Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell
Professor Richard Delgado
Seattle University School of Law
October 23, 2011
AN UNASKED QUESTION
I met Derrick 30 years ago in Eugene, Oregon, when I dropped in on him on my way from Seattle, where I had been teaching, to my next duty station in Los Angeles.
A busy dean, he nevertheless made time for a young Chicano law professor and his wife and young daughters. He asked me about my teaching and what I was writing. Although we became good friends, exchanging letters, emails, and manuscripts, over the years we only taught at the same school once, when he visited at Pittsburgh, where I was then teaching. Our correspondence covered such mundane matters as children, finances, and problems with editors, as well as more serious issues like politics and the state of black fortunes. In later years, it turned increasingly to doctors and medical matters.
I delved into his life more systematically when Jean Stefancic and I co-edited The Derrick Bell Reader (NYU Press 2005) and we interviewed him in order to prepare the introduction.
I think that his life was exemplary in that on many key occasions, he was able to put into practice the very themes and ideas that he covers in his writing. His scholarship, in other words, clarified his personal choices and endowed them with a lucidity that most of us lack when we just muddle through, missing opportunities for action and intervention that might have inspired others and yielded gains for things we hold dear.
Other testimonials discuss the well known occasions when he sat in, resigned, or otherwise challenged his colleagues to do the right thing. What follows is a lesser known event in which I played a very small role.
A few years after my family and I met him in Eugene, I heard that Bell, who had by then resigned as dean over the Oregon faculty’s refusal to hire a well qualified Asian-American woman, found himself at the center of a shocking incident at Stanford.
The timing of Bell’s resignation had left him with a gap to fill. His former school, Harvard, was prepared to take him back, but his late wife held a satisfying position at Oregon which she was not prepared to leave right then. So, Bell, who had just published the Harvard Law Review Supreme Court Foreword, was overjoyed when he received an offer to teach for a semester as a visiting professor at Stanford Law School while his wife completed her duties in Eugene, after which they would return to Cambridge.
At Stanford, Bell was enjoying teaching constitutional law to a group of first-year students when, a few weeks into the semester, he received an invitation from the dean to deliver a public lecture in a new series on constitutional law. Seeing the invitation as an expression of confidence by his new colleagues, he gratefully accepted.
His pleasure changed to chagrin, however, when, a short time later, a delegation of black students informed him that the lecture series was aimed at his own deficiencies as an instructor. Evidently, a number of his students had complained about having to take a required first-year course from this unassuming black man from “Oregon State.” Bell, who had taught that subject all his life, did so in slightly unorthodox fashion, beginning with the Slavery Compromises—six provisions, still in the document, which guaranteed the continuation of the institution of slavery. Bell showed how those clauses shaped the American legal system during its formative years, leaving traces even today.
The students were discontent. They had expected to take that important course from one of two prominent professors, on leave that year, who taught it in a more conventional fashion. The administration had responded by scheduling the lecture series to guarantee the students their money’s worth. And they had invited Bell to participate to dispel any suspicion that the series was aimed at him.
Most readers might have felt like hiding under a rock. Bell instead took the occasion to write a lengthy column for the Stanford student newspaper. Entitled The Price and Pain of Racial Perspective, the essay addressed the racist subtext behind the lecture series and called on the law school to reckon with its own race and class biases. This led to a series of town-hall meetings that continued long after Bell left and resulted in significant changes at the law school.
Life confronts us all with countless challenges and irritations, so that the trick often lies in determining which ones are worth confronting and speaking out quickly enough to do some good. With Derrick, I suspect that his years as a litigator with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund told him that the Stanford incident was a time for action. But personal courage entered into it–as well, I suspect, as his familiarity with critical theory and such concepts as interest convergence, racial realism, and the Law of Racial Standing.
I wish I had asked him about this connection. But I never did.
Instead, I and a few minority law professor friends offered to meet with Bell at his home in Eugene. Distressed over what had happened to him at Stanford, we wondered, if it could happen to Bell, could it not happen to all of us? The small group who met around his living room in Eugene had begun hearing scattered reports about rudeness, disrespect, even denials of tenure to well qualified professors of color around the nation. We drafted a letter which we sent to every law school urging administrators to take measures to nurture and shelter their few minority colleagues of color.
Whether the letter had any impact, I do not know. Derrick and I later co-authored an article in the Harvard Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review. Entitled Minority Law Professors’ Lives: The Bell Delgado Survey (1989), it reported the results of a systematic exploration of the civil rights downturn we all sensed was beginning to set in.
A few months later, the first critical race theory workshop met at a convent outside Madison, Wisconsin. He was there, as was I.
But I never asked him my question, then or later, and I’m kicking myself that I did not.