The Father of Critical Race Theory: 7 Things To Know About Derrick Bell

The Father of Critical Race Theory: 7 Things To Know About Derrick Bell

critical race theory Derrick Bell

Professor Derrick Bell of the University of Washington Law School shown in his office January 30, 1980. (AP Photo)

The fall of Afghanistan’s U.S.-support government has raised, once again, the debate about critical race theory and its role in helping the Taliban militants take over power so fast.

Some critics of President Joe Biden blame the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan on his administration’s focus on critical race theory when he should have been focused instead on foreign policy.

But what exactly is the critical race theory and who came up with it?

Derrick Bell (1930 – 2011), a Black American attorney who worked on many civil-rights cases, is credited with launching the groundbreaking school of thought.

But legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw is credited with coining the phrase in the late 1980s to highlight the ways in which supposedly color-blind laws permitted racial oppression and inequality to continue in the U.S.

Bell’s ideas on racism, and how it is so deeply rooted in the makeup of U.S. society that it has been able to reassert itself even after successive waves of reforms aimed at eliminating it, was the foundation upon which critical race theory was built.

According to the theory, law and legal institutions are inherently racist and race itself “is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color,” as defined by Britannica.

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Here are seven things to know about Bell, the godfather of critical race theory:

Bell was a civil rights activist all is life

Bell worked as a civil rights activist in one way or another his whole life. In his 20s he worked at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. He attacked both conservative and liberal beliefs. In 1992 he said Black Americans were more subjugated than at any time since slavery. He also criticized persistent racism in America through books, articles, and infuriating career moves. He wrote the book, “Faces At The Bottom of the Well”, which argues that America will always be a racist country. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, while a student at Harvard Law School, compared Bell to the civil rights hero Rosa Parks. Bell also joined Harvard Law School faculty as a lecturer in 1969 and in 1971 became its first tenured Black professor.

He served in the U.S. Air Force

Bell was a Pittsburgh native and Air Force veteran before his career in academia. As a 24-year-old Air Force officer, he served two years and was stationed in Korea for one of those years. It was during his time in the service that he started developing a keen interest in matters of equality after following the May 1954 Supreme Court watershed ruling that struck down legally mandated racial segregation in public schools, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

He was a member of the NAACP

As a young lawyer, Bell chose to become a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the oldest U.S. civil rights organization, giving up a position as the only Black lawyer in the entire Justice Department in the 1950s. He worked in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a staff attorney. Working with the movement propelled him to be a civil rights lawyer.

He worked with Thurgood Marshall

Bell worked with Thurgood Marshall, the architect of the legal strategy that ended the country’s official policy of segregation and the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, in composing legal strategies against school segregation in the South, at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and as the deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Oversaw 300 school desegregation legal cases

Bell supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi. But despite his effort to make these schools equitable, most white parents simply moved their children to private schools. Public schools became almost all Black and thus segregated. It was from this frustration that he thought up critical race theory.

Protests over faculty diversity

In 1991, he left Harvard Law School and said he was going on unpaid leave until the school hired a resident Black female faculty member. He began protesting after Regina Austin, who was serving as a visiting professor at Harvard, was denied residence. In 1998, Harvard hired its first female African American law school professor, Lani Guinier. She told the Times that Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy.”

Bell wrote science fiction stories

The civil rights activist sometimes wrote science fiction stories such as “The Space Traders,” a book that depicted white Americans trading Black Americans to space aliens to pay off the national debt and receive advanced technology such as environmental decontaminants and alternatives to fossil fuels. The book was made into an HBO special in the early 1990s, but in 2008 it became a source of outrage among white conservatives opposed to Obama’s presidency.