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Commentary: Derrick Bell’s ‘Working Faith’ for Academic Justice

When Derrick Bell passed away last week, the academy and the world did not merely lose a prodigious scholar, an exquisite legal mind and a magnetic personality.  Injustice, racism, discrimination and sexism in higher education all lost one of its most zealous, longtime enemies. Diversity lost one of its fiercest patrons.

While conservatives and liberals moved American higher education in the post-Civil Rights/Black Power years to a discourse based on assumptions of significant racial progress for all, post-racism, and/or a color blind society, Bell tried to pull us back to the center of truth. When academics echoed the death or failing fitness of racism, Bell showcased its permanence. When intellectuals rejoiced over the moral overtures of White Americans, Bell maintained that they have generally only made overtures for self-interest. 

Bell rose above the rest of us as one of the few intellectuals, one of the few self-identified socially responsible scholars, one of the few professed opponents of oppression who challenged injustice in his scholarship, in the community and on campus. A countless number of academics today produce scholarship as critical race theorists, following Bell. But a smaller number speak out, protest against injustice in their communities and a still smaller group of academics are willing to sacrifice their professorships to challenge campus discrimination.

Bell battled the last four decades with a simple dictum—resist discrimination. He did not leave the protesting to the students. He refused to support a college or university with his presence that supported the presence of racism or sexism.

Shortly after becoming the first tenured law professor at Harvard, Bell resigned due to discrimination in 1971. He resigned in the 1980s as dean of the University of Oregon School of Law when the school denied tenure to an Asian woman. He returned to Harvard, but in 1990 took an unpaid leave (and never returned) in protest of the law school’s refusal to tenure its first Black woman.

“Discrimination in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when employers posted the sign ‘no Negras need apply,’” he wrote in his 1992 book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well.  He had to look no further than his collegiate institutions to see this viciousness.

Bell did not merely champion diversity, love diversity or write on diversity in higher education—he gave his career to diversity (along with a series of other noble charges).  “Your faith in what you believe must be a living, working faith that draws you away from comfort and security, and toward risk through confrontation,” he once wrote.

Bell continuously created personal discomfort through entering the risky confines of the court of American opinion to publically confront racism and sexism. Through his life, he regularly broadcast a challenge. Now, through his lifework, the broadcast remains the same: in a world of injustice, beliefs for beliefs’ sake are inoperable; having principles and not defending them is ominous. Our beliefs, our principles, must compel us to work—stridently work for a healthier higher education, for a healthier America.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.

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