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Derrick Bell
Born (1930-11-06)November 6, 1930
Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died October 5, 2011(2011-10-05) (aged 80)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Education A.B. from Duquesne University
LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Occupation University professor, author
Known for Critical race theory
Religion Presbyterianism[1]
  • Jewel Hairston Bell (d. 1990)
  • Janet Dewart Bell (m. c. 1992)[2]
Children 3

Derrick Albert Bell Jr. (November 6, 1930 – October 5, 2011)[2] was the first tenured African-American professor of law at Harvard Law School and is largely credited as one of the originators of critical race theory. He was a visiting professor at New York University School of Law[3] from 1991 until his death.[4] He was also a dean of the University of Oregon School of Law.[5]

Education and early career

Born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Bell received an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952. He was a member of the Duquesne Reserve Officers' Training Corps and later served as an Air Force officer for two years (stationed in Korea for one of those years).[2] In 1957 he received an LL.B. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. After graduation, and after a recommendation from then United States associate attorney general William P. Rogers, Bell took a position with the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was one of the few black lawyers working for the Justice Department at the time. In 1959, the government asked him to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it was thought that his objectivity, and that of the department, might be compromised or called into question. Bell left the Justice Department rather than giving up his NAACP membership.[6]

Soon afterwards, Bell took a position as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), crafting legal strategies at the forefront of the battle to undo racist laws and segregation in schools. At the LDF, he worked alongside other prominent civil-rights attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter and Constance Baker Motley. Bell was assigned to Mississippi. While working at the LDF, Bell supervised more than 300 school desegregation cases and spearheaded the fight of James Meredith to secure admission to the University of Mississippi, over the protests of governor Ross Barnett.[7]

"I learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality," Bell was quoted as saying in The Boston Globe ... "I also learned a lot riding those dusty roads and walking into those sullen hostile courts in Jackson, Mississippi. It just seems that unless something's pushed, unless you litigate, nothing happens."[8]

In the mid-1960s Bell was appointed to the law faculty of the University of Southern California as executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Academic career

Harvard Law School

In 1969, with the help of protests from black Harvard Law School students for a minority faculty member, Bell was hired to teach there. At Harvard, Bell established a new course in civil rights law, published a celebrated case book, Race, Racism and American Law, and produced a steady stream of law review articles.

Protests over faculty diversity

External video
Derrick Bell threatens to leave Harvard, 04/24/1990, 11:34, Boston TV Digital Archive[9] Student Barack Obama introduces Derrick Bell starting at 6:25

In 1980, he started a five-year tenure as dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, interrupted by his resignation after an Asian-American woman he had chosen to join the faculty was refused by the university.[2][10]

Returning to Harvard in 1986, after a year-long stint at Stanford University, Bell staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school's failure to grant tenure to two professors on staff, both of whose work promoted critical race theory.[2] The sit-in was widely supported by students, but divided the faculty, as Harvard administrators claimed the professors were denied tenure for substandard scholarship and teaching.[8]

In 1990, Harvard Law School had 60 tenured professors. Three of these were black men, and five of them were women, but there were no African-American women among them, a dearth Bell decided to protest with an unpaid leave of absence.[8][11] Students supported the move which critics found "counterproductive", while Harvard administrators cited a lack of qualified candidates, defending that they had taken great strides in the previous decade to bring women and black people onto the faculty.[8] The story of his protest is detailed in his book Confronting Authority.

Bell's protest at Harvard stirred angry criticism by opposing Harvard Law faculty who called him "a media manipulator who unfairly attacked the school", noting that other people had accused him of "depriv[ing] students of an education while he makes money on the lecture circuit".[12]

Bell took his leave of absence and accepted a visiting professorship at NYU Law, starting in 1991. After two years, Harvard had still not hired any minority women, and Bell requested an extension of his leave, which the school refused, thereby ending his tenure.[2] Later in 1998, Harvard Law hired civil rights attorney and U.S. assistant attorney general nominee Lani Guinier, who became the law school's first black female tenured professor.[2][13]

In March 2012, five months after his death, Bell became the target of conservative media, including and Sean Hannity, in an exposé of President Barack Obama. The controversy focused on a 1990 video of Obama praising Bell at a protest by Harvard Law School students over the perceived lack of diversity in the school's faculty. Bell's widow stated that Bell and Obama had "very little contact" after Obama's law school graduation. She said that as far as she remembers, "He never had contact with the president as president".[14] An examination of Senior Lecturer Obama's syllabus for his course on race and law at the University of Chicago revealed significant differences between Obama's perspective and that of Derrick Bell, even as Obama drew on major writings of critical race theory.[15]

NYU School of Law

Bell's visiting professorship at New York University began in 1991. After his two-year leave of absence, his position at Harvard ended and he remained at NYU where he continued to write and lecture on issues of race and civil rights.

As an Author

One of Bell's most controversial works, "When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories" published in 2002, advocated the destruction of the white race and white people as a whole, which drew much criticism from both media outlets and the general public who was unfamiliar with his work. He claimed preemptively that it wasn't racist to wish for the destruction of the white race, and instead claimed it was actually anti-royalism.[16]


Less is written about Bell's teaching than his scholarship, but he was also a passionate and creative law teacher.[17] He taught primarily classes in constitutional law at NYU Law. Bell rejected the conventional law school pedagogy of the Socratic method, preferring a more student-centered approach. Student argued hypothetical and real pending cases in his classes in mock appellate argument format, and they also wrote appellate briefs and wrote and discussed short op-ed papers on the cases. They were evaluated based on these writings, rather than on a final exam. Bell implemented this seminar-style format even in a large constitutional law class of 75 or more students. To do so, he hired one recent graduate to serve as the Derrick Bell Fellow and assist him. His courses also employed a number of student TAs who had taken his course previously, to assist current students in preparing for their oral arguments. Additionally, Professor Bell took many other measures to "humanize the law school experience." He would have food and drink for the students during the break in the middle of every class, and he would occasionally have students sing a class song, or have them sing "Happy Birthday" to a fellow student or TA. The final class in constitutional law would be a talent show where students would perform skits, songs, and poetry about various constitutional law topics.[18]

Professor Bell was well known for his kindness to students. One fact often missed by the media is that even conservative White male student liked him personally, because he encouraged and invited them to challenge his views and gave them space to do so in his classes. Some even became his Teaching Assistants. Professor Bell gave his pointed opinions on many issues in class, but he did not expect anyone to accept those views uncritically. This critical engagement, combined with his goal of "humanizing the law school experience" is best characterized as Professor Bell's "radical humanism." [19]


Bell is arguably the most influential source of thought critical of traditional civil rights discourse. Bell’s critique represented a challenge to the dominant liberal and conservative position on civil rights, race and the law. He employed three major arguments in his analyses of racial patterns in American law: constitutional contradiction, the interest convergence principle, and the price of racial remedies. His book Race, Racism and American Law, now in its sixth edition, has been continually in print since 1973 and is considered a classic in the field.

Bell and other legal scholars began using the phrase "critical race theory" (CRT) in the 1970s as a takeoff on "critical legal theory", a branch of legal scholarship that challenges the validity of concepts such as rationality, objective truth, and judicial neutrality. Critical legal theory was itself a takeoff on critical theory, a philosophical framework with roots in Marxist thought.

Bell continued writing about critical race theory after accepting a teaching position at Harvard University. He worked alongside lawyers, activists, and legal scholars across the country. Much of his legal scholarship was influenced by his experience both as a black man and as a civil rights attorney. Writing in a narrative style, Bell contributed to the intellectual discussions on race. According to Bell, his purpose in writing was to examine the racial issues within the context of their economic and social and political dimensions from a legal standpoint. Bell’s critical race theory was eventually branched into more theories describing the hardships of other races as well, such as AsianCrit (Asian), FemCrit (Women), LatCrit (Latino), TribalCrit (American Indian), and WhiteCrit (White).[20] These theories weren’t developed in contention with another; they were developed to study each prudently, separately and analytically. These were developed based off the 6 propositions many race theorists can agree on. The propositions are as follows:

  • First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational [21]
  • Second, white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.[21]
  • Third, “social construction” thesis holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations.[21]
  • Fourth, how a dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market.[21]
  • Fifth, intersectionality and anti-essentialism is the idea that each race has its own origins and ever-evolving history.[21]
  • Sixth, voice-of-color thesis holds that because of different histories and experiences to white counterparts', matters that the whites are unlikely to know can be conveyed.[21]

CRT has also led to the study of microaggressions, Paradigmatic kinship, the historical origins and shifting paradigmatic vision of CRT, and how in depth legal studies show law serves the interests of the powerful groups in society. Microaggressions are subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.[22]

For instance, in The Constitutional Contradiction, Bell argued that the framers of the Constitution chose the rewards of property over justice. With regard to the interest convergence, he maintains that "whites will promote racial advances for blacks only when they also promote white self-interest." Finally, in The Price of Racial Remedies, Bell argues that whites will not support civil rights policies that may threaten white social status. Similar themes can be found in another well-known piece entitled, "Who's Afraid of Critical Race Theory?" from 1995.[23]

His 2002 book, Ethical Ambition, encourages a life of ethical behavior, including "a good job well done, giving credit to others, standing up for what you believe in, voluntarily returning lost valuables, choosing what feels right over what might feel good right now".[24]

In addition to his writings, Bell was also a revered and accomplished teacher. His constitutional law courses took a critical but comprehensive student-centered approach, and he was well known for his kindness towards students.[25]

Science fiction

Bell also wrote science fiction short stories, including "The Space Traders", a story in which white Americans trade black Americans to space aliens in order to pay off the national debt and receive advanced technology. The story was adapted for television in 1994 by director Reginald Hudlin and writer Trey Ellis. It aired on HBO as the leading segment of a three-part anthology entitled Cosmic Slop, which focused on Black science fiction.[26]


On October 5, 2011, Bell died from carcinoid cancer at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, at the age of 80. "[2][27][28][29] At the time, the Associated Press reported: "The dean at NYU, Richard Revesz, said, 'For more than 20 years, the law school community has been profoundly shaped by Derrick's unwavering passion for civil rights and community justice, and his leadership as a scholar, teacher, and activist.'"[30]

Bell has been memorialized at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law with the Derrick A. Bell Constitutional Law Commons which was opened on March 20, 2013 in the school's Barco Law Library.[31] Bell was also honored with the renaming of the school's community law clinic that provides legal assistance to local low-income residents to the Derrick Bell Community Legal Clinic.[32] Two fellowship positions within the school are also named for Bell.[33]

Selected bibliography

External video
Booknotes interview with Bell on Faces at the Bottom of the Well, October 5, 1992, C-SPAN
Presentation by Bell on Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home, September 24, 1992, C-SPAN
Presentation by Bell on Afrolantica Legacies, June 2, 1998, C-SPAN
  • Race, Racism and American Law (1973, Little Brown & Co.; 6th ed., 2008)
  • Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (Bloomsbury, 2002)
  • Afrolantica Legacies (Third World Press, 1998)
  • Constitutional Conflicts (Anderson Press, 1997)
  • Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home (1996)
  • Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor (Beacon Press, 1994)
  • Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992)
  • And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1987)


  1. Breitbart From The Grave Sally Kohn,, 9 March 2012
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Bernstein, Fred A. (October 6, 2011). "Derrick Bell, Law Professor and Rights Advocate, Dies at 80". Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  3. "In Memoriam: Derrick Bell, 1930 - 2011". NYU Law. 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  4. "Derrick A. Bell. Visiting Professor of Law (In Memoriam)". NYU Law. 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  5. "Oregon Law mourns Derrick Bell, former dean and race scholar". University of Oregon. Oregon Law. October 7, 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  6. Bell, Derrick (2002). Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. New York: Bloomsbury. p. 133. ISBN 1-58234-303-9. 
  7. "Legal History Blog: New Archive: The Derrick Bell Papers", May 2007.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Isaac Rosen. "Black Biography: Derrick Bell". Retrieved 2008-05-23. 
  9. “Ten O'Clock News; Derrick Bell threatens to leave Harvard,” April 24, 1990, 11:34, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 23, 2016.
  10. "Derrick A. Bell Biography". NYU School of Law. Retrieved 17 March 2012. 
  11. "Derrick Bell takes a leave of absence to protest the lack of minority faculty at Harvard Law". December 3, 1990. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  12. "Raising Hell for a Cause : Education: Two years after Harvard Law's first tenured black professor left his job to protest the lack of faculty diversity, little has changed. Derrick Bell's still angry, and so are his critics.". November 5, 1992. 
  13. Patton, Stacey (31 March 2009). "Balancing Race and Gender: LDF Women Pioneers". The Defenders Online. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Archived from the original on 17 March 2012. Retrieved 17 March 2012. 
  14. Wemple, Erik (March 9, 2012). "Derrick Bell’s widow: Unaware of second hug between prez and prof". The Washington Post. Retrieved 13 March 2012. 
  15. Stacey Gahagan and Alfred L. Brophy, Reading Professor Obama: Race and the American Constitutional Tradition
  16. "Abolish the White Race". Harvard Magazine. September 25, 2002. 
  17. Vinay Harpalani, Tribute to Professor Derrick Bell,
  18. Vinay Harpalani, From Roach Powder to Radical Humanism: Professor Derrick Bell’s “Critical” Constitutional Pedagogy, 36 SEATTLE UNIV. L. REV. xxiii (2013). Part of symposium, “In Memory of Professor Derrick Bell.”; available
  19. Vinay Harpalani, Professor Derrick Bell: “Radical Humanist”, 464 BLACK COMMENTATOR (March 22, 2012),
  20. Yosso, Tara (2005). "Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community culture wealth". Santa Barbara, CA 93106: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group Ltd. pp. 69–91. Digital object identifier:10.1080/1361332052000341006. ISSN 1361-3324. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved December 1, 2012. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 Delgado, Richard; Stefancic, Jean (2012). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (second ed.). New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-2134-6. 
  22. Solorzano, Daniel; Ceja, Miguel; Yosso, Tara (2000). "Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students". Santa Barbara, CA. pp. 60–73. JSTOR 2696265. 
  23. Derrick Bell. "Who's Afraid of Critical Race Theory?". 1995 University of Illinois Law Review. Retrieved 8 March 2012. 
  24. "ETHICAL AMBITION by Derrick Bell". Kirkus Book Reviews. 1995. Retrieved 13 March 2012. 
  25. Vinay Harpalani, From Roach Powder to Radical Humanism: Professor Derrick Bell’s “Critical” Constitutional Pedagogy, 36 SEATTLE U. L. REV. (forthcoming 2013). Available
  26. Cosmic Slop (1994) entry on
  27. 'Stand Up, Speak Out,' Derrick Bell Told Law Students National Public Radio October 7, 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  28. Derrick Bell (1930-2011) Harvard Law School. October 6, 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  29. Derrick A. Bell, legal scholar who developed theories on race, dies at 80 Washington Post. 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  30. Derrick Bell Obituary 11/6/1930 – 10/5/2011 AP 2011. 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2012
  31. Chavis, Diane Hernon (March 25, 2013). "Pitt School of Law Unveils the Derrick A. Bell Constitutional Law Commons". University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved April 4, 2013. 
  32. Nuttall, Rebecca (April 3, 2013). "Free Law Clinic at Pitt Named for Derrick Bell". Archived from the original on April 24, 2013. Retrieved April 4, 2013. 
  33. "People of the Times". University of Pittsburgh. March 20, 2003. Retrieved April 4, 2013. 

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