Click here to go to the Home Page Professor Derrick Bell: “Radical Humanist” - By Dr. Vinay Harpalani, J.D., Ph.D. - Guest Commentator

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As the last Derrick Bell Fellow in 2009-10, I shared an office with Professor Bell for my first job out of law school. In the years before he passed away, we had many conversations about race, law, and most importantly, about teaching. The most ironic aspect of the conservative media assault on his legacy is that Professor Bell actually defended the very individuals who the right wing accuses him of disparaging. While many of us know Derrick Bell as a scholar and activist, it was through his teaching that Professor Bell’s “radical humanism” truly shone through.

The right wing distortion began with the issue of “White supremacy,” which was the point of debate between Soledad O’Brien and Joel Pollak. Professor Bell was a renowned scholar on race and racism and was one of the founding figures of Critical Race Theory - of course he addressed “White supremacy” in his work. To think he would not have is absurd. The right wing’s distortion, however, was to create simplistic media soundbite.

In isolation, the term “White supremacy” - which in common parlance conjures up images of the KKK, cross burnings, etc. - misses the complexity and nuance of Professor Bell’s analysis. Prof. Bell’s work examined White supremacy in a broad, systemic light and hardly addressed the KKK or overt manifestations of racism at all. He acknowledged that the Civil Rights Movement did eliminate de jure racial segregation, and that it significantly reduced the most blatant forms of racism. But in his Critical Race Theory scholarship, Professor Bell posited that those are just the most visible elements of racism, and the structural core of racial hierarchy remains untouched, even after the Civil Rights Movement.

In that sense, White supremacy, as an ideology that much more subtly defines and reinforces racial hierarchy, is key part of Critical Race Theory. But that is a much different sense than what is understood by most of the public when a conservative commentator on TV uses the term “White supremacy.”

Even more appalling is that the right wing media perpetuated this distortion by extrapolating that Professor Bell disliked White people. Bill O’Reilly stated as much, and Sarah Palin referred to Professor Bell as a “racist.” But those of us who saw Professor Bell teach know that nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the students who were closest to him were White, as were the majority of the Derrick Bell Fellows - whom he chose personally. Moreover, independent of race, Professor Bell actually encouraged criticism from students and commentators who disagreed with his views. His classes always focused on student participation, and some of his best students and Teaching Assistants were those whose political views were very different from his own.

As articulated in his book, Confronting Authority, what Professor Bell admired most were individuals who would stand up and express dissent, even at the risk of rebuke and ostracism from peers. He viewed his classroom as a setting to teach students to challenge authority - including his authority. He also invited speakers to class who disagreed with him; in fact, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, a staunch opponent of Critical Race Theory, spoke in Professor Bell’s class the very week after he passed away.

Students of all racial and political backgrounds could speak to Professor Bell’s warmth and kindness - the personal stories and life lessons he offered while teaching, and the general compassion he encouraged everyone to display. Professor Bell was “radical” and would proudly embrace the term. But much more than his political views, his philosophy of encouraging student dissent, of treating everyone with respect, and of “humanizing the law school experience” - as he liked to put - made him a “radical humanist” whose legacy will have a lasting impact on all whom he touched. Guest Commentator, Columnist, Vinay Harpalani, J.D., Ph.D., is the Korematsu Teaching Fellow at Seattle University School of Law. He earned his J.D. from NYU School of Law and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Vinay served as the Derrick Bell Fellow in 2009-10, working closely with Professor Bell in designing and teaching his constitutional law courses. Vinay’s scholarship focuses on Critical Race Theory and education law. Click here to contact Vinay Harpalani.

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Mar 22, 2012 - Issue 464
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