The Preacher and the Pragmatist: Remembering Derrick Bell
I’m now old enough to have lived through several moral panics over critical race theory. There was that culture-wars-era (remember those days?) one over whether critical race theorists were destroying the legacy of the Enlightenment by publishing first-person anecdotes; there was the one about whether critical race theorists were anti-Asian and anti-Semitic for criticizing extant standards of “merit” in the context of affirmative action in higher education; connected with that, there was that flap over whether Richard Delgado’s skin was the same color as Richard Posner’s (young people, I swear I am not making this up! Google it!); and, of course, there was that time Jeffrey Rosen blamed O.J. Simpson’s acquittal on, you guessed it, critical race theory.
These are reduced days, and the most recent moral panic over CRT cannot compare in either grandeur or silliness. Still, I experienced a moment of nostalgia when video recently surfaced on YouTube of a sweetly young Barack Obama, then a student at Harvard Law School, introducing Professor Derrick Bell at what appears to be a rally. The tagline attached to the video refers to “radical racist Derrick Bell,” and a related video shows Soledad O’Brien frantically riffing off some clearly inadequate notes as she tries to defend critical race theory as a mainstream academic literature (watching her, I had the urge to shout encouragingly, “EPA!”). The “gotcha” moment that follows shows Bell explaining to an interviewer his sympathy with W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of “the wages of whiteness”: the idea that anti-black sentiment has been so hard to eradicate in American society because it serves the function of keeping poor and disempowered white people content with their lot, willing to identify with elite whites based on the symbolic community of race rather than making common cause with poor folks of other backgrounds based on economic interest.
Seeing Bell explaining this argument in his characteristically soft, courtly voice, and thinking about the juxtaposition of Bell and Obama, made me think about the preacher and the pragmatist. Not Bell as preacher and Obama as pragmatist, but the preacher and the pragmatist within Bell himself.
What’s true in the characterization of Bell as a radical is, of course, his thoroughgoing rejection of America’s official liberal pieties about race, the most important of these being the faith that racism either has already disappeared or could very soon, probably in our grandchildren’s generation (if we could just get rid of affirmative action, or fully implement it, depending on whether you skew right or left). Bell is probably most famous for two concepts: the idea of “interest convergence” and the conviction that “racism is permanent,” and both – especially the second – were and continue to be deeply emotionally upsetting to many. Interest convergence is the idea that black people (about and to whom Bell largely spoke) will only experience improvement in their material condition to the extent that white people as a group believe that it serves their own interests. The idea that racism is permanent links back to DuBois and undermines another liberal faith: the idea that racism is peripheral rather than central to American society. The Bell who believed racism is permanent also believed that the American social contract is founded on racial identity, that Americanness and whiteness are too bound up in one another to ever be teased apart.
This side of Bell counseled pragmatism rather than idealism, rejecting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the most brutal terms. Under this view, the best strategy for black people is to appeal to white self-interest for moderate reforms; and we will never be post-racial as long as there is an America. Bell was accused of nihilism for taking this position. Yet there was another Bell too, a preacher in addition to a pragmatist.
Re-reading his book Confronting Authority, I get the sense that Bell was not an easy colleague, and not because of his personal style. Bell was always warm, gentle and mild-mannered, funny, and dedicated to dialogue even with those with whom he bitterly disagreed. He never came across as the stereotypical Angry Black Man. But he had the discomfiting habit of trying to live up to his principles and expecting everyone else to, too. His account of his personal strike against Harvard Law School – his decision to take leave unless and until a qualified black woman was hired to the full-time tenure-track faculty – is the best example. Like Peter Singer, the philosopher who tries to get affluent people to use their money and privilege on behalf of the worst-off instead of benefitting their friends and family, Bell was always taking an uncomfortable but principled stand and making you have to explain to yourself why you couldn’t do the same. This Bell was an idealist, not a realist. His answer to those who criticized his “permanence of racism” thesis was similarly disconcertingly idealistic: One fights against racism, even though we know it to be permanent, simply because it is the right thing to do, because we have a moral responsibility to do so. Preachers’ kids sometimes grow up to be odd people in this way: trying to live as God wants us to live rather than making the accommodations to social norms and physical and mental comfort that the rest of us do. I have no idea whether Professor Bell was a preacher’s kid, or whether he considered himself religious, but this aspect of his thought and life has that same unnerving quality.
In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that a signal social division of our time is between those who feel that the pleasures and pains of this world are all there is, and those who feel that there is something more. Derrick Bell placed himself on both sides of the divide. He was both a preacher and a pragmatist, deeply principled and deeply strategic. Both sides of him were uncompromising. People like that are seldom easy company, but they challenge us in a useful way: not only with their ideas, but with the shape of their lives.