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Derrick Bell: keeper of the flame – author of ‘Confronting Authority’ and Afro-American law professor at New York University

Editor’s note: No discussion of a commitment to diversity in higher
education would be complete without talking to Derrick Bell.
Unfortunately, as Black Issues was preparing the following article,
Professor Bell fell ill and was unavailable for an interview. Black
Issues is happy to report that at press time he was reported as doing

Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. is known throughout academic circles
under many names: The Race Man, The Steward, The Scold, The Pessimist,
and The Realist, among others. He is often recognized as a pioneer of
critical race theory and, perhaps most definitively, as the man who
walked away from Harvard University.

When Bell went to Harvard University Law School in 1969 after years
as a civil rights lawyer, his understanding was that his would be the
first of several appointments of faculty of color. When he received
tenure in 1971, he was still alone. And despite the appointment of some
visiting professors, he remained alone on the faculty for many years.
During that time he helped develop the notion of critical race theory,
a collection of ideas that center on the way law has been used to
enforce racism in the Western world.

In Confronting Authority, published in 1994, Bell describes his
frustration with Harvard University: “Twenty years after hiring me as
the school’s first full-time [B]lack law professor, Harvard’s diversity
record at the Law School was poor and in the rest of the University
appalling. Harvard’s claim that it made goodfaith efforts to diversify
its almost entirely [W]hite and male faculty was belied by the fact
that not even one Latino, Asian, or Native American professor had
joined the law faculty. Although over the years a half-dozen [B]lack
men gained faculty appointments, Harvard had stood aside while women of
color taught and earned tenured positions at other prestigious law
schools, including Georgetown, New York University, and the University
of Pennsylvania.”

As much as the university held fast that it was actively seeking out
potential minority hires, students as well as Bell got a different

“They would talk to us about making changes,” explains Sheryll
Cashin, now a law professor at Georgetown University who was a student
of Bell’s during the late 1980s at Harvard. “But nothing would happen.”

“Derrick was the most important mentor in legal education for years
because he was the only Black man, for one thing,” says Columbia
University law professor Patricia Williams, who was a student of
Bell’s. “He took everyone seriously – especially Black women, which was

Bell had already left the deanship of the law school at the
University of Oregon in 1985, where he had relocated during a brief
leave from Harvard. He left Oregon because the West Coast institution
wouldn’t tenure an Asian woman whom he thought deserved it.

Now he would do the same at Harvard. In 1990, he told his dean he
was taking leave and would not return until the institution hired a
woman of color.

“I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they
believe,” he told Boston Globe, “if I do not practice my own precepts.”

Bell’s decision sprang from his belief that ethnic and gender
diversity brought new experiences and new ways of thinking, something
which was brought home to him during the visiting professorship of
Regina Austin at Harvard.

In his letter requesting leave, reprinted in part in Confronting
Authority, he wrote: “Although I have never forgotten my
representational function on this faculty, I was slow to recognize that
as a [B]lack man, I am not able to understand, interpret, and
articulate the very unique conditions and challenges [B]lack women
face. While I urged the hiring of [B]lack women, I thought that as a
[B]lack man I could both comprehend and represent the needs and
interests of [B]lack women. A modicum of exposure to feminist writings,
particularly those by [B]lack women, and Regina Austin’s presence and
effectiveness, have disabused me of this unintended but no less
inexcusable presumptuousness. The large role our [B]lack women students
are playing in the recent diversity protests here confirm their
recognition of what should have been obvious to me years ago.”

The first year of his leave passed with no woman of color hired.
Bell took a job as a visiting professor at New York University. Then
the second year of his leave passed. Harvard, citing tradition, refused
to grant him a third year. And so Bell gave up his tenured position.

By taking this action, Bell showed that his passion for diversity
was more than words and that he was willing to put his livelihood on
the line. In the years since, that willingness to sacrifice has been an
inspiration to others in academia.

“By taking the unpaid leave from Harvard and then resigning,
Professor Bell’s willingness to sacrifice personal gain for the public
good is not only astonishing, it’s simply edifying,” says Michael Eric
Dyson, a visiting distinguished professor at Columbia University.

“He has caused all thoughtful Americans to rethink the orthodoxies
of race that pass for either conservative or liberal ideology. . . .
And finally he embodies the heroic history of Black resistance to White
supremacy by his willingness to put his body where his beliefs are.”

Dr. Raymond Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at
Fisk University, says, “People say that he could have fought better
from the inside but he would fight both ways. He talked the talk and
walked the walk.”

Dr. Manning Marable, a history professor and director of the
Institute for Research in African American Culture at Columbia
University in New York, says, “His efforts are flash-points in a
larger, longer struggle for racial equality. They are symbolic in
meaning, but you have to remember that symbols are very powerful.”

“We are lucky that in the absence of the think tanks, we have
individuals like Derrick Bell to pay the price,” says Dr. Asa Hilliard
III, professor of education at Georgia State University.

Although Bell himself, in Confronting Authority, questions whether
his leaving Harvard had much of an effect, others see his effect in a
wide variety of venues. For example, the Association of American
Colleges and Universities has made commitments to the development of a
“diverse democracy” and, with support from the Ford Foundation, awards
matching grants to colleges and universities which hold activities and
seminars about diversity and its implementation. Additionally,
DiversityWeb offers a listing of over fifty colleges and universities
with a breakdown of the ethnic, sex, age, and race composition on the
staff, faculty and student graduate and undergraduate levels at each

Harvard itself lists more than twenty different “diversity
organizations” on its campus and is now host to one of the biggest and
most important centers of African American scholarship in the country –
led by such scholars as Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Dr. Cornel West, and
Dr. William Julius Wilson.

And Bell is still teaching law at NYU to overflow classes.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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