Critical race theory is an intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.
Are Black people at home in America, or should they think of themselves as sojourners in a land that will never belong to them? Is racism a social problem that can be solved, or is it a permanent condition like mortality, which can only be met with defiance?
In the conclusion to “Faces,” Bell argues that the struggle for racial equality is worthwhile even though it will never succeed. Like the French existentialist Albert Camus, who saw Sisyphus’s eternal effort to roll a boulder uphill as a symbol of human endurance in an absurd world, Bell demands “recognition of the futility of action” while insisting “that action must be taken.”
To the journalist and historian James Traub, who profiled Bell for the New Republic magazine in 1993, this amounted to a recipe for paralysis: “If you convince whites that their racism is ineradicable, what are they supposed to do? And what are blacks to do with their hard-won victim status?”
For his supporters and critics alike, Derrick Bell remains a central figure. Nearly three decades after the publication of his most widely read book, his stark vision of the racial divide in American society and history has retained its power to provoke debate and activism across the political spectrum.
Not every story in “Faces” has a dark ending, but most do—especially the last and most famous, “The Space Traders.” In this tale, aliens arrive on earth and make the U.S. government an offer: In exchange for miraculous technologies that can heal the environment and ensure prosperity, they demand to carry off the entire Black population of the U.S. in their spaceships. When a referendum is held on whether to accept the aliens’ offer, “yes” wins with 70% of the vote.
Since the U.S. population was about 12% Black in the 1990 census, Bell is suggesting that the overwhelming majority of white Americans would agree to send their Black fellow citizens to an unknown fate. This conclusion reflects his theory of “interest convergence,” which says that white Americans will only act in the interests of Black people if it also serves their own interest. When the interests of whites and Blacks are opposed, Bell argues, whites will always choose to put their own interest first.
For Bell, this is the lesson of American history. As he observes in “The Space Traders,” “Without the compromises on slavery in the Constitution of 1787, there would be no America.” Similarly, after the Civil War, whites in the North and South sacrificed the rights of former slaves for the sake of sectional reconciliation. Bell suggests that the same thing would happen in the alien scenario, and the story ends with a nightmarish vision of Black Americans being herded onto spaceships: “Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forebears had arrived.”
The image suggests that 400 years of American history have changed nothing in the relationship between Blacks and whites. At the heart of the debate over critical race theory, then and now, is whether such a view is justified. Ms. Alexander, author of the 2010 bestseller “The New Jim Crow,” wrote in the foreword to a 2018 reissue of “Faces” that “As a law student, I read nearly every word Bell wrote; as a civil rights lawyer, I was haunted by his words and ultimately forced to admit the truth of them.”
Other commentators have strongly disagreed. The political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., whose work focuses on race and inequality, wrote about a conference he attended at Harvard Law School in 1991, where “I heard the late, esteemed legal theorist, Derrick Bell, declare on a panel that blacks had made no progress since 1865. I was startled not least because Bell’s own life, as well as the fact that Harvard’s black law students’ organization put on the conference, so emphatically belied his claim.” Mr. Reed dismissed the idea as “more a jeremiad than an analysis” (emphasis added).
Critical race theory is best construed as being a relentless and restless advocate for justice such that, to the extent that race remains a permanent feature of social reality, there must be constant vigilance for justice. There can be no determination of the absolute arrival of true racial justice; its advent forever deferred, its pursuit reaches no termination. Consequently, the insomniac career of critical race theory is one without end.
So what is CRT, exactly? CRT is not a curriculum; it is a lens and a practice. Simply put, “In the K-12 classroom, CRT can be an approach to help students understand how racism has endured past the civil rights era through systems, laws, and policies — and how those same systems, laws, and policies can be transformed.”
Practically, including CRT in the classrooms means tearing out racism, patriarchy, and colonization — root and stem — before they have a chance to blossom. All Americans were raised under these systems and we continue to be affected by them today.
It’s time to start teaching history from a place of truth. We have to be brave enough to lean into our discomfort. Right now we can deepen our allyship for our Black relatives and honor the next seven generations, not just by creating a “holiday” that acknowledges the enslavement of Black People, but by including CRT in our K-12 public school classrooms (emphasis added).
When the interests of whites and Blacks are opposed ... whites will always choose to put their own interest first.