We Who Must Fight in the Shade: Derrick Bell’s Philosophy of Racial Realism as the basis of a Black Politics of Disempowerment.
By: Dr. Tommy J. Curry
A rather curious change of emphasis has caught my attention recently. Negroes are being accused of racism, that is, of unduly emphasizing racial differences and of advocating racial separation. This would be laughable if it did not have so serious a side. A shattered and almost fatally divided world now making desperate effort to envision humanity bound together in peace and at least with some approach to brotherhood is being warned that its worst victims are contemplating resurgence of race hate! W.E.B. DuBois—1962 Introduction Despite the undeniable failure of integration and multiculturalism, race theory in philosophy continues to endorse a dilapidated hope in liberal democracy that ignores the historic and systemic racism of American society.1 Current theories about race focus on its socially constructed nature—its contingency rather than the actual effect(s) racism has had and continues to have on the lives of African-descended people in America. In philosophy, the tendency to privilege “race” over “racism” is particularly worrisome, as current writings on the question of race remain dedicated to fulfilling the unrealized promises of integration. Despite the work of scholars outside of philosophy like Michelle Alexander’s concrete articulation of the “New Jim Crow,” or the maintenance of America’s racial caste system through mass incarceration,2 or Barbara J. Field’s interrogation of the historical complexity that emerges from the ideological limitations of the race construct in analyzing American racism, our present day philosophical engagements with race propagate a conceptually simplistic view that sees race as a problem able to be solved through dialogue and inter-racial understanding. Ignoring the various social and legal manifestations of anti-Black racism that show the regression of race relations in America, rather than progress,3 this dogma calls for a peaceful coexistence between Blacks and whites in which the long denied humanity of Black people are recognized in exchange for Blacks interiorizing America’s liberal creed of (racial) equality, (Black) individuality, and (African-American) progress. Rather than reacting against the liberal conceptualization of American race relations as gradual and naturally progressing towards the resolution of anti-Black racism, the dominant mode of Black political thought seeks to revise Black thinkers doubtful of the possibility that racial equality is possible in American into optimists who saw equal rights under racial integrationism as inevitable. Recent political works in Black philosophy and race theory like Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Elizabeth Anderson’s The Imperative of Integration, and Eddie Glaude’s In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America follow this mode of uncritically privileging the idea that integration and racial coexistence are the only means of dealing with the racial inequalities that persist in the United States. By contrast, Peniel E. Joseph’s Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and The Black Power Movement: Rethinking Civil Rights—Black Power Era points out the ironic, but expected popularity of such scholarship, since these theorizations, and the ideological perspectives current scholars hold vary to great degree from the reflections on American racism presented in the majority of works Black thinkers have penned from the 19th century to present. Despite the prevalence of Black Power style Nationalism, and radical (systemic) critiques of white supremacy and anti-Black racism’s permanence in these works, today, “Black philosophers primarily rely on the promises of American liberalism and the hopes of democracy in the post-Civil rights era to fundamentally change the racial context of the United States and remedy individual attachments to 2 racial loyalties,”4 rather than seriously dealing with the seeming permanence of American racism and theorizing from this actuality. Over two decades ago, Derrick Bell introduced a seemingly radical thesis to a white academic community convinced that the Civil Rights Movement had effectively eliminated racism. According to Bell, 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 and move on to adopt policies based on what I call: “Racial Realism.” This mind-set or philosophy requires us to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status.5 Despite the seemingly nihilistic tone of Bell’s announcement, this idea—that racism is permanent—can be found in the most of the writings of the Black intellectuals (like T.Thomas Fortune and Henry McNeal Turner) and Black nationalists of the mid-1800’s (like Martin R. Delany and John E. Bruce), even W.E.B. DuBois rejects Brown as a signal of racial transformation in the 1950’s.
Historically, the admittance of racism’s permanence has been the hallmark of Black thought in America. Despite the attention that integrationist ideas have received in contemporary works of Black political thought,6 there has been a constant and more richly developed strand of Black thought that maintains the impossibility of persuading whites of Black people’s humanity and accepts the permanence of American anti-Black racism and white supremacy. Today, however, most thinkers dealing with the race question are motivated by the Pyrrhic successes of Brown versus the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Era,7 choosing to read into historic Black works contemporary ideas of integrationism and racial ethics, as if the insights of Black authors who wrote during slavery and Reconstruction illuminate current racial issues in America only insofar as they enrich the racial success stories of liberalism and the possibility of racial amelioration under American democracy. If Black political theory is to move beyond the current apologetic revisionism of historic Black thinkers—a revisionism set on depicting even the most adamant nationalists as closet integrationists—Black political theory must begin to exert new energies toward theorizing about the political and social inequality that Blacks currently endure, which means both creating a discussion in Black social political philosophy open to the possibility of permanent racial inequality in the United States, and engaging in a more diligent and earnest reading of Black resistance outside of the political aims of American liberalism and integration’s racial moralizations. It is my hope that the introduction of Derrick Bell’s work into the Black political arena hastens this detaching of decades old ideology of civil rights era integrationism.
This paper intends to convey four theoretical contributions to our current understandings of racism in the post-civil rights era. First, I want to question the mainstay tradition of Black social/political philosophy and race theory that continues to celebrate liberalism as a vehicle for racial progress. Following the work of Derrick Bell, I maintain that this is in a very real sense an unjustifiable romanticization of the Civil Rights Era, specifically the effect of Brown v. Board on American race relations. Second, I want to clarify Derrick’s position on liberalism and a means through which Black political theorists can distance themselves from this dogma of integrationism which I term “conceptual disengagement.” Third, I argue that this disengagement would allow Black scholars to better understand the relationship that W.E.B. DuBois points out to Black Americans in accepting minuscule political privileges when the consequence of such luxuries is the furthering of American imperialism and the capitalist exploitation of the darker races the world over.
Lastly, I am interested in presenting a contrasting political theory rooted in the disempowerment of white supremacist institutions and structures of American society. 3 Chastising the Idealism of Brown v. Board of Education: Bell’s Indebtedness to Robert L. Carter’s Pessimism of Brown. “In its first words, on the subject of citizenship, Congress in 1790 limited naturalization to ‘white persons.’