In Dubious Battle
Derrick Bell Tolls The Death Of Hope In The War On American Racism
September 27, 1992|By Reviewed by Clarence Page, a Tribune columnist.
Faces at the Bottom
of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
By Derrick Bell
Basic Books, 222 pages, $20)
Those who no longer think of racism as much of a serious problem in determining opportunities for African-Americans may be disappointed to hear from Derrick Bell, Harvard Law School`s first black tenured professor, that racism in America is not only alive and well but also permanent.
Bell presents his proposition, easier to debate than it is to deny, in bold italics in the introduction to his new book, ``Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism``:
``Black people will never gain full equality in this country. 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.``
But if inequality is so permanent, why bother fighting it? For the sake of the struggle itself, of course, says Bell.
For inspiration, he cites Mrs. Biona MacDonald, a matronly civil-rights organizer in the Mississippi Delta, who, like others, persevered in spite of the threats (lost jobs, lost mortgages and lost lives) such activism posed:
``I can`t speak for everyone, but as for me, I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.``
Bell was intrigued. ``She did not ever hint that her harassment would topple those white`s well-entrenched power,`` he writes. ``Rather, her goal was defiance, and its harassing effect was likely more potent precisely because she did what she did without expecting to topple her oppressors.``
Speaking in the voice of a character who is a satirical takeoff on Langston Hughes` Jesse B. Semple, Bell writes, ``A holiday for Dr. King is just another instance-like integration-that black folks work for and white folks grant when they realize-long before we do-that it is mostly a symbol that won`t cost them much and will keep us blacks pacified.``
Black elected officials? You gotta be kidding, says Bell. They make powerful symbols but lack the resources to address the problems they inherit, Bell says, and thus can do little to overcome either unemployment or poverty. Harsh. But Bell at his most bitter emerges in the final chapter, when he imagines space aliens coming to Earth with a bizarre deal: They will give Americans enough gold to bail out its bankrupt government coffers, special chemicals that will clean up the atmosphere and a totally safe nuclear power supply to relieve our reliance on fossil fuels. All the visitors ask in return is all of the African-Americans who live in the United States.
To make Bell`s short story shorter, white America goes for the deal. And he finds sufficient precedent in American legal history to create a scenario that would be the dream of the Ku Klux Klan: The ultimate removal of all civil-rights protections from African-Americans and our departure, aboard spaceships this time, an enforced journey echoing the way our forefathers arrived in this country.