From the New York Times Book Review, "The End of Racism, and Other Fables," by Linda Greenhouse -- In Derrick Bell's view, discourse about race in America is mired in the sugarcoated myth that equality for blacks will be found just around the corner, as soon as the country completes its fitful but inevitably progressive journey toward enlightenment and justice.
The myth is sweet but ultimately disabling and dangerous, he believes, because it denies to both blacks and whites understanding of a truth that is almost exactly the opposite: that racism is not a passing phase but a permanent feature of American life, and that the path is marked not by real progress but by occasional short-lived judicial or legislative victories that serve to obscure the underlying truth even more.
Both in his writing and by his actions, Mr. Bell, one of the country's most prominent scholars of race and the law, has spent years trying to bring this message both to other blacks and to the white-majority institutions in which he has worked. Most notable of these is Harvard Law School, where, more than 20 years ago, he became the first black faculty member to receive tenure. Two years ago he vowed to remain on an unpaid leave until the law school hired a black woman for its tenured faculty. In July, Harvard Law School refused to extend his leave for a third year and informed him that his failure to return meant he had relinquished his position on the faculty, which still includes no tenured black women. He is currently a visiting professor at New York University Law School.
Without directly addressing this episode, Mr. Bell's new book, "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism," nonetheless makes it appear not only understandable but almost inevitable. Like his previous book, "And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice," this one approaches his theme indirectly, through allegory, fables and dialogues with a fictional "lawyer-prophet," a mordantly wise black woman named Geneva Crenshaw, whose role is to goad and inspire the professor-narrator to confront the truth without the sugarcoating.
These are fables with footnotes as well as irony: Jonathan Swift come to law school. Harvard figures prominently, as does the Supreme Court; most of the stories began as seminar teaching tools to prod students to re-examine old assumptions. There is the "Racial Preference Licensing Act," for example, a new Federal law of Ms. Crenshaw's design under which white business owners could obtain a license that would free them to discriminate openly, rather than covertly as they do at present, against black employees and customers. In return for this privilege, the whites would pay a 3 percent tax into an "equality fund" that would be used to support business opportunities and education for blacks.
When Mr. Bell objects that the Racial Preference Licensing Act is too farfetched even for him, Ms. Crenshaw accuses him of holding on to an outdated faith in "the civil rights ideals that events long ago rendered obsolete." The new law, she says, could be more effective than "those laws that now provide us the promise of protection without either the will or the resources to honor that promise." Ms. Crenshaw sternly reminds Mr. Bell that he himself has written that "whatever the civil rights law or constitutional provision, blacks gain little protection against one or another form of racial discrimination unless granting blacks a measure of relief will serve some interest of importance to whites."
There is the story of Afrolantica, a mysterious lost continent that arises from the ocean. The evidence that, for some unknown reason, only black Americans can breathe the air on the beautiful island leads to a vigorous debate over whether they should move there and claim it as their homeland.
ONE of the most effective fables, and by far the most chilling, is the tale of the Space Traders -- creatures from another planet who offer the United States the solution to all its economic and environmental ills in exchange for one thing: its black population, which would be carried off to an unknown fate in outer space. The story becomes a canvas for Mr. Bell's portraits of the wise, foolish, weak, strong and venal characters of both races who respond to this challenge to the national soul. That the outcome is predictable makes it no less heartbreaking.
Not every fable in "Faces at the Bottom of the Well" -- the title reflects the author's vision of the place of blacks in American society -- has the sure touch of the Space Traders tale. Some wander from their theme, and there is some settling of personal scores. But this book well serves the goal Mr. Bell describes to Geneva Crenshaw, of "attempting to sing a new scholarly song -- even if to some listeners our style is strange, our lyrics unseemly." The stories challenge old assumptions and then linger in the mind in a way that a more conventionally scholarly treatment of the same themes would be unlikely to do.
Mr. Bell does not hold out hope for success in objectively measurable terms. Rather, he says -- putting the words in the mouth of a white female guerrilla fighter for black survival in one of the fables -- "there is satisfaction in the struggle itself," a "salvation through struggle."
In this starkly existentialist vision, a commitment to pressing on in the face of absurdity, Derrick Bell draws as much from Albert Camus as from Martin Luther King. In an epilogue, constructed as a letter to Geneva Crenshaw, he writes: "We yearn that our civil rights work will be crowned with success, but what we really want -- want even more than success -- is meaning. . . . This engagement and commitment is what black people have had to do since slavery: making something out of nothing."
Erika looked thoughtful. . . . "We call ourselves White Citizens for Black Survival, or WCBS. Our program has two prongs. First, the policy phase we call 'racial realism.' Then the activist phase, in which we aim to build a nationwide network of secret shelters to house and feed black people in the event of a black holocaust or some other all-out attack on America's historic scapegoats."
"A late-20th-century underground railroad!" I exclaimed. "You can't be serious?"
"You -- and other blacks as well -- need to get serious. What precisely would you do if they came for you? How would you protect your family? Where could you go? How get there? You have money. Could you get access to it if the Government placed a hold on the assets in your checking and savings accounts?"-- From "Faces at the Bottom of the Well."
'THE TRUTH IS NEVER DESPAIRING'
Derrick Bell says that while he was writing "Faces at the Bottom of the Well," his publisher referred to the book as "unremittingly despairing." It argues that America is a racist country and always will be. Mr. Bell says he responded: "No, you don't understand. For a black person in this society, the truth is never despairing."
In an interview at his office at New York University Law School, Mr. Bell said that when he explains his thoughts on race to black groups these days, he hears the laughter and applause of recognition. "It reaffirms that it is not their fault," he said. "It is an affirmation of themselves and not a basis for despair."
The 61-year-old author said he reached his bleak conclusions over the course of a career in civil rights that he now believes was misdirected. Despite all the change over the years, he said, blacks are worse off and more subjugated than at any time since slavery. The only difference now is that there is "a more effective, more sophisticated means of domination."
But he also believes in the importance of struggling anyway. He has fought many such battles himself, the most recent being his protest against the absence of a black woman on the Harvard Law School faculty. On June 30, his 23-year tenure there was revoked after he refused to end a two-year leave of absence.
He will teach at N.Y.U. this year, but he has no definite plans after that. He is working on two new books. One is a collection of student essays on law and race; the other, drawing from his own experiences, is tentatively entitled "Constructing Character Through Confrontation."
Every time Mr. Bell has quit a job in frustration or protest, he said, things have worked out well. He recognizes that not everyone always gets such good results. "What you can say without reservation is that to stand up when everybody else is sitting down, to leave a job when you think it's intolerable, you feel better," he said. "It may not be long before you can't pay the bills, but there's a sense that you did the right thing." (Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company)