Derrick Bell, Critical Race Theory Pioneer, Remains a Hero to His Students

Harvard Law School professor and Critical Race Theory pioneer Derrick Bell had radical ideas about the civil rights struggle and the Constitution, believing that white supremacy was so fundamental to our society that it would make racial equality almost impossible. To many of his colleagues, and especially to his most devoted students, however, Bell is fondly remembered as a caring and graceful mentor and father figure, as gentlemanly as he was radical. 

Erin Edmonds, a member of the Harvard Law class of 1991, was a student of Bell’s who became his research assistant and co-author, ghost writing portions of, and editing, Faces From the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, among other works.

The controversial book, which argued that black suppression holds American society together, was criticized at the time for defending Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Edmonds’s classmate, Barack Obama, assigned the introduction to the book to his University of Chicago law students, along with Bell’s writings on the history of civil rights law.

Edmonds, who is an executive vice president of an in-house corporate legal department in her native Utah, spoke to Breitbart News about her experiences with Bell, who called her his “adopted daughter,” as well as about the origins and effects of Critical Race Theory.

Bell was not as conclusive in his views, she believes, as he is often portrayed to be. Rather, she says, “he was really rather tentative,” and came to his radical views by way of disappointment with real-world experiences.

It is important, Edmonds says, to remember the ways in which Bell’s experiences shaped his ideas:

Bell was hired by Thurgood Marshall [who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and later became the Court’s first black Justice] when he [Bell] was a local NAACP executive in Philadelphia after graduating from law school. Marshall hired Bell to help with school desegregation cases in the South [to enforce the Brown decision]. It was dangerous, and it was segregated, and it was discouraging to encounter massive white southern resistance. Bell fought through these piecemeal litigative methods, and Iived through the aftermath, and I think he was just profoundly discouraged by the extent to which structural and institutional racism had not budged much. He was careful to point out that to say there had been no progress was ridiculous, but structural racism had not changed much for those who needed it most. After all, whom did the civil rights struggle really benefit most? Upper class and middle class blacks, and middle- and working-class white women. His worry was that he had left the needy behind, and so he tentatively put forward these theories as questions.

After demanding that Harvard hire black female legal scholar Regina Austin, leading a demonstration in April 1990 (where he was introduced by Obama), and taking unpaid leave from Harvard in protest, Bell returned to campus in the fall of 1990 to offer a non-credit seminar, “Civil Rights at the Crossroads.” He had taught it in previous years, and used it as a laboratory for ideas--including his controversial science fiction story, “The Space Traders,” in which white Americans trade their black countrymen to aliens.

The seminar, Edmonds recalls, included a spectrum of left and liberal students--and even some conservatives--from across the Harvard campus. “The Space Traders” was just the beginning: 

He wanted to open up our minds away from strategies that had worked for their limited purpose. Far from being a victory lap [after his protest], that course was intended to snap us out of thinking in traditional ways that no longer worked for people like we: civil rights lawyers, poverty lawyers, even conservatives interested in fighting civil rights privately and less [through] state action.  

His class was very effective. Through the use of storytelling, Bell captured the attention of people very quickly, and forced them into [using] a different part of their brains. The most powerful [story] was probably “Space Traders.” The universal reaction, even from conservatives, was that it was possible--not likely, or probable, but possible. That horrified us all. Bell, speaking to a rarified audience of mostly legal students who might well be his legatees, said there are intransigent elements of injustice that are left--and wanted this next generation to think about different ways of fighting that injustice.

Edmonds does not recall Obama attending that seminar, but notes that “Barack and Bell, as consummate intellectuals and diplomats who both welcomed dissent with their views, had an enormous amount of respect for one another,” though they did not mix socially. She describes Obama’s decision to introduce Bell at the protest as an example of the respect Obama enjoyed, and his diplomatic skill.

“Obama’s instinct to find common ground was apparent. And it wasn't forced. I’ll be honest. There were some hardcore neoconservatives at Harvard Law School, and Barack handled them calmly. He listened to them--and there were times I was incensed and said, ‘How can you stand this?’--but he's a consummate diplomat.”

Obama was in Edmonds’s law school “section,” a subdivision of students who take all of their first-year requirements together. In the annual moot court exercise, Edmonds was dismayed to draw Obama as an opponent-- “of 550 people in that first-year class at Harvard Law School, there was exactly one person whom no one wanted to draw”--and she burst into tears.

“He's very sensitive, and when he saw me, he put his arm around me and he started laughing. I said, ‘That's not funny.’ And he said, “Erin, you yell back at professors--what are you afraid of?’”

She and her partner lost to Obama and his partner, she says, but at least the Obama team “didn’t wipe the floor with us.”

Besides the five full-year courses that all first year law students take, Edmonds and Obama were also together in at least two other classes--one on racial issues with Professor Randall L. Kennedy. (Edmonds says she believes Obama was also in her classes on corporate law and the law of terrorism, but she cannot be sure. Obama has not yet released his law school transcripts.)

Edmonds describes Kennedy as a protégé of Bell’s who had followed his own path. 

In a 1989 Harvard Law Review article, “Racial Critiques of Legal Academia?”, Kennedy had criticized Bell and other radical scholars for their emphasis on race consciousness while protesting racial exclusion. Edmonds, describing Kennedy as “hard to categorize, but probably a neoconservative,” remembers the argument from Bell’s perspective: “It had more to do with Kennedy's attempt to create his own niche and make a name in his own right than anything else--but Bell adored him, anyway.”

Contrary to classmates who recall Obama as a talkative student, Edmonds says that Obama was watchful in Kennedy’s classes, where, along with many students of color, white left radicals often faced off against their more conservative black professor:

In that class, Barack did not say very much. He watched a lot and listened a lot. There were a few of us, myself included, who fought with Randy [Kennedy] all the time. Randy and I had a really good relationship outside of class, but 80% of the class was white, and because I'm white, I felt that Prof Kennedy--[I said] ‘you get one shot at this [exposing the relationship between law and racism], and it’s not fair that  you have extra legitimacy as a black man who says some  very contentious things.’  I wrote a public letter, and he issued a public apology. The few times that Barack did say something, I remember specifically that he tried to find middle ground--an intellectual, political, and human connection. One time, the issue was profound in the sense that it could have been hurtful, and I remember Barack’s handling it really decisively. That [kind of student ability] was unusual. I don't remember his being strident about anything at all. 

Edmonds’s account jibes with others who remember Obama’s participation in the Bell protest as a rare public foray into campus politics. But Bell’s ideas--particularly his work on the history of civil rights law,--had a profound effect on Obama, and he assigned Bell to his own students more frequently than any other single author.

Edmonds described Bell’s casebook--Race, Racism, and American Law--as a pedagogical classic. “There are occasionally things that might put people off, but I would absolutely use it to teach constitutional law. Each of the doctrines that comes up in civil rights law has extensive source material in that text, including statutes, executive orders, and most important, case law,” she says.

The one area in which she frequently disagreed with Bell, says Edmonds, was the extent to which his teaching approach could be taken as  “pessimistic,”  a pedagogy that might seem to emphasize the worst possibilities of racism, and which might also seem to hold out little hope for progress.

I told him that I knew that he was not pessimistic in what he believed--otherwise why would [he] be teaching us? I told him that I think you have to be careful not to be discouraging. For the average person, hope would be part of the story. He came around and noted that the true mark of adulthood is to tolerate ambivalence and ambiguity, acknowledge discouragement and keep going.

Looking back on her own work with Bell, Edmonds notes that she feels both “conflicted and appreciative” about Bell’s support for Farrakhan in Faces at the Bottom of the Well.

“I think some of Farrakhan's remarks are appalling. I've said so. And I think his offensive remarks--along with those of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and others--ought to be shouted down from the rooftops,” Edmonds says, “but--I'm white. So while I might be shouting from the rooftops, at the same time I cannot claim to understand why a black person might not be shouting. I don't presume to understand what it feels like to be grouped, perhaps unwillingly (Bell was no anti-Semite), with a jackass because he's the same color as I am, such that I don't presume to understand fully the riptides that Bell forces upon the reader's awareness.”

Furthermore, Edmonds says, the question itself reflects a racial double standard: “It is patently unfair to ask black leaders to condemn other perceived spokespeople who are black when we do not, as a society, require whites to condemn the likes of Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh in the same way.”

Like Bell, who proposed a reformation of property rights as the only promising avenue for advocates of racial equality, Edmonds says that she does not think that identity politics is necessarily a good idea, “because I think it's important to talk about poverty.” She acknowledges that Critical Race Theory has some “detriments,” but adds that “it did three or four things that I thought were revolutionary and necessary”:

One, it shook the legal world up from tacking on black history in footnotes, or mentioning people of color in a separate chapter. To get to the post-racial world that I want, the other story has to be integrated. I think the whole point of Critical Race Theory is to re-center the dominant perspective. I don't think its intent was to Balkanize legal scholarship--and I say this as a historian who hopes to finish a PhD in American history.

Two, I think it gave a lot of [minority] students who were at law school, a sense that the materials included their lives, too. So i think it broadened a little level of comfort. It's like a sigh of relief. You can call it tokenism, but I saw visible relief—much like the tangible relief  I felt  when the school brought in [civil rights and gender law scholar] Liz Schneider.

Three, Critical Race Theory tamed some of the shortfalls of Critical Legal Studies, which had been a largely white male discipline. To its credit, most people in Critical Legal Studies embraced or encouraged Critical Race Theory.

Civil rights law is nothing to sneeze at. It’s an important part of history. I am proud to be American, and we have the best justice system in the world--but Critical Race Theory throws open that sense in which people of color have been using the law, fighting with the law, to create an American history that really reflects a crucial part of what it means to be an American. 

The only criticism she still has, Edmonds says, is that Critical Race Theory “too often goes after the wrong targets. I think Critical Race Theorists spend too much time criticizing liberals and not enough [criticizing] conservatives.”

Edmonds believes that the left should not emulate the current political environment in which divide-and-conquer strategies often dominate, that the left should not succumb to strategies that end up ignoring the real opponents of the left--namely, conservatives.


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