In the first essay featured in Afrolantica Legacies Derrick Bell puts his words in Bill Clinton’s mouth. This excerpt from page 13 of Afrolantica Legacies imagines a speech in 1998 from the president titled “Racial Liberation Day: The Challenge for White Americans”:
For Bell’s Critical Race Theory political theology the concept of “racism” shifted from the concrete (Jim Crow) to an abstraction:
… racism is a system of continuing and cumulative advantage that benefits all whites whether or not they seek it.
Thus, Bell can now use this abstraction as the ghost in the gears, the necessary, permanent explanation for any individual black American’s personal failures and professional inadequacies:
As Americans, we want to believe that our country is a meritocracy where anyone who has talent and works hard can be successful. Charges of racial discrimination threaten that image and, in all but the most blatant cases, many whites find it difficult to take them seriously. Thus when blacks assert that racism is alive and flourishing, whites find denial is the easier, the more comforting reaction.
Perhaps the reasons for Bell’s attacks on meritocracy are more personal than political, as Thomas Sowell observes:
Derrick Bell was put in an impossible position. He was hired as a full professor at the Harvard Law School when he himself said he did not have the kinds of qualifications that people have when they get appointed as full professors at the Harvard law school. And so what were his options? His options were to be a nobody among world famous intellectuals or to go off on his own shtick and try to be important or significant in that way. And he chose the low road… The fundamental problem was making him a professor at the Harvard Law School when even he himself knew that was not something that he merited.
In upcoming parts of this continuing journey through Afrolantica we’ll see more instances of Bell’s commentary that read in a different light when understood in the context of the professor’s own career.