Derrick Bell

The Permanence of Racism

VTR Date: June 11, 1992

Guest: Bell, Derrick


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Derrick Bell
Title: The Permanence of Racism
VTR: 6/11/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. About my guest today no less a luminary than Jesse Jackson has said that law professor Derrick Bell is “one of our movement’s giants, one of our true heroes.” About his “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism,” published by Basic Books, historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has said it is by turns “energizing and infuriating.”

And Professor Gates is right on target when he notes that “this is a book that readers will want to fling across the room – or pore over with assiduous care. That a reader would be left indifferent, however, is unimaginable.” Indeed, I dare say that nothing my guest could write, or do, or say would ever leave one indifferent … including his likely response to my asking right off what in the world he means by writing: “The challenge throughout has been to tell what I view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair.” What do you mean?

BELL: It seems to me that both history, my experience, current events as we read them, all point to one conclusion about racism in this society, and that, Mr. Heffner, is that it is permanent. That it is an essential, it is not an aberration, it is not what most of us believed it was … thirty, forty years ago … a, a pimple on an otherwise beautiful complexion of America as a place of freedom and equality for, for all. We all believed that at, at one time. That was the Gunnar Myrdal report … the huge study of racial discrimination in the, in the ‘40’s, and we all accepted that. As a litigator I acted on that belief. And I think though that even though it means tearing down, in a way, much of what I’ve done, much of what others have done, that we have to … on the, on the tatters of what we thought would be a wonderful edifice on … and the ruins … we have to see what there is to be seen. And that leads me to that conclusion.

HEFFNER: Yes, but how can you use the phrase “without despair” because what you’re saying …

BELL: Is that …

HEFFNER: … inevitably leads to despair and “inevitably” is an interesting word because you seem to have adopted a determinism here that cuts out room for anything other than despair.

BELL: Well it’s … I certainly have to acknowledge it … the, the temptation to despair that this leads because it’s so different from that that we have, have followed and believed. The fact is though that to continue on with those beliefs leads to a more definite despair. Moreover, moreover, it does not provide any insight on where we should go from, from here. I think that there is something that is … has … that of … stuff of revival about truth. The truth of individuals who learn that they have terminal cancer, let us say … if we put it on an individual basis. For some, they jump out the window. For many others, though, after they get themselves together … they live with whatever time they have more purposeful lives. Why? Because they have gotten beyond that that afflicts us all at one point or another, which is the belief that though death is something that happens to somebody else, but it’s not going to happen to me. And we live our lives often enough as though we’re going to be here permanently, and waste an awful lot of our lives. I think that there’s a similar situation with regard to our commitment to racial equality.

HEFFNER: But Black and White and Yellow and whatever other color you can think of will be here permanently. So the metaphor you use there is … it seems to me one that is lacking because you’re quite correct, you deal with the reality of your coming death … I must, you must, one who has cancer today must … but you know that there is an end to it. Are you suggesting …


HEFFNER: … that there is an end too, a deadly end to the relations between the races.

BELL: No, I think that the analogy as your pointing out is not a perfect one. But I think it is helpful in that individuals when they face up to the reality of their death are able to live more purposeful lives. If we face up to the reality of racism and the role it plays in the society, then it’s not simply an aberration, that it’s a necessary stabilizing influence in a society like ours. That doesn’t mean that we give up. It means that we are able to face the real problems, the real enemy, if you will and to fashion tactics and strategies that are likely to be more effective. Not guaranteed, not likely even to bring about the kind of era we thought about when we sang “We shall overcome,” but likely to be a more meaningful … lead to more meaningful endeavor than we’re now engaged in.

HEFFNER: But you know, I’m sorry to push you on this and pursue it, but when you say “a more meaningful endeavor” you seem first to have posited an end and to have said to me, in reading “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” unless you can, unless you can interpret now for me something different, you can help me see some, some chance for change, you seem to be saying “there are those faces, they are not going to be changed.” When you say, “at least we can recognize the enemy,” it’s a little Pogo-ish.

BELL: Let me …

HEFFNER: … seen the enemy and it is “we.”

BELL: To the extent that we continue in our own direction, often enough it is us.

HEFFNER: What would change?

BELL: I think that the … that our attitude with regard to where we’re going, what we’re doing … right now, or in the last few months … there’s been a lot of controversy about the worth of all male … you know, necessarily Black schools in the inner city as a means of dealing with the genocidal situation that is facing so many of our young Black males. Many of those who, who held the original dream of integration, both of racially and certainly gender-wise, have, have been very troubled by that. Have opposed it. Some organizations have gone into court to actually halt programs. Well, I think that that, that that is at least mischievous and perhaps more dangerous than that because it is not allowing a potentially effective procedure to even be tried. And we can repeat that example in many other areas of the civil rights struggle. To continue in the same way, I, I think is a … I think is, is a mistake. If you ask me, “Well, what should we be doing differently.” I can’t give you a blueprint. If I could I would have written a better book than “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” but I can say that once we adopt a, a different outlook with regard to the causes of racism, how we deal with it, I think then that individuals particularly in their own areas of education or employment or whatever it is, will be able to fashion ideas that make more sense in our, in our present world.

HEFFNER: Professor Bell, let me ask this question. Do you think that we’re … Black and White … strong enough to face this concept of the permanence of racism? Strong enough?

BELL: I … I guess I don’t know. I’m … my proselytizing is, is … has with it the hope that we will be. Otherwise we are condemned to repeat a series of patterns that I can trace back for 300 years, you see.

HEFFNER: When Andrew Hacker sat at this table, not terribly long ago, he traced back what he would consider, to a certain degree, the permanence, or at least the widespread nature of racism to the fact of slavery … Blacks came to this country as slaves and that is the way of Americans continue to see them. You go further. What is it, what is basic to your thinking, what is your fix on the nature of human nature, that leads you to write about the permanence of racism? What are we like?

BELL: There is something about humans because as, as many of my critics often point out, some of my students say that the United States is not unique in its willingness to subordinate a identifiable minority, either minority identifiable by race, by religion, by ethnic grouping … that’s a worldwide, worldwide phenomenon. What would seem to make it different here is our commitment from our earliest documents, the Constitution and what-have-you, that seem at one level to be pointing in a different direction. When read carefully, of course, already inculcate some of the, the essence of the problems that we, that we face … we face today.

HEFFNER: Well the compromises in the Constitution certainly put their stamp …

BELL: That’s absolutely right.

HEFFNER: … on racist attitudes.

BELL: And we have … as a matter of fact when we mentioned slavery … no Whites were ever enslaved. That is that the essence of slavery was a belief by Whites that Blacks could be reduced to slavery and that that would be somehow beneficial to them … it certainly was going to be necessary to move the society along. Segregation … when slavery was replaced, no Whites had ever been segregated in the way that that Blacks have. And again that policy came about as a compromise needed to move Whites of differing views, differing politics ahead. So that if, if you look at almost any of the either positives or negatives in terms of the racial policy in this country, you will find that at bottom, whatever it’s been said, it was intended to further the ends of Whites, often differing Whites on a particular issue.

HEFFNER: Would you be willing to modify the permanence of racism to the permanence of, of exploitation … to the permanence of some other concept that would mean that there will always be a bottom rung on the ladder and will be on one rung up?

BELL: I guess …

HEFFNER: … isn’t it oppression, rather than racism?

BELL: Well oppression is certainly the essence, but in our society the oppression and Blacks have … the, the two concepts have, have come to … have come together …

HEFFNER: Because of slavery?

BELL: And … well, but again, slavery itself was a manifestation of this, this deep sense of White superiority and that Blacks, while we would like them to be treated better, if there’s a … we have to make a decision between treating better and not treating better, then we’re going … Lincoln was certainly the example. When he wrote back to Horace Greeley with regard to slavery that “I will do,” he said, “anything I have to do to save the Union. If I can save the Union by freeing all the slaves, I’ll do that. Keep them all in slavery, I’ll do that. Freeing some, leaving some in slavery, I’ll do. Whatever it takes.” I, I love that quote because it is … it reflects his, his candid nature, but it also reflects American policy making both before and after Lincoln.

HEFFNER: Yes, spoken … but spoken by one who saw, inevitably the death of slavery … who saw inevitably the uneconomic nature of slavery. So that, you’re right, he wrote in the summer of ’62, “Whatever I do will preserve the Union … I will do to preserve the Union,” but the Union was a means of maintaining something that was, would permanently stay in place and eventually lead to the end of slavery.

BELL: Though it’s interesting that Lincoln also called Black leaders together to the White House right, right after the War and said, “I really think that we should plan to send you back to Africa, because I don’t believe …,” that he and Jefferson did not believe that the two peoples could live together in the, in the same country.

HEFFNER: Let me … let me ask …

BELL: And I’m not sure that that was because he felt necessarily that Blacks were inferior, although that was the general view, but was rather, I wonder whether both of them didn’t see this, this, this tension … this, this need to subordinate that would … that this could not be denied.

HEFFNER: Does that lead you to be a Separatist?

BELL: Not entirely. I think that the … it covers a lot. When you tell me “let’s try Black male schools,” notwithstanding my, my feminist friends who become appalled … I think it’s worth a try. When you tell me about some of the things that the Muslims have been able to do on a separate basis within communities, I think that that’s worthwhile. I think that if we could turn our prison system over to the Muslims or that kind of philosophy, we might be able to bring people out to do other than things that get them right back, back, back in. But if you’re talking about “let’s set up a separate state, or what-have-you … it’s already been tried, and it doesn’t work very well.

HEFFNER: Let me … let me come back to the question that I asked you before about the nature of human nature. Is that what it is that we’re talking about, the need to oppress or the need that you may sense of Whites to prevail over Blacks? If that’s the case, mustn’t Blacks feel the same way about Whites?

BELL: I certainly do not see in … if we’re just talking about Africans … I don’t see any lessening of some of these unhappy urges by people of African background when they become … when they get power. Even over their own people, so I can’t say that there’s something in the genes that makes one group good and one, one bad. In this society, though, there are several levels, you see. The fact is that race has always served as a diversion … the, the piece that I wrote at the beginning of “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” talks about “Black people are the faces at the bottom of the societal well. Whites, many of whom, occupy a level only slightly above the Blacks reach down and are mesmerized. Some reach out and try to pull us up, they know that unless they help us up they won’t be able to move to the different level. But rather than look up at the top to see who it is that’s keeping us both down, they remain fixated on us and determine that they will stay where they are if it means we can stay down further below.” Well there, there’s something of that, and, and it is … and it is encouraged by varying groups at the top because it takes, it takes the heat off them. That’s George Bush, isn’t it? We’re coming up to another election, but last time Bush who, who came into power on Reagan’s policies where there had been a greater growth in the disparity between the upper-class and the rest of us, almost in the history of the country, didn’t talk about that at all. He talked about waving the flag and talked about the Willie Horton … he, he moved the focus away from where the problems really are and focused them in one way or another, somewhat more subtly maybe than Reagan, some would say not so much more subtly, on race.


BELL: And it works … it works every time.

HEFFNER: You seem to be saying that it works every time not in terms necessarily of Reagan or of Bush or of X or Y or of Z, but in terms of Whites and Blacks in America.

BELL: Oh, sure the …

HEFFNER: That it must work.

BELL: … the individuals change over time. But the, but the willingness to use race to … as a, as a detour, as a change of focus away from where the real issues are has been un … that’s how slavery got started. The … those able to afford slaves were able to convince those Whites who could not afford slaves that somehow, even though the presence of slaves meant that the rest of those Whites were always going to be in a, in a disadvantaged economic position, that they needed to stay together to avoid, you know, to fight off the slave revolts and all the rest. And we have the same thing today with affirmative action, and some of those policies, don’t we?

HEFFNER: But you know, that’s what intrigued me so about this, this end paragraph, end chapter of yours … absolutely smashing, “The Space Traders,” because you point out that if we were offered in this country, and you picture it in the future with economic times even much harsher than they are now, if we were to exile all of the Blacks in America … trade them off for goods, for things that we felt we needed, that most Americans would accept that deal with the Devil, but you go on to say that there are those who didn’t want to be rid of the lower class because that lower class was Black, and if we got rid of Blacks then Whites would be part of the lower class. Of course which is …

BELL: With certain identifiable members …

HEFFNER: Others …

BELL: … you know …

HEFFNER: … others …

BELL: … I think traditionally Jews have, have been scapegoats in society based on religion and culture, and that I’m not so sure that anti-semitism is so dead in this country that if Blacks all disappeared there wouldn’t be an effort to, to revive it, to a greater extent.

HEFFNER: You see, that’s, that’s what … if you forgive me bugs me so … about “Faces at the Bottom of the Well … the Permanence of Racism” because I find so little hope in it. Now tell me again … what is that mystical connection between recognition of what you want the Black community …

BELL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … to recognize and a kind of transcending of the despair that there must be. How … how do we get from here to there?

BELL: A couple of things. One is that we are here basically to recognize and fight evil, whatever that is. I mean we, we certainly want to be successes and support our families, but life must … the miracle of our lives must be more than a house in suburbs and a BMW (laughter), in, in the driveway, you see. So that if, by some miracle, racism ended tomorrow those of us who feel that our lives are to serve others, to, to, to look, find evil and try to deal with it, we would look around for … and deal with poverty. We would deal with some horrible disease. So that in some ways the fact of racism being permanent is not automatically “oh my God, there’s, there’s no hope” because our, our efforts are always to recognize bad stuff. The more important thing though I think is the fact of slavery, because slavery was a horrible time, but it was also a time of, of, of magnificent overcoming by any number of the slaves to a situation that must have been much worse than anything we, we can imagine today. That these people had no rights, that they were, they were chattel, that they could be bought and sold and beaten and killed and raped, and there was no relief. And, and that must have been very despairing to many. But we know from the history and the legacy of the spirituals that for some there was a recognition that as bad as their lives were there was something beyond that. And not simply a hope of a place in heaven. That they had a faith that transcended even their situation. And I think they were able to gain that faith out of an honest recognition of just how bad their situation was.


BELL: And I’m … I’m urging that we, that we look to that moral and, and then try to move on from … move on from there.

HEFFNER: I think … 35 years ago at this table, Martin Luther King … that in a sense was his message, wasn’t it? It was a religious, it was a spiritual message.

BELL: I think so, although it translated, in the sixties, into “We’re going to have … we’re going to end this racism. Blacks and Whites are going to sit down together.” Well, probably at many levels that happens and I think it’s going to continue to happen. But the kind of forces that we, that we see in our inner cities today, the kind of frustration that I hear as I sit at very fancy dinner parties of the Black professionals and what-have-you … that, that is going to be harder to deal with. The glass ceilings … the, the … I was talking earlier about the Michael, Michael Jordan phenomenon. Most Black professionals, I think, are envious of Michael Jordan, not simply because of his tremendous skills, but the way he exhibits his skills can’t be denied. He does it in a way that very few others can do it. For most of us, some of us who think we have skills in writing or in teaching or in business or in government that are the equal of his, it’s always easy to kind of shift the credit to somebody else, to not give us the promotion, to not … to not give the full recognition, and it creates a … just a tremendous frustration. Now I’m not saying that is anything like the kind of barriers that face Black males in the, in the inner city.

HEFFNER: Now you said, you said … and I started off that way quoting you, that your objective was to get people to understand the realities of racism and, without despair. How sanguine are you about the future? Maybe that gives away too much. Maybe it presses …

BELL: No …

HEFFNER: … you … but in the moment or two we have left … how, how sanguine are you?

BELL: I think that I am not sanguine. But I do not despair. The slaves had no reason to be sanguine about what was going to happen, they hoped for freedom, we hope, too, things are going to be better. But all of the indicators point in another direction. That is a reason, though, for re-commitment in keeping with the miracle of our existence, our responsibilities. What makes us feel good about life. And that is fighting through. Let me end with, with a quick story about an old woman down in rural Mississippi who I asked a question like this because she was pushing and …

HEFFNER: I loved her answer.

BELL: … and, and they were shooting through her house at night, they were trying to take her farm … and I said, “You know, Mrs. McDonald, why do you do it?” And she said, “Oh …,” she said, “Derrick, I’m a old lady. I lives to harass White folks.” Now she … now this Mrs. McDonald, as a matter of fact, lived in a basically White community, and her neighbors were very supportive of her. So she wasn’t condemning all White people, but those who were “on” her, who were pressing her … her talent was not to beat them … because they had the money, the power, the guns. Her, her, her determination was, in her words, “to harass them.” And to get from that harassment, whether she recognized it or not, a kind of existential triumph.

HEFFNER: My grandmother used to say, “take a lesson.” It seems to me you’ve “taken a lesson” and that seems to be your motivation in life, in your profession, in your teaching, too. Is that unfair?

BELL: I think that’s fair.

HEFFNER: Professor Derrick Bell, I do appreciate you’re joining me today and I, I think that “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” again, particularly that very last segment … particularly intriguing. One question … yes or no. Is the book aimed essentially at Blacks or Whites?

BELL: Oh, I need to answer quickly. I want to quote Bell Hooks, the Black writer who said the great frustration that she feels is to write for Black people and find her editors and her publishers and everyone else assume that the first readers will be privileged Whites. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you so much again for joining me.

BELL: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.