Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Ghost of Derrick Bell: Racial Realism and the Myth of a Colorblind America by Dr Lori Martin

Thousands made the historic voyage to Selma, Alabama over the weekend to commemorate Bloody Sunday. Fifty years ago brave men, women, boys, and girls sacrificed their bodies to move the nation closer to realizing the values upon which the country was founded. While the signs directing people to race-specific neighborhoods, schools, bathrooms, and the like, are long gone the structures that differentiate access to valued resources such as, wealth, status, and power are still very much in place. President Obama spoke of racial progress but also acknowledged that racism is alive and well in America. At the foot of a bridge, named after a confederate solider and member of the Ku Klux Klan, President Obama made note of the recent report from Department of Justice on the Ferguson Police Department, which highlighted a pattern of unequal treatment directed towards people of color and included emails containing disparaging remarks about blacks including, President Obama and the First Lady. The report is just one manifestation of contemporary racism in America. The video that surfaced of a fraternity formerly of Oklahoma University, where members used a racial slur and made mention of the practice of lynching, is another. The killings of unarmed black men including, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown are also manifestations of racism in the 21st century, using all too familiar tactics. The very attack on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed due in large part to the brutality of Bloody Sunday, is even further evidence that racism is a live and well. With chants of “Black Lives Matter” and continued assaults on the basic civil and human rights of communities of color it is hard, if not disingenuous, to make the case that the dominant racial narrative is one best characterized by progress. If we are to use the term progress to describe changes in race relations over time, then we should draw from the writings of the late Derrick Bell. In a 1992 article in Connecticut Law Review, Bell described a hard truth that will save this and future generations feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and disappointment. Bell defined “peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” The integration of modern-day baseball and the persistence in racial inequality in sports; the Brown v. Board of Education case and continuing school segregation; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and restrictive voter identification laws; all support Bell’s claim. While controversial and unpopular with contemporary change makers, the racial realism that Bell spoke of “is simply a hard-eyed view of racism as it is.” The ghost of Derrick Bell, a legal scholar and civil rights activist, cries out to those committed to social justice saying, the “struggle for freedom is…a manifestation of our humanity that survives and grows stronger through resistance to oppression, even if that oppression is never overcome.”

Lori Latrice Martin
Louisiana State University