Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Derrick Bell

Although he once wrote that he was "not confrontational by nature," legal scholar and pioneer of critical race theory Derrick Bell, who died Oct. 5 at 80, tested his disposition on a regular basis. After earning his law degree at the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1957, where he was the only black student, Bell worked at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. When his employers learned that he was an NAACP member, they asked him to give up his membership because it posed a conflict of interest. Instead, he quit — but only after waiting to see if they would fire him.

Bell became the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School and later dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, but quit that job when the school declined to offer a position to an Asian-American woman. Back at Harvard a year later, he staged a five-day sit-in to protest the school's failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved the law and race. In 1990 he took a leave of absence saying he wouldn't return until Harvard added a black woman to its tenured faculty (it wouldn't do so until 1998, and Bell never returned).

In between these protests, he found the time to develop the academic discipline of critical race theory — legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions — and become a preeminent legal scholar whose 1973 book Race, Racism and American Law is still taught in law schools. In an interview in 1992, Bell recalled the many times he'd been told to stick it out in the places where he worked and fight from within, rather than make a stand. "I've always been a little suspect of that argument," he noted. "It's very comfortable and convenient, but I'm not sure it's necessarily accurate." He added, "I am grateful for the opportunity to, in so public a way, practice what I have preached for so long."