The Man Behind Critical Race Theory

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“Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.~Derrick Bell

On this day November 6, 1930 the late activist and scholar Derrick Bell was born. His legacy helped launch a ground breaking school of thought, what we know today as Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race Theory(CRT)  is defined as the legal scholarship of examining America’s  history through the lens of racism. CRT is a way of thinking that explorers how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions.

The inception of critical race theory began at a conference on critical legal studies.  The CLS conference occurred in the late 1970s organized by a “collection of new-Marxist intellectuals, former new activists, ex-counter-culturalists, and other varieties of oppositionists in law schools. CLS endorsed a progressive perspective on the role of law in American society and challenged conservative orthodoxies and legal liberalism alike according to Adrien Katherine Wing author of the white paper Space Traders for the twenty first century published in Berkeley Journal of African American Law and Policy.

Critical legal studies peaked the interest of professor  Derrick Bell. While serving in the United States Air Force, professor Bell  became interested in equality.  Born and raised in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania professor Bell earned his bachelors degree from Duquesne in 1952. In 1957 he became the only black graduate in his class to earn his law degree from University of Pittsburgh law school.

Before entering into academia professor Bell worked for the department of Justice in its civil rights division.  At the time he was working for the department of justice, he was a member of the  NAACP. The Department of Justice saw this as conflict of interest  and requested Bell to suspended his membership within the organization. Not wanting to compromise on his principles professor Bell resigned.

After resigning from the department of Justice he was hired by Thurgood Marshall as a staff attorney at the legal defense fund. During his career with the legal defense fund he supervised more than three hundred school desegregation cases.

In 1969 professor Bell decided to make another career change. He  became the first black professor at Harvard law school. This is where CRT began to take shape as he developed and taught a new course on civil rights. He published his first book entitled Race, Racism, and American Law.  For Bell he saw an opportunity to add substance to build and expand upon CLS. Like anything new things take time to develop, while many saw CLS as a great concept it lack insights. The scope of CLS lacked an understanding of the role of race and racism as a substantial motivating factor in American society and its legal system.

Having navigating the legal system while working at the legal defense fund, Bell had the exposure and insight to the system. He and other scholars would work to develop CRT. CRT was developed with the intent to expose the racist nature of the American legal system.

Professor Bells optimism for equality had faded as he recognized all the work and decisions that had been made in civil rights were of little impact. It led him to be believe that “racism is so deeply rooted in the Makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it. He believed that racism was permanent.  This belief is the core foundation of CRT.

Although it came with a great a sacrifice he stood on his principle of CRT by leaving several educational institutions for refusing to hire a more diverse staff.  Essentially practicing what he preached he became pessimistic about racial progress believing any progress minorities made would only come about if there was something to be gained by the Caucasian race. In simplest terms his ideology was that racism will never end. In his book Faces at the bottom of the well he compares racism to alcoholism stating that people can live with it and control it to a certain degree but there is always the threat of it rearing its head again.

CRT gives us a lot of food for thought, so much we have to digest it slowly. I am still processing CRT as there are more layers to it. As we see today from legislation to mainstream media CRT has been a hot topic of discussion. This past June house bill 3979 was signed by Governor Greg Abbott of Texas that restricts the teaching about race in state public schools. Other states are following suit as well.

By restricting what can be taught about race are we proving professor Bell theory is right that racism is permanent?

If we cant have dialogues about race in schools where are we going to have these type of discussions? If we leave it up to Facebook and the tik tokers of the world we are in trouble.

The only way to solve the problem is to confront the problem. Could it be that America does not want to look itself in the mirror to change its systemic oppressive ways by continuing to run from  accountability? Has America done it’s due diligence in examining the risks of leaving out important aspects of history? In my personal opinion it paints a false narrative of America history by omitting certain aspects and glamorizing it. What can this lead too, like people of color still have to deal with microaggressions.

Professor Bell is no longer here to defend his theory on critical race. If he was still here I would be interested in knowing what he judged or measured as being successful in fighting for equality. He came to believe the return on investment had very little impact. Impact is a broad term. It would be interesting to hear how he measured his success? As I read his work more in depth I may get a little more insight  to my question. To say racism is permanent is a very bold statement. For the simple fact how does that impact those who are fighting for equality In putting an end to systemic oppression.

Are we viewing racism through the lens of the glass being half full or half empty? One of my engineering  professors used to say the glass is neither half full or half empty. The glass is twice as big as it needs to be. All theory is hypothetical  until it can be proven otherwise.

Is there enough evidence to suggest that racism is permanent?


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African-American History, Black History, critical legal studies, critical race theory, Derrick Bell, house bill 3979, law, legal defense fund, NAACP, policy, Racism, Slavery

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