Derrick Bell: His Literary Legacy

News & SocietyPolitics

  • Author Jana Cates
  • Published June 8, 2012
  • Word count 1,072

Civil Rights Attorney And Law Professor Rediscovered

In March 2012, five months after he passed away, Derrick Bell became the target of conservative media, in particular and Sean Hannity, in an slap against President Barack Obama. After the footage of a young Barack Obama hugging Professor Bell at a Harvard Law School student demonstration was shown on all the television news shows, the "scandal" waned as not much of a news story. Paradoxically, this lame slap against Barack obama has given us a chance to learn more about the late civil rights activist, legal academic and respected author Derrick Bell.

Critical Race Theory

The majority of people who heard the reports of Derrick Bell's death probably had little acquaintance with his idealistic career as a lawyer and law professor or his importance as one of the architects of critical race theory.

The Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a field of study focused upon the application of critical theory, a neo-Marxist examination and review of culture and society, to the intersection of race, power, and law. According to CRT racism is inherent in the system and fabric of the American society.

Bell continued writing about Critical Race Theory after accepting a teaching position at Harvard University in 1969. Writing in a narrative mode, Bell contributed to the intellectual discussions on race. According to Bell, his intention in writing was to analyze the racial issues within the context of their political, social, and economic dimensions from a legal standpoint.

Embracing the Narrative

Much of Professor Bell’s scholarship discarded dry legal analysis in favor of stories. In books and law review articles, he presented parables and allegories about race relations, then argued their meaning with a fictional alter ego, a professor named Geneva Crenshaw, who compelled him to address the truth about racial bias in America.


Bell is probably the most significant source of thought critical of traditional civil rights discourse. He used three major arguments in his analyses of racial patterns in American law: constitutional contradiction, the interest convergence principle, and the price of racial remedies. His book Race, Racism and American Law, now in its sixth edition, has been continually in print since 1973 and is regarded as a classic in the field.

Noteworthy Writings of Derrick Bell

Race, Racism and American Law

Published in 1973 by Little Brown:

This is Bell’s milestone work in the study of race, racism and civil rights law in the United States. This was the first judicial decisions book devoted to race and racism in relation to the American law. It has been part of law school curricula for almost four decades and is currently in its sixth edition.

And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice

Published in 1987 by Basic Books:

Bell initially wrote And We Are Not Saved as a foreword to a 1985 publication of the Harvard Law Review on the Supreme Court. In this expanded adaptation, professor Bell stated that although racial equality has been legally confirmed, economic equality after initial gains is retrogressing despite affirmative action. He recommended the formation of a alliance of disadvantaged blacks and whites, urging that entitlement standards include class as well as racial disadvantage.

Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism

Published in 1992 by Basic Books:

This group of essays discussed the problem of racism in America and the class differences involved in discrimination against minorities. In this book, Bell discussed the civil rights movement in American society, and determined that racism is everlasting, and will forever be part of society.

Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester

Published in 1996 by Beacon Press:

Derrick Bell wrote this book three years after sacrificing his tenure at Havard Law School. Bell provided a detailed account of the events that led him to give up his position as a Harvard Law School professor to protest the school's never having granted tenure to a minority woman.

Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home

Published in 1997 by Basic Books:

Gospel Choirs is the third in a series of essays and parables by Derrick Bell that shed light on probably the most perplexing challenges of our day--racism. Bell merged dialogues and dreams through his own voice and that of the fictional civil rights lawyer of the 1960s, Geneva Crenshaw,. Not to mention, it's not just racism that Bell pondered. Some of the writings challenge African-Americans' attitudes toward sexuality and sexism.

Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth

Published in 2002 by Bloomsbury USA:

In Ethical Ambition, Bell produced good insight into an individual's quest to live by the highest of personal ideals and standards. Bell analyzed his struggle to meet what he termed an ethical standard. He confessed that an obsession with ambition, even in an altruistic sense, may violate the ethical obligations owed to family. He considered the conflicts of issues in his own religious traditions that he negotiated to reach a higher spiritual awareness frequently lost in traditional religions. Bell also cited cases of well known ethically principled individuals--W. E. B. DuBois and Martin L. King Jr., among others--who often strove for higher ethical standards, single-handedly and at great personal cost.

Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

Published in 2005 by Oxford University Press:

In Silent Covenants, Bell critiqued the function and constraint of the landmark Brown decision. He asserted that he, like many of his colleagues, confused the means of integration with the objectives of superb education and racial equality. To analyze racial reforms, he created a theory of converging interests into one of racial fortuity. In other words, when the interests of African-Americans converge with the interests of whites, African-Americans are more likely to have their needs addressed; otherwise they are not. Bell admonished blacks to not abandon their real interests even when they do not converge with the majority, and certainly prime among those interests is the educational advancement of black children.


Whether you see Derrick Bell as a raving racist or a distinguished intellectual, introducing his books to your non-fiction bookshelf would be a sensible step. In 1971 Derrick Bell became the first black tenured professor in the history of Harvard Law School. That marked a significant critical point in his life. Two years later he wrote his seminal opus, Race, Racism and American Law, thus starting his career as one of America’s most important theorists.

Jana Cates is a cat lover who writes in her spare time. You can visit her website at []( or check out her collection of luxury cat bed images on her blog.

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