The Man Behind Critical Race Theory | The New Yorker
Bell spent the second half of his career as an academic and, over time, he came to recognize that other decisions in landmark civil-rights cases were of limited practical impact. He drew an unsettling conclusion: racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it. Racism, he began to argue, is permanent. His ideas proved foundational to a body of thought that, in the nineteen-eighties, came to be known as critical race theory. After more than a quarter of a century, there is an extensive academic field of literature cataloguing C.R.T.’s insights into the contradictions of antidiscrimination law and the complexities of legal advocacy for social justice.
For the past several months, however, conservatives have been waging war on a wide-ranging set of claims that they wrongly ascribe to critical race theory, while barely mentioning the body of scholarship behind it or even Bell’s name. As Christopher F. Rufo, an activist who launched the recent crusade, said on Twitter, the goal from the start was to distort the idea into an absurdist touchstone. “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” he wrote. Accordingly, C.R.T. has been defined as Black-supremacist racism, false history, and the terrible apotheosis of wokeness. Patricia Williams, one of the key scholars of the C.R.T. canon, refers to the ongoing mischaracterization as “definitional theft.”
Republican lawmakers, however, have been swift to take advantage of the controversy. In June, Governor Greg Abbott, of Texas, signed a bill that restricts teaching about race in the state’s public schools. Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Arizona have introduced similar legislation. But in all the outrage and reaction is an unwitting validation of the very arguments that Bell made. Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, Americans started confronting the genealogy of racism in this country in such large numbers that the moment was referred to as a reckoning. Bell, who died in 2011, at the age of eighty, would have been less focussed on the fact that white politicians responded to that reckoning by curtailing discussions of race in public schools than that they did so in conjunction with a larger effort to shore up the political structures that disadvantage African Americans.
The historians Mary L. Dudziak, Carol Anderson, and Penny Von Eschen, among others, later substantiated Bell’s point, arguing that America’s racial problems were particularly disruptive to diplomatic relations with India and the African states emerging from colonialism, which were subject to pitched competition for their allegiance from the superpowers. The civil-rights movement’s victories, Bell argued, were not a sign of moral maturation in white America but a reflection of its geopolitical pragmatism. For people who’d been inspired by the idea of the movement as a triumph of conscience, these arguments were deeply unsettling.
Crenshaw contributed what became one of the best-known elements of C.R.T. in 1989, when she published an article in the University of Chicago Legal Forum titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Her central argument, about “intersectionality”—the way in which people who belong to more than one marginalized community can be overlooked by antidiscrimination law—was a distillation of the kinds of problems that C.R.T. addressed. These were problems that could not have been seen clearly unless there had been a civil-rights movement, but for which liberalism had no ready answer because, in large part, it had never really considered them. Her ideas about intersectionality as a legal blind spot now regularly feature in analyses not only of public policy but of literature, sociology, and history.
As C.R.T. began to take shape, Bell became more deeply involved in an ongoing push to diversify the Harvard law-school faculty. In 1990, he announced that he would take an unpaid leave to protest the fact that Harvard Law had never granted tenure to a Black woman. Since Bell’s hiring, almost twenty years earlier, a few other Black men had joined the faculty, including Randall Kennedy and Charles Ogletree, in 1984 and 1989. But Bell, cajoled by younger feminist legal scholars, Crenshaw among them, came to recognize the unique burdens that went with being both Black and female.
That April, Bell spoke at a rally on campus, where he was introduced by the twenty-eight-year-old president of the Harvard Law Review, Barack Obama. In his comments, Obama said that Bell’s “scholarship has opened up new vistas and new horizons and changed the standards of what legal writing is about.” Bell told the crowd, “To be candid, I cannot afford a year or more without my law-school salary. But I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe if I do not practice my own precepts.”
In 1991, Bell accepted a visiting professorship at the N.Y.U. law school, extended by John Sexton, the dean and a former student of Bell’s. Harvard did not hire a Black woman and, in the third year of his protest, Bell refused to return, ending his tenure at the university. In 1998, Lani Guinier became the first woman of color to be given tenure at the law school.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, which inherently represented a validation of the civil-rights movement, seemed like a refutation of Bell’s arguments. I knew Bell casually by that point—in 2001, I had interviewed him for an article on the L.D.F.’s legacy, and we had kept in touch. In August of 2008, during an e-mail exchange about James Baldwin’s birthday, our discussion turned to Obama’s campaign. He suggested that Baldwin might have found the Senator too reticent and too moderate on matters of race. Bell himself was not much more encouraged. He wrote, “We can recognize this campaign as a significant moment like the civil rights protests, the 1963 March for Jobs and Justice in D.C., the Brown decision, so many more great moments that in retrospect promised much and, in the end, signified nothing except that the hostility and alienation toward black people continues in forms that frustrate thoughtful blacks and place the country ever closer to its premature demise.”