So What if Derrick Bell Visited the White House?

I’ve just had a testy little exchange of tweets with Jake Tapper, White House Correspondent for ABC news. Tapper tweeted  this question this afternoon: “Did Professor Derrick Bell Visit the White House?” To which I replied: “So what if he did?”

The occasion of these tweets was the late Andrew Breitbart’s last gasp attempt to smear Obama as a black separatist radical with a tiny snippet of video from a protest at Harvard Law School in 1990 for more diversity on the faculty. Taken from a WGBH news story that was quoted in a  Frontline episode that ran in 2008, Breitbart’s clip shows Obama introducing and then embracing the late Derrick Bell, Harvard’s first tenured African American law professor and one of the intellects behind “critical race theory.” (More about that in a bit.)

I then, a bit rashly I admit, tried to goad Tapper and a Heritage Foundation blogger named Robert Bluey he’d been exchanging tweets with, by tweeting: “You guys are pandering to a bunch of scared rabbits and racist dolts.” Sure enough, that got Tapper’s attention. He replied: “you really should click the link. i fact checked it. he didnt visit. wasnt him. sometimes Reading Is Fundamental. #RIF

Actually I had read Tapper’s story. I knew he was fact checking the Heritage Foundation on their supposedly earth shattering contribution to the Breitbart gas bomb hinting that scary old professor Bell may have been a guest at Obama’s White House. I knew that Tapper had found reason to doubt the Heritage claim, not least of all because the White House told him they had checked their own records and concluded it was a different Derrick Bell. (And anyone not prone to bizarre conspiracy theories who spends a little time with the “evidence” the HF investigators dug up–namely the White House’s online list of visitors–can quickly figure out for themselves that even if it was the Derrick Bell on the list, he didn’t get more than the standard tour of the East Wing with, as Tapper points out, 304 other people on one visit, 282 on the next–unless, of course, that was a cover for his infiltration of Obama’s inner sanctum, where they plotted the takeover of the US by a Kenyan maumau dictatorship. But then, why would they have put his real name on the log…?)

My question to Tapper, anyway, was, I repeat: even if it was that Derrick Bell who was listed as a guest of POTUS (which is how Obama’s personal friends and even Hillary Clinton–though not the Derrick Bell who’s listed there–are noted in the log), so what?  Would that really be news? Tapper says:

Bell without question held some controversial views (read this 1993 New Republic piece for more on that) and some conservatives seek to portray this as yet another close Obama associate with radical views – with a lapdog media covering it up.

I suspect Tapper is more concerned about exonerating the “lapdog media” than mitigating Obama’s guilt by association. I suppose we can’t expect him or anyone in his position to appear to be defending Obama or Bell from charges of treachery or subversion. But frankly, it’s not Obama I care about here. I can’t help but think there’s something fishy in Tapper’s framing of Professor Bell as “without doubt…controversial” in the same breath in which he repeats the conservative position that his views are “radical.”  The way he puts it, he seems to concede that there might indeed be something wrong with Bell visiting the White House.

In a way, this story provides a salient example of what Bell might have called the perpetuation of the master narrative that marginalizes people of color. I’m not in the least an expert on critical race theory. What I know about it, I read in the last 18 or so hours. But I think it’s a good exercise for anyone with an adventurous mind to try on CRT to see what it is and determine for oneself whether it’s beyond the pale of civilized discourse.

Here’s a sympathetic account of its essential premises from a program at UCLA School of Public Affairs:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

Let’s just grapple with that second sentence: “The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.” CRT, then, is not an attack on individuals. It’s not an attack on a particular race. If it is an attack, it’s on “the dominant culture” and its inbred institutional racism. Is this notion controversial? It may be unpleasant, granted, to think that the culture some of us love and are supremely comfortable with is institutionally racist. But is it so outrageous an idea? Isn’t it possible, at the very least, that white men have dominated American culture because the culture privileges them in ways we (especially those whom the culture privileges) are barely conscious of? Some conservatives will surely challenge the idea that there’s anything wrong with the foundational culture. But isn’t that idea (that the culture is inherently good) just as controversial as CRT? Shouldn’t it be?

Breitbart partisans, including Joel Pollack, editor-in-chief at, have homed in on Bell’s and CRT’s stated target of “white supremacy ” and its faithful servants the civil rights laws, as “Bell’s radical idea.” For starters,  I challenge the notion that “radical ideas” are inherently bad–and may the gods help us if they’re “un-American!” I would argue on the contrary that conventional thinking and received ideas are our real enemies, but they’re more and more becoming all we can tolerate.  Fear of the radical sclerotizes the arteries of the body politic. Our politics thrives on the reduction of discourse to the smallest range of ideas and points; unfortunately, this reduces our sense of possibility as well.

Bell is also being demonized for defending Louis Farrakhan. According to James Traub in the TNR piece Tapper cited in his debunking of the HF blog:

In the course of our three-hour conversation Bell’s genial expression slipped only once–when I suggested that he was “endorsing” Farrakhan. “I’m not endorsing him,” Bell flashed, pounding the air with his fist. “No, no. I resent being asked because I’m black to jump up and denounce Farrakhan when he says things that are despicable when nobody comes and asks me when [Pat] Robertson made his despicable comments [at the Republican Convention] to jump up and do that.” I asked Bell about [Henry Louis “Skip”] Gates’s argument, advanced in a New York Times op-ed piece last summer, that black intellectuals have an obligation to denounce black bigots. Bell wasn’t interested in the question. “If that’s what Skip wanted to do,” he shrugged, “that’s fine. My criticism would only enhance his standing. The only thing it does is serve as a comfort to whites who are upset.”

That’s Derek Bell’s bottom line: if it comforts whites, it’s bad; if it comforts blacks–i.e., Farrakhan–it’s good. Bell, along with Farrakhan and so many others, offers victimization as a consolation. The law won’t help; politics won’t help; even the truth, as Bell argues in a parable called “Racism’s Secret Bonding,” won’t help. Bell says he hopes for “a resurrection based on the realization of righteous futility.” But despair leads to alienation and sullen withdrawal, not to renewal.

I think Traub, a white man upset by Farrakhan who was seeking comfort from a black man’s consent to feel upset with another black man, completely missed Bell’s boat here. Bell was not withholding that comfort for a trivial reason. He was rebelling against the received opinion, against the ritualized, institutionalized standard of expression the guardians of convention like TNR exact from public intellectuals if they want the culture’s blessing.

It’s that same sort of sclerotic opinion-making that Tapper is participating in, most likely without even knowing it, when he suggests Professor Bell might have been a political problem for Obama if it was he and not just some tourist who had turned up on that White House list.

One thought on “So What if Derrick Bell Visited the White House?

  1. You know, it’s amazing! After all this country has done for Black people that some of them would fail to show unconditional love for it. How on earth could a man who coordinated some 300 civil rights cases possibly understand anything like racism? He hasn’t had to read textbooks describing this country and its dominant majority in less than glowing terms. He couldn’t possibly understand the real nature of prejudice!

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