BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Derrick Bell, author of "Faces At The Bottom Of The Well." What's the title mean?
MR. DERRICK BELL, AUTHOR, "FACES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL" I think black people are the faces at the bottom of societal well, that whites--most of whites in America who are only one level above, also denied opportunity, also oppressed in a certain way, are fascinated in looking down on us, rather than looking back at the top to see where the folk at the top are manipulating both groups. Only if they, in effect, l--let down their ropes, join with us, can both groups ever climb up and challenge and confront those at the top who make all the money, who have all the opportunity. And some do, but most seem fascinated simply making sure that we stay below them. And it's a kind of a metaphor that, it seems, reflects much of what has happened in the history of race in our society. And it's the challenge that faces our society and it is the reason, because thus far that challenge has never been effective, that I've--conclude that racism is a permanent part of the American scene.
LAMB: Based on your experience of being interviewed a lot for this book, what would--and this may sound like a strange question to you, but what--what kind of question, as a white male, am I more likely to ask you in the next hour than if I were a black male?
MR. BELL: What my publisher said--Martin Kessler, who has really supported me with this book and the earlier vers--the earlier book that's like this one, `Derrick,' he said, `your book is unremittingly despairing.' And I get that question again and again. Very few blacks would ask that, though some--some do, particularly professional civil-rights people. And they mean that, `Gee, racism is permanent? Where does that leave us?' But most blacks say, `Yes, it is, now let's deal with that. Thank you for saying it.' You see? Because if you really are a part of this thing, if you really sense where you are, regardless of how much money you may make and what have you--tha--that you are part of a group that's at the bottom of the societal well--then any truth, any insight about your status is not despairing, because the truth is not despairing when you see it as the truth. In fact, it--it's almost enlightening, because you say, `Ah, that's what it is. It's not this thing over here. It's not this thing over here.'
And so that the--I--I was on--a very controversial talk show host, and he kept pressing me and pressing me, `Why are you so despairing? Look what this is going to do.' And he opened the line for phone calls and a couple of obviously back--black people called in and hailed what I was saying in the book, and took the white host to task for challenging me. `Why don't you listen to him?' they said. You see? So that, the book is--the other question is, `Who did you write this for?' And the answer is that I wrote it for both blacks and whites--not simply lawyers, although--and law students--although many of those stories initia--were initiated as challenges in the classroom.
But for blacks it was to provide this enlightenment, to give a different sense of--of where they are, of what is the cause of the sense of subordination that they feel and they experience. And it is also to say to whites that racism isn't--in its permanence is not a condemnation of you, but rather a--a challenge to you to recognize that you, too, are victimized by this--unless you are at the very top of this system. And even then, the crime that afflicts our communities that is mostly black crime is not limited to black people, you see? And so that there is something there for all of us. But it is not what Gunnar Murdahl felt. It is not what most of us felt. When I went through law school, the sense was Brown was decided two years before I graduated and the world generally felt--knowledgeable people, experienced people--that, well, with Brown decided, with--a--a discrimination based in law being condemned by the Supreme Court, it was all over. All we needed was enforcement, sort of a rear-guard action to take care of the folk who--who
were persistent and hard-liners.
But I was told that I was--I was born 15 years too late to be a civil-rights lawyer, you see. And, well, n--now we--we see that that was wrong, that that was far, far too optimistic. And the question I've been asking--and I have the luxury as a law teacher to be able to step back, that I didn't have as a litigator, that I didn't have as an administrator--to step back, `Look, what keeps these patterns going again and again, in different forms, but continuing over 200 years?' And it seemed to me that the conclusions that I found from that question led to the--the title of that book, that racism is a permanent part of the American scene.
LAMB: Where is hometown?
MR. BELL: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It's--it's interesting; when I grew up in the '30s and the '40s, segregation was a way of life in the South by hard, rigid law; in the North in Pitts--places like Pittsburgh, by a general understanding, black people did not go `there'; you didn't seek jobs `there' or at a level above a--a--above the bottom.
I had delivered newspapers throughout my junior and senior high school years, and--in the black community and within eight, 10 blocks, every--every socioeconomic level from the one black judge in the city to one of the few black lawyers, all the way down to people on welfare, to the unemployed, to maids and janitors and--and what have you. And the two lawyers were models for me. And the people who had halfway decent jobs were stabilizers in that community. They--they--their houses were a little ni--nicer; they were made of brick instead of frame. But they all lived in the same community and they insis--insisted that there be decent police protection, that the streets be clean, that the broken lights be repaired and what have you, as middle-class people do, regardless of race, color and creed.
Today, under the--the--the new scheme that I as a civil-rights lawyer helped bring into being, we have equal opportunity. One of the things that it's meant is that those folk who are able--the lawyers who were models for me--no longer live, for the most part, in the inner city. They have moved out to the suburbs, which is their right. But they are not available to our inner-city youths whose models too often are the drug dealers and--and the pimps and the--and the other people who--whose modeling is--is something less praiseworthy than any of us would hope.
LAMB: Where--where did you get your undergraduate degree?
MR. BELL: I went to school right in--in Pittsburgh, Duquesne University for undergraduate, and the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
LAMB: Your parents did what?
MR. BELL: My father was a--a janitor. He had about a sixth-grade education. He came here from Alabama, never went back. I think late in his life, a relative that he had--was fond of, died, and I think he made his first trip back, but he never wanted to talk about it. And he came up--and during the Depression, married my mother, who had a high school education--the family hoped that she was going on to college, didn't happen. There was great disappointment there. And I was one--the first of--of four children. My father developed narcolepsy at a fairly early age, didn't know very much about it. The doctors told him he had to get outside work. So he had--he left his job as a janitor in a department store and started his rubbish--a rubbish-hauling business that he really built into a fairly successful business, so that by black standards we were fairly middle-class. And they provided me with models.
I tell the story about my mother, who I remember at an early age, when we were just--you know, not--barely above welfare. My father worked as a laborer. And I remember she tak--she taking my brother and I to the local rent office--not too far, a short walk from our home--going in, going into her pocketbook, bringing out the rent money and waving it at the man behind the little cage, and saying, `I have my rent and you will get it when you send somebody out to fix the back stairs so my kids won't fall and hurt themselves.' And I thought later--I didn't realize it at the time, but I thought, `My God, they could have kicked us out and made sure that we didn't find another place to live.' But that didn't happen. Rather, the man sent somebody out and fixed our back steps and fixed the back steps of everybody along that row of houses.
You see? She took the risk; she confronted him with what--c--what she thought was clearly a wrong, a--a danger, and it worked. And that's been my experience in life, that--that you don't always have to sit down and you can't confront everything that happens to you, but that you--there are some things that you can stand up for. And it's risky, but it--but--but things work out.
LAMB: Where are your three siblings?
MR. BELL: My brother teaches at a school in New York. He's a musician, but he hasn't--he's earned his living mainly as a teacher at a--at a college in New York. I have a sister who's a teacher in Akron, Ohio, and another sister who's a--works in civil service in--in Pittsburgh.
LAMB: Can you remember--and you mentioned the judge in your community--can you remember who--who was it that got you really interested in being a lawyer?
MR. BELL: Yeah. I still remember. He was Homer S. Brown. I think he was the first black judge in western Pennsylvania, a very stately man.
LAMB: So it was the judge?
MR. BELL: And--and his brother-in-law, as a matter of fact, who lived right next door to him, and I remember his name, Everett Utterback--both now deceased. But both of them I--you know--I was a young kid, but I didn't recognize that they lived in homes--beautiful, much--hampson--handsomer than mine or most of those on my route; that their houses were built of brick rather than frame; that their wives were handsome and intelligent individuals; that they invited me in; that they always paid their bills on time. And it was very impressive. I--I learned from them that--that--that you impress by example much more than by what you say.
LAMB: And you--you met them...
MR. BELL: Yeah.
LAMB: ...delivering papers.
MR. BELL: Delivering papers. That's right.
LAMB: Did you--did you...
MR. BELL: And then we had a--a...
LAMB: ...dialogue well?
MR. BELL: ...a rapport. Oh yes, often enough they would ask me how my grades were and what I wanted to do with my life, and what about going into law and what opportunities--I, of course, was interested in being a--a--an aeronautical engineer, but I had no models who were aeronautical engineers in the--in the--in the '40s and the early '50s. My math skills were horrible, as they are for many people who decided maybe I'd better go to law school. And--and so that these--I look back now and these were people who influenced me a great deal.
LAMB: Did you have both black and white customers?
MR. BELL: A few whites, but the community was mainly--mainly black.
LAMB: When in your life do you remember the first racial slight or racism example?
MR. BELL: You know, it was a--quite--not during my childhood. I--I knew there was this--y--y--you could tell rac--my parents used to say, `You have to work twice as hard as a black person to get half as much.' My mother would say that a--at all times. But there was kind of a respect. My father would say, `You know, white people are--are scheming and planning while we're sleeping and eatin--eating.' And you--so--you--that was a message. My mother would say, `When I go downtown and I see a lot of white women around a particular counter, I'd dive right in there, because they must know something right.' You get all of these kind of very interesting signals. I mean, we used to listen to "Amos and Andy" and laugh along--I mean, you knew it was stereotype, that it was demeaning, but heck, those were the only black ki--characters on--on--on radio at--at that time.
LAMB: An--and the "Amos and Andy" radio were whites...
MR. BELL: That's right.
LAMB: ...and the "Amos and Andy" television were black.
MR. BELL: That's right. That's right. But you kind of accepted whatever--"Wings Over Jordan" was a radio program that came on every morning. It was a black choir singing spirituals, and that was de rigueur. I remember being able to walk up the street on Sunday morning, sum--nice day, the windows open--long before air-conditioning, particularly in the black community, and you'd never miss a beat because all the radio stations were tuned to "Wings Over Jordan" and some of your listeners--watchers will prob--viewers will probably remember that--that program.
LAMB: What--what about--in just normal day-to-day life, where do you see racism? What kind of thing--what--what do you...
MR. BELL: Well, your question was--and I didn't really answer it--is that in my early--I didn't see it directly. We didn't try to go to restaurants. My mother talked about work--working as a dishwasher in a downtown restaurant where blacks didn't--didn't go to eat. My parents didn't go out to a restaurant, I don't think, ever, when--there was one little black restaurant in the--in--in--in the black community, but for the most part, I don't think we ever went there. When I grew up and went to law school--I remember when my first job was here in Washington. And I--my parents came down to visit and I took them out to a restaurant. And I remember them being visibly ill at ease, my father in--in particular. Later it--it eased up, but this was a new experience for them, you see. But the direct racial insults, I was kind of insulated from, in the--growing up in the black community. In the schools, I'm sure that there was discrimination, but I was a star student and I was treated very--treated very well.
LAMB: Now when was the first time that you s--you know--that you saw racism out of school...
MR. BELL: Yeah.
LAMB: ...that you s--that--that made you uncomfortable?
MR. BELL: I guess, when I--I went to college. I went to Duquesne. I was in ROTC. It was during the Korean War--and my--an--and of course, as soon as I finished I was--I got my orders to--to take active-duty status. And I was going to report to a base in South Carolina for orientation and what have you. And my father was visibly disturbed. And he had just gotten a--a new car, a Plymouth, and he said, `You take this car and you can make the payments or what have you,' which--which is what I did, `and so you--you don't have to ride these segregated trains down there.'
Well, I--I visibly upset him because I asked one of my white classmates at the--from the college, who was also ordered to report to South Carolina, to drive along with me. Well--and that's what we did. And I remember, I knew that we couldn't stay at--I couldn't stay at the white places, but I got the name of a--a black rooming house in Virginia, and we were go--down below Washington, and we were going to stop there for the night. I think it was in Richmond. And when the two of us walked up to the woman's door, she was very unhappy. `He,' she said, `cannot stay here!' And I drove him to a white hotel and then I came back. And she let me stay, but she lectured me, she--I was going to get her in trouble and such and such and such. And the--even that, I--I came to know that this was a different world.
When I got to South Carolina and then later was stationed in Louisiana, at an air base there, and I was living in town because they said there was no room for me in the bachelor officers' quarters--there was plenty of room; they just didn't want me to stay there--I--I came to realize that, `Wow. My life was always at risk,' that any white person could knock me down and what have you. That didn't happen, but that was the first time I realized that it could happen and I really had no recourse. Well, I tell you, I wore my uniform a great deal, and I felt comfortable and got better treatment.
But there was still discrimination. If I wanted to go to the movies, I had to sit upstairs. I decided--I was Presbyterian at that time and there was no black Presbyterian church, so I went to the local white Presbyterian church one morning and presented myself in the door with my uniform, my bars shining. And there wa--a--a usher came, very nervous, and said, `Good morning, Lieutenant.' I said, `Good morning. I would like to attend service.' `Oh, very good. Wait a minute,' he said. And he went back and he conferred with the aldermen and he came back and he said, `We really welcome you. Would you mind sitting upstairs?' I said, `Does the service come up there?' And he said, `Oh, yes sir, yes it does.' So I went up there and obviously this is an old, staid church and all the people had their own pews, but that morning I had plenty of room.
But an old woman came tottering up to me afterwards, put out her hand and said, `Welcome. I'm glad you're here.' And I went back. And each Sunday, people kind of returned to the seats that they had been sitting in for--for--for years. And I felt fairly comfortable and finally asked the minister about singing in the choir. Well, this was visibly up--upsetting to him, and he said he would have to think about it and what have you. Well, I don't know whether he called the base commander or--or what have you, but I'd also been complaining to the base commander about the segregation of the buses. The bus could be integrated as it went around the base, but when it got to the gate, the bus driver pulled over and blacks--workers and service people--would have to move to the back. And I thought that was crazy. And a few things like that, and the next thing you knew, I was ordered to go to Korea.
So that that--that period was the first time I really experienced what many blacks know about very, very well.
LAMB: On a day-to-day--and I know I'm jumping way ahead--but on a day-to-day basis, where do you see racism in your life today here? What are the little things that you--vibes that you get?
MR. BELL: Yeah. I went to lunch yesterday at Union Station, which has been totally revamped and very popular and a lo--lot of sort of al fresco restaurants around. And we went and stopped for lunch and--and very good service--but as I looked about, I saw that all the waiters where white and all the busboys were Asian. Here in a community with--What?--population, 70 percent, 80 percent black?--not a black waiter in sight. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've seen a black waiter in a restaurant since I've been here the last two or three days, and I--I've eaten in a number of restaurants.
When I came here in 1957, right out of law school, there were a number of downtown restaurants that only had black waiters, you see. The restaurants had only recently been desegregated. An--and it shows the difference in pa--i--in their patterns, so that while we now have a black mayor, black city council people--which would, of course, been ridiculous even to contemplate back in the--in the--in the late '50s--that the patterns are such that the--the mainstream of blacks are more limited in job opportunities, perhaps, than was the case then. And in patterns that are existing laws--and we have more civil-rights laws on the books than we've ever had, but those laws are aimed at a--a kind of discrimination--a kind of blatant, overt `no negroes hired' kind of thing that we simply don't have anymore.
What we're dealing with today is a--is a kind of a--a racial preference, a racial priority, a racial nepotism, in which there is this--for one reason or another--a preference for one. That doesn't mean that I'll--I'll never find a black waiter in a--a restaurant, but it means that I won't find very many, not because the owners and managers hate black people, because they'll serve me every time, you see, and--and other blacks who are well-dressed and look like they're able to pay the bill. But there are a number of reasons why they don't want blacks as waiters or they don't want blacks at this level or they don't want blacks--or maybe only one.
So that while--prior to Brown, prior to the ending of official discrimination, racism was blatant and open and--and--and stark. You--you knew why you were not being hired or admitted or rented to and what have you. You knew who the enemy was. It was not you. But today the patterns are--are more confused. When you're turned down, you're not sure whether it was the old discrimination at work or whether there's some inadequacy, because this society is filled with explanations and rationales why it's your fault. And people kind of grasp onto that.
A caller on one of the radio talk shows I was on the other day called and said that he--he appreciated discrimination, but now--obviously white caller--he was concerned because someone had told him that, back in Africa, when the slave trade was going on--that some Africans participated and assisted the s--s--slave traders in procuring, capturing Africans and selling them off into slavery. And I said, `That's right. That did happen. Why is that--so what?' `Well,' he said, `if that's the case, I don't see why white people have to feel guilty about everything that happened, because blacks participated in it,' you see.
Well, that seems crazy but it--it--it--it indicates the extent to which there is sort of a search for justifications, for rationalizations, for anything that will get folk off the hook, that make it unnecessary that--for them to deal with this, to accept responsibility, to try to struggle with it. Not everyone, but the patterns are there, that the--and--and--and--and--and it's so interesting: That's why a Clarence Thomas gets promoted to the Supreme Court. Any black who is willing to stand in a public place and say that welfare is the fault of lazy blacks, including his own sister; any black who's willing to say that Affirmative Action is all bad--not that it simply has some aspects that are--that are not positive; any black who is willing to say what many whites think with regard to why blacks aren't getting ahead, immediately
shoots forward because that person is a comfort to the society.
MR. BELL: The other part of that, though, and why this is such a crazy thing, is that I am--with all my supposed militance--as much a comfort for the society, because bl--whites look at me and say, `Boy, you're talking bad about racism. OK. OK. But you're black. You must have faced racism, let--and yet you made it. Why can't the other blacks be like you?'
LAMB: When you got out of the military, did you come to Washington then?
MR. BELL: No, I went to law school and--and--and...
LAMB: And after law school you came back? And...
MR. BELL: Yeah. And when I got out--I--I graduated probably about fourth in my class.
LAMB: At Duquesne.
MR. BELL: At the University of Pittsburgh.
LAMB: Oh. I'm sorry. Yeah.
MR. BELL: And I was the only black in my class. And had a lot of good friends and--a--obviously, I was able to gain re--respect of my classmates because I was--I was smarter than most of them. What it is, I wrote better than most of them and that's key in traditional legal--legal education: Writing skills that you gain without any help from the legal education process are--are very important to being able to doing--to do--to do well.
In any event, I started hearing my classmates talk about this law firm and the other law firm. Nobody had contacted me about any of those. And I remember, one of the biggest law firms called out to the school and said, `We generally hire from Harvard and Yale, but we--send down your top four or five people.' I went down there and I presented myself and--you know--people almost had heart attacks. And finally, the big partner took--called me in and said, `You know, we'd never thought about hiring a black. I'll have to think about it.' And he called me back a couple weeks later and said, `Well, we thought about it, but we're not ready,' you see.
During the--the end of that story is the--William Rogers, who was then the associate general--attorney general, came as our law review speaker. I was editor--associate editor in chief of the law review. And I think some of the faculty said, `Well, Bell is having a having a hard time getting a job.' And he offered me a position in the attorney general's honor graduate program that had started a few years ago, and I--and I accepted that job.
LAMB: What was--did--did you meet him?
MR. BELL: Oh, yes, yes.
MR. BELL: Yes. Yeah.
LAMB: Did he interview you?
MR. BELL: No. He didn't interview me. He just asked me, did I--were I--was I interested? And I said I was. I applied and I was almost immediately accepted, so it's clear he sent the word--word down. It's clear that some of the faculty had spoken to him about the fact that I was almost at the top of the class, and yet had no job.
LAMB: And you came to Washington, Justice Department.
MR. BELL: I came to Washington to the Justice Department.
LAMB: How long?
MR. BELL: I stayed about a year and a half.
LAMB: Then what?
MR. BELL: I was in--I'd gotten a transfer into the new civil rights division that was established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Shortly thereafter the supervisors of that position called me in and said that I'd have to resign my membership in the NAACP because they saw it as a conflict of interests. I told them I was not a policymaker or anything. I had a $2 membership. They were very insistent. And we went back and forth, but I finally decided that, rather than give up my membership, I would resign from the--from the position, which I did.
LAMB: Where did you go?
MR. BELL: Went back to Pittsburgh. And a--a woman who's--I used to deliver her paper--was stepping down as the executive director of the Pittsburgh branch of NAACP, and urged me to take that job, which I did. While I was there during that year, Thurgood Marshall came through, speaking--then je--director, counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And Thurgood said, `Boy, what ch--what's a lawyer doing in a non-lawyer job?' And before I could even explain, he said, `Why don't you come and join--join me in New York?' Which I did with great speed.
And it's so interesting that--I--I always suspected this, but I saw Thurgood not too long ago and he indicated that Bill Hasty, the late--the first federal judge, good friend of Thurgood's--was on the board and had urged Thurgood to hire me. And so when he--he came through Pittsburgh; that's why I got the--got the offer. So that by--by sticking to what I thought were my principles with regard to the Justice Department, I put myself in a position to get into the Legal Defense Fund, which many lawyers, particularly black lawyers, would--would have given up anything to do.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
MR. BELL: I stayed about five years, and then I returned to Washington during the heyday of the Johnson administration, and William Gardner was secretary of HEW.
LAMB: You mean John Gardner.
MR. BELL: John Gardner, that's right. Thank you. And worked as deputy director of the office for civil rights in HEW, and that was a period when we were desegregating schools by threatening to cut off federal financial assistance, and that was a fairly exciting--fairly exciting era.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
MR. BELL: About two years. And then I'd been interested in teaching, and a very good friend, a very well-known law teacher, had sent letters out to the major schools. And either they hadn't replied or they wrote back some condescending response indicating they weren't interested. But the University of Southern California was starting a--a poverty law center, and one of the organizers, one of the faculty members, called and asked whe--whether I'd like to be the director. And I said, `Well, I'm really interested in teaching.' And they--also they--they attached to the job an adjunct position so that I could teach one course. And I accepted it and moved to California.
And during my two years there Martin Luther King was killed, in the spring of 1968. And, as you remember, there were great disruptions and riots throughout the several months later. And many institutions, many corporations, many government agencies decided, in response to those riots, that, `Well, maybe nothing has--much has happened since Brown. Maybe we need to open up and see can't we bring in one black here, one black there.' And Harvard was one of those places. So e--by that time, I'd been turned down by Harvard not once, but twice. I'd applied myself once, while I was up giving a lecture. And now suddenly Harvard was very interested in me.
LAMB: What--what reasons did they give you the first two times for not hiring you?
MR. BELL: The second--the first time, I didn't get the response. The other--this--the law teacher--just weren't interested. And when I applied directly, they said they had no openings with--for someone with my expertise. Well, by that time I had been litigating, I'd been administering this program. What I didn't have was a Harvard degree, near the top of the class and a clerkship at the Supreme Court level. And the individual whose class I taught was a young teacher who I had met because he was following around, monitoring my work for the Justice Department, who had no experience of his own, but who had gone to Harvard, had clerked at the Supreme Court level, and therefore, had their credential. So he came back and said, `Well, we don't have any openings for someone with your expertise.' So I said, `OK.'
But two years later, after all of the events--the assassination, the riots--suddenly they were very interested in me, both Harvard and a number of the other major--major schools. And I was--I subsequently was offered and accepted a position at Harvard. But for me to go to that position and think that it was simply my talents and not the circumstances would be crazy. I saw that I was an illustration of a pattern as old as racial history, that the fact that I felt deserving of an offer there was simply not enough. They had to sense that there was something of value to them, something of their own interest, before they were willing to take a risk with me, a risk, both in terms of being the first black there and also, as far as I can see, the first person who they had hired who didn't have their credentials.
And so my pioneering--the barriers that I had to overcome were twofold: One is the first black with all the presumptions of black incompetence that in our--that our society places on blackness; and also all the presumptions of nonworthiness that many of the folk--many of the faculty there had, because I was--I didn't come along the route that they--that they came.
LAMB: What year did you begin teaching at Harvard?
MR. BELL: 1969.
LAMB: And you...
MR. BELL: I was tenured in 1971. It's as--it's the--only two years, but older people--I was 38 at the time--are given a shorter period in which to--for them to--to make a decision whether to place you on the permanent faculty.
LAMB: Your book.
MR. BELL: Yes. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Now before--I want to ask you about chapter seven, as a way of talking more about the Harvard experience, A Law Professor's Protest.
MR. BELL: Uh-huh.
LAMB: But before we do that, what technique have you used in this book?--fiction and non-fiction.
MR. BELL: Fiction in sort of a series of allegorical stories--otherworldly, fables, if you will. And the reason I did that is that, first, I like to tell stories, then se--I think a lot of lawyers are--are writers who are scared to go through their apprenticeship period--the cold-water flats, the unemployment and what have you--that writers have to survive, but still have that feeling that they'd like to write. The other thing that is--race is so controversial that people all have such--they don't have to go to school--they all have deeply felt views based on what they think is their experience. That--and that my views, my perspective is so jarring that to simply state it is--is very upsetting.
And I find that I have a better chance of at least being heard if I can place those views in the context of a fable, of a story, during the telling of which or the reading of which, the adven--the individual is able to pull back, to not feel threatened or involved, and at least to kind of see this is something out there. And people love stories, as the success of the soap opera genre proves, and I feel that they may not agree with me at the end, but at least they have been able to consider this without having to make an emotional commitment to it.
LAMB: When you read a fact in the book, is it accurate?
MR. BELL: For the most part, I think. I--at least I hope so.
LAMB: Well, I--let me give you a `for instance': You tell the story about meeting the white woman in the--out in the countryside in Oregon.
MR. BELL: Ah, yes.
LAMB: Did--you--you spent time in Oregon?
MR. BELL: Oh, yes, but--but the--the actual meeting her is--is--is not--is not factual.
LAMB: It's all fiction.
MR. BELL: That part is fiction, yes, so that there's a mix of fact and fiction often interwoven.
LAMB: But you did, in 1985, become the dean of the law school at the University of Oregon.
MR. BELL: In 1981.
MR. BELL: Yes, and I was dean there for five years.
LAMB: Let me go back to this chapter seven...
MR. BELL: Hmm.
LAMB: ...A Law Presser's--Professor's Protest. It starts off by you saying that 196 black professors were meeting with the president of Harvard in his home...
MR. BELL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and a bomb blew the place up, killed them all.
MR. BELL: Killed them all, right.
LAMB: That's not a fact.
MR. BELL: It's not a fact.
LAMB: But was...
MR. BELL: But the genesis of that is that I was the co-chair of the Harvard black faculty and administrators, a group of--of blacks at--on--on--on the campus at Harvard. And we had decided to do a survey of the effectiveness of affirmative action across the campus. And we interviewed all of the deans, got all of their explanations, wrote them up, sent them back and all. And then it was time to write the report. And I said, `Now how can I write a report that's not going to be read, put on a shelf, put in the wastebasket and what have you?'
And I decided to create a story that would illustrate the kind of crisis out of which change--progress, if you will--takes place. And I imagined in this story that all of the faculty--the black faculty--were meeting in the president--with the president on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, and that suddenly there's this horrendous explosion and the building simply vaporizes. And, of course, all of those were killed. And that--that--there would, of course, be a tremendous investigation and an awful lot of what was going to go on there would be revealed from individuals' files and what they had told their wives or what have you before they went off to this fatal meeting. And you--I was able to--through that methodology, to--to tell all of the things, the information, that would generally go into a straightforward report.
One of the things I then imagined is, if--if the president was going to, as a--a step in the right direction, to issue a really--a positive affirmative action plan--if that kind of information were to come out in the wake of such a tremendous tragedy, there would be a great movement to adopt it as a memorial to the lost people. And I suggested it was adopted and then indicate--well, of course there was not an explosion, but if there had been, this response is likely to have happened. And this response would be appropriate even if it did--if there were not such a great tragedy and why didn't we do it?
And then I sent out this report for--for discussion and what have you. Well, the president was not pleased. I went to meet with him, and he said, `Why did--why did you do this?' And tha--he was sort of sitting like this.
LAMB: Who was the president?
MR. BELL: This was Derrick Bach, and he said, `You don't have to blow me up in order to make your point,' you see. And that was the general reaction that they--generally that they did not get the point--that they did not get the point that they would have done willingly, in the wake of a tragedy, as a means of compensation, something that would have been appropriate to do even in the absence of that tragedy, which was the reason I told the story.
LAMB: Let me ask you a--a--a personal thing: Yo--you're--y--a bitterness comes out of the book. You even admit to bitterness in--in the book.
MR. BELL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: It--it's--sometimes the--the rhetoric is very angry, but when you sit and talk to you here, it's a pleasant conversation.
MR. BELL: Yeah.
LAMB: Do you deal with people one-on-one like this, or do you deal--do you ever get angry--visibly angry--in front of them?
MR. BELL: I sometimes do. I find that I'm not as effective. I'm hoping that--while I want to be as honest as I can, it's very difficult to be in--deemed a success in a society where thousands, (foreign language spoken), millions of those who look like you are in a situation--a life situation, that it--that was--that is worse than perhaps anytime since the Reconstruction, and feel basically powerless to do anything about it. To see a presidential campaign going on right now in which there is--for political reasons, they're out there--virtually no mention of the--the kind of quasi-genocide that is going on in many of the inner cities of our--of--of--of our nation.
And so that the--I'm accosted of being a--you know--despairing into be--discouraging young people from picking up the--picking up the gauntlet and continuing the struggle. And I guess part of my response is that I want to discourage them from continuing the battle that I fought--that I thought I was fighting as--as a young--as a young lawyer--this idea that racism is merely an aberration when it's really a key component. Because I think we--we fought with the wrong--with the wrong tools. Maybe we had to do what we did in order to recognize what I think more of us recognize now.
But the other answer I give is that, if--if you are not discouraged and--and--and--and sense despair when you look at wh--at the condition of the black community, whereas Maya Angelou, who I quote there, indicates that young black males, particularly, see others like themselves as the worst enemy, that they confront with guns and--and what have you, then I don't think--if you're not discouraged by that and you're discouraged by my book, then--then you need to perhaps re-evaluate why you're--why you're despairing.
LAMB: Go back to the Harvard situation. You're now a visiting pro--professor at the New York University?
MR. BELL: That's right.
LAMB: How did you leave Harvard?
MR. BELL: Well, I decided to protest the failure to--of the faculty to hire and tenure a woman of color. I--throughout my time there, I recognized that the pressures of the students were a large factor in my being hired, and I've always felt an obligation to them and to myself as a pioneer to try to open up the--the--the hiring process--certainly for other people of color, but for whites as well, who have non-traditional qualifications, as I did. And I've had some successes and--and some setbacks. I consider it a serious setback that they were unwilling to offer a permanent position to a--a black woman who I thought had come and--and carried through many of the--or carried out many of our hopes of what a--a--a woman of color would be able to do on that faculty. And yet, because she didn't have the credentials that they wanted, bec--although they were much better than my credentials--because her writing was not traditional in the way that they felt writing should be, they rejected her out of hand.
And it was very frustrating for me to sit there and have less good credentials, to say, `This is a person I think--I want you to look at what I've done and--and listen to me, and give weight to what I am suggesting,' and have my suggestions and my recommendations simply dismissed. To have b--black students urging and petitioning--particularly black women urging and petitioning--that they needed a person like this, and have those petitions rejected out of hand was very--very upsetting.
So I decided--I wrote a letter to the dean, sent copies to all the faculty--first on a private basis--and said, `I can't any longer pretend that I can be a model for these women. I can't pretend that I can be what they want. And I'm going to withdraw from the faculty until you give them what they have been urging.' Well, I took one year's leave and nothing happened. I took another year's leave and still nothing happened. And the university has a rule limiting leaves to two consecutive years, which I think is a good rule, to make those who have come down to Washington and take fancy jobs to make a decision whether they want their faculty position or not. I argued that it should not apply to my protest, which is--was a very different character, was in keeping with what I told them I was going to do when I--when I was hired, to continue pressuring for more diversity in the hiring process. They didn't agree, so as of June 30th this year they terminated my--terminated my position.
LAMB: Ge--Geneva Crenshaw.
MR. BELL: Yes.
LAMB: Who is she?
MR. BELL: Geneva is a consolidation or a--a--a fictional product of many black women I have known--my mother; my late wife, Jewell Bell, who died two years ago after 30 years of marriage; Constance Baker Motley, the now federal judge who I assisted in some of the early cases in 19--in the--in the early '60s--a number of black women. I--I think that they are a marvelous--a marvelous group, very strong, very persevering. And in--my character has strange, really sort of superhuman, powers of insight with regard to race. I, as the narrator dealing with her, take a more conventional civil-rights lawyer approach: `We need to continue following litigation,' and she tells me that that's crazy. And so that--it provides some tension, perhaps less so in this book than in my earlier book, that was written along the same lines in 1987: "And We Are Not Saved."
LAMB: Now how often, when you read her in the book and you're quoting her, is it really you speaking?
MR. BELL: Oh, it's always me. And it reflects the ambivalence that--that I feel and I think that a lot of blacks feel. We're in this transitional era, in which I can't claim that I've totally lost my sense that the answer is one more lawsuit and--and one more traditional effort to get civil-rights legislation passed.
Geneva suggests to me in the book that, rather than our existing civ--anti-discrimination laws, we need to pass a racial preference licensing law, under which those who want to discriminate, as in this restaurant, for example, as--would go to the federal government office and get a license. And it would say: We're not hiring blacks to be waiters; we will admit blacks to be served, but we're not hiring blacks--we're only hiring Asians to be busboys and so on and so on. And they then have to post that--the license is expensive, maybe 1,000 bucks or so--but they'd have to post that license in a prominent place so all the public could see what their policies are. And, in addition, a certain percentage of their profits would have to go into an equality fund that would be administered by civil rights leaders to help blacks who wanted to build businesses or buy homes and--and what have you.
Well, an--and on the other hand, to--if they attempt to discriminate without a license, well, the penalties then are very severe, sort of like our RICO laws. They would lose the business and what have you. It's not that I really--I--I argue with Geneva, who suggests this plan to me, and I'm not--I don't think it--the idea i--th--that we should seriously propose such a legi--a piece of legislation, but that when we think about it, it is a--it is a vehicle for review of what our present laws do.
The fact is that such a law might result in less discrimination than we now have under existing laws, for a couple of reasons. One is that we see that people who discriminate like mad don't want to consider themselves racist, and if they had to post this sign, that would certainly be the--the natural normal conclusion. Moreover, if they had to pay for their racist practices, that takes a lot of the fun out of it, you see. The reason that they serve me is not because they either love or hate me, because they see the profit in serving me. They don't see the profit in hiring blacks who might dis--might be unwelcome to some of their other customers, who might be unwelcome to some of their other employees and so on, so why--why do it? But her--this provides the reason to do it, so that you might find at least some lessening of discriminatory practices simply by the pressure with regard--that this law would--would--would provide.
LAMB: Do you think about, or do you see discrimination or racism every day of your life?
MR. BELL: No. No, but I--I have been insulated. I might be stopped by the police, but I know that--because I'm black--but I know that when they--before I even reach in my pocket--carefully--that the--that the--my standard English skills automatically tell them that they--`Hey, don't--don't mess with him,' you see. I've been stopped in the South by policemen who are ready to give me the treatment, at least verbally. And once I--I--I always wore my uniform when I was in the service, but even since, once I pull out my wallet and there's the Harvard officer's card there and what have you, they see that this is--and I get almost deferential treatment. So that education and status, economics, that stuff--poor whites always respect upper-class people, you see. They may not like them, but they--whether they're black or white, they get
a--a measure of respect.
Let me--quick story. When I was in Louisiana, I wasn't there to challenge you, but it would seem that from what I've been telling you. I decided one beautiful fall Saturday afternoon that I'd love to go to the football game. And in this little town there was a small college and they were having a big game. So going to a football game now, I put on my uniform, shined up my bars, went--the crowd was going and I parked my car. And I went over to a policeman, big, huge guy. And I said, `Officer, are blacks being permitted to go to this game?' He said, `Lieutenant, I don't know, but let me find out.' And this big, huge, hulking guy--I could see him above the crowd swirling toward the--toward the stadium as he went first to this window, and then somebody sent him around there, kind of almost at a jog. And he finally came back to me, he was kind of walking slow, and he looked embarrassed. He said, `Sorry, Lieutenant, they're not letting you in. They're not letting you in.' I thanked him, went back to my car an--an--and went home.
But it's--see, that's--that's the kind of thing I--I get. I don't get the direct beating on the heads that so many of my less--less-successful brethren have to--have to deal with. That--it's not that we don't face discrimination, but it's a--much more of a mass thing. I can go to a dinner party with upper-class professional blacks and you would think that we were all in prison. There is rage going around the dinner table with the beautiful linen and the handsome cutlery and--and--and silver and--and what have you, as they talk about one experience after another that they--that they have gone through in their upper-class--in their upper-class status, you see.
LAMB: How often do people experience it?--other blacks that you know.
MR. BELL: Oh, a lot--a lot.
LAMB: What do they--where do they see it the most?
MR. BELL: The--the glass ceiling phenomenon; the helping to train others who then get promoted over them; the condescension; the unknowing slights--people don't even recognize what they are--what they are saying. Sometimes they're not intended as that. Sometimes it's our supersensitivity--paranoia, really. But not all paranoia is without justification. But it means you really don't feel a part of it, you see. At Harvard I think part of my frustration was that I played by the rules. I was determined that, notwithstanding that I was the first black, notwithstanding the fact that I didn't have the traditional credentials, that I was going to become a better teacher than most of them and I think I did; that I was going g--to become a more noted scholar than most of them and I think I did. And yet I never became part of the family. I was never really accepted as--as--as one of them. So while that I--I had the status and the pay and the opportunity to teach some very, very impressive students of all races, I was never part of the family. And that's--that can be a very destructive thing over time.
LAMB: Do you have any heroes?
MR. BELL: Yeah. I think other people who stand up and take risk--Judge Hasty, who I may have mentioned earlier, who during World War II left a very plush position with the--with the Department of Army because he was frustrated about the lack of effort to end discrimination in the--in--in the service; Anita Hill, who--who I met years ago, and her courageous stand when--that was--that was a no-win situation, and yet she determined she was not going to back away from the truth.
And I think that while the result indicates that most Americans may not have believed her--including a lot of black Americans--that the truth is still the truth. And now--I went to the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco a few weeks ago, not noted as the most liberal organization, and clearly, that woman was the most respected person there. She was--she spoke at a couple of sessions and--couldn't get--couldn't get near the place. Tickets sold long, long before.
I think that there is, even in our bottom-line society--you know, take care of number one, what have you--there is a--there is a real respect and a regard for individuals who are willing to act on principle, whether it turns out to be right or--or wrong or misguided. I think even people who feel, as many blacks do, that I should not have left Harvard, that--that I should try to go back so that I could work better from within, that there is respect for what I did.
LAMB: You write on page 12 of your book, you say, `Black people will never gain full equality in this country.'
MR. BELL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: `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. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.'
MR. BELL: Yes. Yes. That--that, if I had to put down my whole 35 years of working in this, it--w--it's reflected--in fact, I think I put that paragraph in p--italics.
LAMB: You did.
MR. BELL: Because if you read nothing else, I think that reflects my experience. Now am I right? I'm not sure. But that is my experience. You know, I have a lot of respect for the Old Testament prophets. My earlier book was "And We Are Not Saved," which is Jeremiah--`The summer is ended, the harvest is over and we are not saved'--because they got abused. And I expect abuse.
But the--they--they--they--they operated under divine credentials. I don't have that. I have only my experience and the effort, as hard as I can, to tell it as--as I see it. And as I see it, the patterns of racial subordination have certainly changed from slavery to segregation to equal opportunity. But the results of those changes have always maintained blacks in the subordinate position. It's like it's--we're--we're operating in--in a gyroscope, and you tilt it one way and knock it the other way, but it--then it retains its equilibrium, you see. And that's what you see throughout--throughout history.
LAMB: Haven't got much time left. Have you ever decided, in your own mind, why whites--those that are--are racist--what is at the bottom of it?
MR. BELL: I think there--this is a country built on property, and most whites don't have any property. And what they have come to accept--and this began with the initiation of slavery in the 1660s--what this society provided them was a quasi-property right in their whiteness, that because of their whiteness, those on top said, `We identify with you; you should identify with us. We must stand together against these blacks that we are putting into permanent servitude. And we're going to lower the poll taxes so that some of you can vote and we're going to provide little plots of land that we can lease to you and what have you, but we are one.'
Well, hell, they weren't--we are one. Those who are--were able to hold--a--afford slaves always had a tremendous advantage. Those who didn't were always going to be workers, yeomen, you see, and yet they accepted that deal, and--and--and things like that, more sophisticated, more subtle, have gone on ever since. And as long as whites are willing to accept as part of their entitlement a preference based on skin color and a desire to make sure that blacks, for the most part, stay on the bottom, it's going to be very difficult ever to challenge a system that increasingly puts some people way at the top of the economic scale and most of the rest of us at the bottom.
LAMB: Derrick Bell is the author. Here is what the book looks like, "Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence of Racism." Thank you very much
for joining us.
MR. BELL: Thank you, Brian.
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