Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell
Professor Ian F. Haney López
University Of Calironia, Berkeley Shool of Law
October 23, 2011
Over the last few years I have been delighted by the chance to reconnect with you, some two decades after having been a “difficult” student in one of the last classes you taught while still at Harvard Law School. We’ve joked during this period of our long-ago conflicts, but haven’t really spoken of the source of the estrangement—an estrangement so deep, maybe you remember, that mid-semester I simply stopped coming to your class.
Here’s what I thought then, and, I’m ashamed to admit, what I thought until just the last few years when looking back. I thought that your idea that there had been little—indeed, no—real progress in American race relations was silly. Surely you remember writing: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” Temporary peaks of progress sliding into irrelevance? Really?
I was young, with all the misplaced certainty that implies. I just knew you were wrong. And I was privileged—not like most of my peers at HLS, of course, but even so, just by being there at all. Wasn’t my life—indeed, wasn’t your professorship—proof positive that at least some progress had been made, clear evidence that the civil rights movement, though it hadn’t achieved nearly enough, still had moved this country dramatically forward?
Plus, to be honest, I could not affort to take seriously your deep pessimism. It made me too angry to think things were not getting better. How much safer to be angry with you.
After an in-class argument your space trader’s parable—I could not accept that whites would once again sell blacks into slavery and you called my ideas “pie-in-the-sky” thinking—I walked out and did not return.
There is a lot to regret there—sure, my misplaced certitude and general foolishness, though most of all my having squandered the chance to learn from the best thinker on race and law in a tumultuous century. But I’m writing today about all of this to tell you something that will surely make you laugh: I’ve recently realized you were right.
I won’t go into why I now think you were correct—you probably already know. Instead, I want to tell you how recognizing you were right has led me to see more clearly than ever your great humanity and your great courage.
We were privileged, all of us at HLS. So to see that race remained the most powerful force in American life justifying inequality and unfairness, you had to look well beyond your self, far beyond the comfort, ease, and affirmation of that world. You had to see that race had eased for some, yes, but still race condoned hunger in the children of distant strangers; justified denying help to people far poorer than you; excused mistreating millions of people you would never know—the numbers so vast, the social distance so numbing—whether by putting them in steel cages or demonizing them as “illegal” in their very personhood. You had to look up from the isolating self-satisfaction of privilege to recognize your common humanity with everyone.
And when you had recognized your shared humanity, you had to make the most important decision of your life, over and over. Would you risk the rewards of a successful career, the quality of your family’s life, by talking honestly about how continued white dominance shaped our privileged world, and how it depended upon the continued mistreatment of the despised and demeaned? For the privileged white worlds in which we moved, enveloped in security and belonging, rested on a pact of silence: we would all go along to get along, each reassuring the others that our successes and privileges were earned, warranted, and fair, and if some unknown others hadn’t made it, well . . . silence. This was the pact you broke, over and over, with brilliance, with humanity, and with courage.
Derrick, I’m so terribly sorry that I did not take the chance before now to fully explain my prior foolishness, or to express to you that I’ve now come to see how right you were in your deepest insights about race in theUnited States. But most of all, I’m sorry I was not able to communicate before how truly I admire your humanity and courage.
Your student—at last,