Thursday, October 06, 2011

RIP Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell -- civil rights warrior, pathbreaking law professor, founder of critical race theory, and tireless advocate for justice, has passed away at age 80.

I never met Derrick Bell. I had the opportunity once when he came to speak at Carleton, but I was going out of town. I remember pulling aside my roommate -- a Math major with zero interest in politics, law, race, or anything primarily expressed via words -- handing him my copy of And We Are Not Saved, and informing him that he was going to Professor Bell's talk and he was getting my book autographed. Which my (quite saintly) roommate proceeded to do, and I still have that book on my desk to this day.

Bell was a model to generations of students. He accomplished more in one lifetime than the average person could hope to do in three. I was introduced to him as an academic writer -- progenitor of "interest-convergence theory" and CRT founder -- but it is worth remembering that academia was really Bell's second career. He started off as an in-the-trenches warrior in the fight for civil rights, leading the NAACP in dozens of successful anti-segregation suits in the Jim Crow south. After a brief stint at the University of Southern California, Bell became the first tenured Black professor at Harvard. He eventually left Harvard in protest of their failure to hire a Black woman. The claim, as always, was that they couldn't find a "qualified" one. How they said that with a straight face to Bell -- who graduated from the decidedly non-elite University of Pittsburgh law school and proceeded to become one of the most influential scholars of the last quarter century -- is beyond me.

Rest in peace, professor. Be assured that your legacy lives on.

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