it difficult to argue with success of white people—even if that success was second-hand or ill-gained. Yet Professor Bell recounted this not in anger but with utmost kindness and compassion.
He used stories and allegory to address legal issues because he found that people can often examine emotional issues if they are able to see them as fictional situations. And, he noted, law students are accustomed to dealing with hypothetical cases. His most successful books for larger audiences (And We are Not Saved, 1987, and Faces at the Bottom of the Well, 1992) are not diatribes or polemics but allegories.
I was privileged to meet Derrick Bell just prior to the last decade of his life. As a friend of his editor, I was invited to celebrations of his birthday with lectures at NYU and presided over by his wife, Janet. The rooms were filled with successful former students and younger ones he inspired. (This series continues, and you can contribute here. http://professorderrickbell.com/scholarship/) He also spoke about the persistence of racism at my predominantly white church.
The last time I saw him, I was at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital with a friend when he came into the Urgent Care facility. Gaunt and erect in spite of pressing medical needs, he stood by with a helper while Janet spoke to those in charge. I stifled the urge to go over to him, because I knew instinctively that he would try to reassure me.
And, probably, we would have hugged, because Derrick Bell was a hugger and a very good one at that. In that hug caught on tape, Barack Obama was by no means unique. Perhaps Andrew Breitbart could have used one of Bell’s hugs himself.