../1198/space%20holder

../1198/space%20holder


Previous Gazetteer item | Next Gazetteer item | January/February Contents | Gazette home

../1198/Gazetteer%20overline



LECTURE

Color Blinders

Do successful blacks help the race or justify an oppressive system? That was the question posed by Derrick Bell, visiting professor at the New York University School of Law, in the 1999 Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. Memorial Lecture, titled "Higginbotham’s Legacy: A Help or a Harm in the Racial Struggle?"
    Bell has written and lectured widely on race issues and is perhaps best known for having relinquished his position as the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School in a protest over the absence of women of color on the faculty. His speech focused on his own work "as I segue toward 70" as well as that of Higginbotham Hon’75, the civil-rights lawyer, federal judge, writer, teacher and Penn trustee, who kept up a punishing schedule of work until his death in December 1998.
Illustration by William Hood    Bell hailed Higginbotham as a "model and mentor" determined to "speak the truth as he saw it." As an example, he cited Higginbotham’s vehement public condemnation of Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which many of his "judicial colleagues viewed as inappropriate, intemperate and out of place." Thomas’ subsequent performance has "justified the opposition of thousands for whom Higginbotham spoke," Bell added, and he called it "disturbing" that Thurgood Marshall’s successor on the Supreme Court "seems to personify a well-traveled road to success. Namely, if we ignore the continuing perversity of racism, if we act as though the law is fair and colorblind, those who grant position and prestige will reward our performance."
    Bell called it "little short of a miracle" that so few blacks have "succumbed" to Justice Thomas’ example in a society "where celebrity and success count for more than principle and integrity." But he went on to wonder whether "there is not another temptation that leads men and women of color who fight racism all their lives to ignore or suppress the gnawing feeling that our efforts–and yes, even the small successes we are able to achieve–are of more value in legitimating a system we wish to reform than they are to the victims of that system we are trying to help."
    He also viewed with alarm the recent reversals of hard-won legal precedents "in tones and terms that border on the hostile" towards those seeking redress, and decried the wide acceptance of the "history-denying myth" of color-blindness "as the foundation for racial policy." It is increasingly difficult to ignore that "what is hailed as racial progress is a cyclical phenomenon," as rights are gained, then lost, then gained again in response to external factors over which blacks have no control, Bell said.
    Bell compared U.S. race relations to a historical pattern of colonial power in which the rulers "establish class divisions" among the oppressed group, as the British did in 19th-century India, for example, or, in the Southern plantation culture, the divide created between field and house hands. "We view our professional positions as valuable because they offer an opportunity to push the legal system and even the larger society in the direction of racial justice," but the reality may be quite different, Bell said. "Instead of gaining access to real influence, isn’t it more likely that we are legitimating a system that relegates us to an ineffectual, but decorative, fringe?" If so, the example of black people who have achieved "makes things worse for those others who have been excluded from the programs that helped us gain skills and acceptable credentials," he added. "We are for many whites living proof that there is no color barrier."
    Bell called race "the great stabilizer among whites of varying economic and political positions for over 300 years." Poor whites in the South aligned themselves with slave-owners, "ensuring their own poverty," and "in the last half of the 19th century, a shared feeling of superiority to blacks was one of the few things uniting a nation of immigrants" who were themselves shamefully exploited. "The ideology of whiteness continues to oppress whites as well as blacks; it is employed to make whites settle for despair in politics and anguish in the daily grind of life."
    While early civil-rights advocates viewed segregation as the evil, "It was only much later that we recognized that segregation was just a manifestation of evil–that Jim Crow could end and the evil would remain," Bell said. "The real evil was racism." More than outright bigotry, racism "is a system of advantage that benefits all whites, whether or not they seek it."
    The system is often invisible to whites, because–being the norm in the United States–"they don’t think of themselves as white," Bell said. For this reason, he added, "in all but the most blatant cases," many whites find it difficult to take charges of racial discrimination seriously. "When blacks assert that racism is alive and flourishing, whites find disbelief is the easier and more comforting ground," he said.
    Still, despite all obstacles, when reality conflicts too blatantly with the nation’s purported ideals, courts have at times been pushed to respond and have handed down decisions that alleviate the worst racial abuses, as in Brown vs. Board of Education, Bell said. "Precedents often take on a life of their own, often enlarging the scope or quality of rights for whites to a greater extent than for those intended as its beneficiaries," he added. "The quest for black rights has served well the cause for full citizenship generally–an unappreciated and mostly unrecognized service. It is one that arguably sustains our subordinate status and enables our critics and sometimes we ourselves to worry about the real value of our work: Is it a help or harm?"
    Across history, Bell concluded, the struggle for racial justice "has been built mainly on faith–far more than precedent." The commitment of those who take up the struggle is similar to that of blacks in this country since slavery–"carving out a humanity for oneself with absolutely nothing to help save imagination, will, unbelievable strength and courage; beating the odds while knowing that all those odds are stacked against you," he said, and expressed the hope that "we can continue to question what Higginbotham did, what I, what all of us do, as we continue doing something."

 
Previous Gazetteer item | Next Gazetteer item | January/February Contents | Gazette home


Copyright 2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/20/99