«Covenant Keeper»

Derrick Bell’s Enduring Education Legacy

by Gloria Ladson-Billings (Volume editor) William Tate (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook XXX, 208 Pages


Although he spent his career as a lawyer and law school professor, Derrick Bell had a profound impact on the field of education in the area of educational equity. Among many accomplishments, Bell was the first African American to earn tenure at the Harvard Law School; he also established a new course in civil rights law and produced what has become a famous casebook: Race, Racism, and American Law. The man who could rightly be called, «The Father of Critical Race Theory,» Bell was an innovator who did things with the law that others had not thought possible. This volume highlights Bell’s influence on a number of prominent education and legal scholars by identifying some of his specific work and how they have used it to inform their own thinking and practice. What is contained here is an assemblage of contributors with deep commitments to the path-breaking work of Derrick Bell – a scholar, a teacher, an activist, a mentor, and a covenant keeper.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: Critical What What?
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Notes
  • References
  • Section One: Derrick Bell Teaching and Schooling
  • Chapter One: Continuing to Sacrifice Black Children
  • My Bell Selection
  • What I Did with the Chronicle
  • What the Chronicle Can Mean in the 21st Century
  • The Continuing Sacrifice
  • School Segregation
  • Post-Secondary Outcomes
  • School Suspensions
  • School Expulsions
  • Privatization of Public Schools
  • Coda
  • References
  • Chapter Two: “Gifted With a Second-Sight”: Professor Derrick Bell the Teacher
  • Introduction: A Teacher First and Foremost
  • My First Job Out of Law School
  • “The Constitution Is Like Roach Powder”
  • “It Just Means Telling the Truth”
  • “Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good”
  • “Humanizing the Law School Experience”
  • Conclusion: A Teacher until the Very End
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Three: A Critical Race Examination of McLaurin v. Oklahoma: How Derrick Bell Helped Me Understand George McLaurin’s Seat
  • Introduction
  • How I Came to Know McLaurin v. Oklahoma
  • Critical Race Theory and the Working Definitions of Race, Racism, Racial Microaggressions, Institutional Racism, and White Supremacy
  • McLaurin v. Oklahoma Legal History
  • Using the Tools of Racial Microaggressions, Institutional Racism, and White Supremacy to Analyze the McLaurin Photo
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Four: The Utility of “The Space Traders” and Its Variations as CRT Teachable Moments
  • Introduction by Laurence Parker
  • The Centrality of Race and Racism
  • The Challenge to Dominant Ideology
  • A Commitment to Social Justice and Praxis
  • A Centrality of Experiential Knowledge
  • A Historical Context and Interdisciplinary Perspective
  • The Space Traders Return: The Story of Southeast Asian Americans by Kathryn K. Coquemont
  • An Examination of Black Female Physician Faculty Using a Critical Race Theory Lens by Rosie Connor
  • Space Traders in the Wealthy Rockies by Laura Todd
  • Space Traders in the U.S. on TV in Brazil by Ana Carolina Antunes
  • The Space Traders Come to Take a “Problem” off a School’s Hands by Allison Martin
  • Poetic Counterstories: Spoken-Word Poetry as a Form of Talking Back by Kehaulani Folau
  • My Counterstory
  • References
  • Section Two: Derrick Bell and Principles of Critical Race Theory
  • Chapter Five: Derrick Bell, Brown, and the Continuing Significance of the Interest-Convergence Principle
  • Derrick Bell and the Interest-Convergence Principle
  • Chapter Outline
  • The Genesis of the Interest-Convergence Thesis
  • The Problem With Brown
  • Parents v. Seattle School District No. 1
  • The Continuing Significance of Interest-Convergence Theory
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Six: The Rules of Racial Standing: Critical Race Theory for Analysis, Activism, and Pedagogy
  • Introduction: Racism Lives
  • Analysis and Critique: “The Rules” in Action
  • Black Voices and White Racism
  • The Politics of Authenticity and Somersaulting Conservatives
  • The Cowardice of Racism: From “Spineless” to “Courageous” in a Single Political Leap
  • Double Standards, “Decent” People, and White Martyrdom
  • Activism, Prophecy, and Conspiracy: Using “The Rules”
  • Critical Race Pedagogy: Teaching and Re/writing “The Rules”
  • Towards a Conclusion
  • Epilogue: Are You White?
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: Letter to My Unborn Daughter: My Career in the Academy—Reasons for My Mental Breakdown
  • Critical Story-Telling for Activists
  • Setting the Context
  • Letter to My Unborn Daughter
  • Promotion
  • White Female Faculty
  • The Risks of Speaking Out
  • Racial Gesture Politics
  • Postscript: A Note from the Author
  • Notes
  • References
  • Section Three: Derrick Bell on Theory
  • Chapter Eight: Derrick Bell’s Feminism: Profeminism, Intersection, and the Multiple Jeopardy of Race and Gender
  • Black Feminism within CRT
  • Derrick Bell’s Protests
  • Derrick Bell’s Feminism
  • The Chronicle of the 27-year Syndrome
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: In Pursuit of Critical Racial Literacy: An (Auto)ethnographic Exploration of Derrick Bell’s Three Is
  • Introduction and Goal of the Chapter
  • An (Auto)Ethnographic Narrative of Race
  • Derrick Bell on Acquiring a Critical Racial Literacy
  • Toward a Critical Racial Literacy: Putting this Work into Research and Teaching Practice
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Derrick Bell on Race and Memory: From Abolition to Obama
  • Introduction
  • Derrick Bell’s Theoretical Tenets of Historical Revision
  • Black Revisionist Histories in the Black Intellectual Tradition
  • Racial Revisionist American History—Bell’s Historical Pessimism
  • White Interests and Black Freedom: Abolition and Slavery
  • The Post-Civil-War Amendments: Rethinking Radical Reconstruction
  • Brown v. Board of Education: Interest-Convergence and History
  • Obama: On Elections and Freedom
  • Bell’s Historical Fiction and the Method of Racial Chronicles
  • Conclusion: Bell and Re-thinking of Black History
  • References
  • Afterword: The Ethics of Derrick Bell: Oh, How He Loved
  • Military Service to Country
  • Ethics, Religion, and the War on Racial Injustice
  • Family Man
  • Words of Derrick Bell
  • References
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


Critical What What?


On November 3, 2010, I had the pleasure and honor of delivering the fifteenth annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society at New York University School of Law. The event was all the more special to me because it coincided with Professor Bell’s eightieth birthday. Little did I know that this would be the last birthday he would celebrate. In 2011, Derrick Bell died. Less than a year after delivering a lecture in his name and presence I was in New York attending a memorial service that beautifully captured and honored the multiple dimensions of his life.

Like all memorial services, Bell’s was a difficult one to attend. For no matter how much I told myself that this was a moment in which to commemorate Bell’s life, it was also, quite clearly, a moment to mark his departure. This endemic feature of memorial services—that they call upon us to both celebrate life and come to terms with death—is precisely why these services inevitably engender sadness and joy, solemnity and humor, prayer and music.

And, yet, I knew I had to go. My commitment in this regard was not first and foremost about paying my respects to the exemplary and courageous life Professor Bell had lived. There were other ways I could do that. My decision to attend derived from my sense that the memorial service would be a window on facets of Professor Bell’s life about which I knew very little. Death is paradoxical in that ← vii | viii → way. The rituals through which we process death are, quite typically, revelatory biographies of our life.

And so it was with Bell’s memorial service. It composed a wonderful picture of his life—the multiple ways in which he performed civil rights, the multiple people with whom he had forged bonds, and the multiple contexts in which his presence—his life—had been felt.

The service also revealed that, even in death, Professor Bell could build a community that transcended and opened up boundaries. Which is to say, the community of people Bell brought together on that day did not otherwise exist as a formation. Bell’s death brought that community of people to life.

Eleven months earlier, none of the foregoing was on my mind. Derrick Bell was very much alive. And, his email invitation to me to deliver the Bell Lecture was awaiting my response.

Of course, I could not say no. Nor did I want to. I was deeply honored that he had asked.

But, I was also in a state of worry. More precisely, I felt at least a little bit over my head. To say that Professor Bell helped to found Critical Race Theory (CRT) understates the case. For quite some time his work defined the movement. Moreover, as the CRT literature grew inside and outside of legal discourse, Professor Bell’s scholarship helped to chart the multiple trajectories along which the theory would travel. What, then, could I possibly say to shape the thinking of a man whose thinking formed and shaped the development of CRT?

Professor Bell wanted to know that as well, though in an altogether different sense. In a series of email exchanges we discussed the areas I might cover in my talk. His engagements with me were not about policing the boundaries of the lecture; there was no litmus test that I had to pass. Nor were those exchanges a kind of interview in which I had to prove to Professor Bell that he had not made a mistake in inviting me to give the lecture. Instead, our discussion reflected a genuine interest on Professor Bell’s part in ascertaining the subject matter on which my lecture would be based.

I did not know before writing this Foreword that I kept my email exchanges with Professor Bell. With the permission of Janet Dewart Bell, Professor Bell’s widow, I reproduce portions of those emails below. Before doing so, a little context is in order.

When I received the invitation to deliver the lecture I had been working on a book with Mitu Gulati that attempted to pull together some of our work on race as a performative identity. The basic idea is that people experience discrimination based not only on phenotypic markers of race (such as facial features and skin tone) but on performative dimensions of race (such as accent and demeanor). We called our approach a “working identity” theory of race and, in the introduction of our book, we articulated ten implications of our general thesis. ← viii | ix →

1. Discrimination is not only an inter-group phenomenon, it is also an intra-group phenomenon. We should care both about employers preferring whites over blacks (an inter-group discrimination problem) and about employers preferring racially palatable blacks over racially salient ones (an intra-group discrimination problem).

2. The existence of intra-group discrimination creates an incentive for African Americans to work their identities to signal to employers that they are racially palatable. They will want to cover up their racial salience to avoid being screened out of the application pool.

3. Signaling continues well after the employee is hired. The employee understands that she is still black on stage; that her employer is watching her racial performance with respect to promotion and pay increases. Accordingly, she becomes attuned to the roles her Working Identity performs. She will want the employer to experience her Working Identity as a diversity profit, not a racial deficit.

4. Working Identity requires time, effort, and energy—it is work, “shadow work.” The phenomenon is part of an underground racial economy in which everyone participates and to which almost everyone simultaneously turns a blind eye.

5. Working Identity is not limited to the workplace. Admissions officers can screen applicants based on their Working Identity. Police officers can stop, search, and arrest people based on their Working Identity. The American public can vote for politicians based on their Working Identity. Here, too, there are incentives for the actor—to work her identity to gain admissions to universities, to avoid unfriendly interactions with the police, and to gain political office.

6. Working Identity is costly. It can cause people to compromise their sense of self; to lose themselves in their racial performance; to deny who they are; and to distance themselves from other members of their racial group. Plus, the strategy is risky. Staying at work late to negate the stereotype that one is lazy, for example, can confirm the stereotype that one is incompetent, unable to get work done within normal work hours.

7. Working Identity raises difficult questions for law. One can argue that discrimination based on Working Identity is not racial discrimination at all. Arguably, it is discrimination based on behavior or culture rather than race. Therefore, perhaps the law should not intervene. And even assuming that this form of discrimination is racial discrimination, it still might be a bad idea for the law to get involved. Do we really want judges deciding whether a person is or isn’t “acting white” or “acting black”—and the degree to which they might be doing so? It is difficult to figure out what role, if any, law should play. ← ix | x →

8. Working Identity transcends the African American experience. Everyone works their identity. Everyone feels the pressure to fit in, including white heterosexual men. But the existence of negative racial stereotypes increases those pressures and makes the work of fitting in harder and more time consuming. African Americans are not the only racial minority that experiences this difficulty, though our focus in the book is primarily on this group.

9. Nor is race the only social category with a Working Identity dimension. Women work their identities as feminine or not. Men are expected to act like men. Gays and lesbians are viewed along a continuum of acting straight or not. Racial performance is but part of a broader Working Identity phenomenon.

10. We all have a Working Identity whether we want to or not. Working Identity does not turn on the intentional, strategic behavior of the actor. An employer might perceive an African American as racially palatable even if that person does not intend for the employer to racially interpret her in that way. Irrespective of strategic behavior on the part of the employee, the employer will racially judge her based not only on how she racially looks but also on how the employer perceives her to racially act.1

I told Professor Bell that I was going to employ Barack Obama’s experiences as president of the United States to explore some of the foregoing issues. Our email correspondence then included, among other exchanges, these:

Professor Bell: It is so easy to be disappointed that Obama is not speaking out more strongly against his enemies and ours, but then most of us don’t do that in our far less important interactions and confrontations with our white faculty colleagues.

Me: I think you are right that, in some sense, it’s easy to critique Obama. At the same time, it’s actually quite hard. There is a kind of closing of ranks in which I confess I sometimes participate. At any rate, my talk will not be a critique of him. It is more about some of the challenges the current moment presents.

Professor Bell: Trying to place Obama in his role as president is somewhat like trying to place Jackie Robinson in his first few years in the majors when he took all manner of abuse and kept focusing on the game he played so well. Jackie knew he could play the game. I sometimes fear that Barack is not always sure what game he is playing and were I in his place, I would not know either.


XXX, 208
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (October)
Derrick A. Bell Brown v. Board of Education Race, Racism, and American Law Legal Defense Fund Civil Rights Unitersity of Pittsburgh Duquesne University Harvard Law School Derrick Albert Bell The Father of Critical Race Theory educational equity critical race theory
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXX, 208 pp.

Biographical notes

Gloria Ladson-Billings (Volume editor) William Tate (Volume editor)

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. William F. Tate, IV is the Dean of the Graduate School and Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.


Title: «Covenant Keeper»
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