Derrick Bell and Andrew Breitbart: the Return of Identity Politics, and Blaming the Victim

Per Andrew Breitbart — who, and this is a rare sentiment for me, I think the world is probably better off without — Michelle Malkin and Sean Hannity attempt to push a Jeremiah Wright for 2012, in the form of the late law professor Derrick Bell. The allegedly incriminating footage shows then-law student Obama embracing (horror!) Derrick Bell, at a protest of HLS’ (allegedly discriminatory) hiring practices.

Bell’s sins, imputed to Obama, lie in his apparently “radical” approach to race theory. Thankfully, this should be a hard sell to Hannity’s audience. First, Bell’s “radicalism” descends from a sector of legal philosophy, critical race theory, that few lawyers or law students even understand. It’s hard for me to imagine Hannity’s audience becoming interested in and grappling with, the finer points of obscure legal theory except insofar as they assume that any product of the academy is evil (see, e.g., Santorum on college).

Second, “critical race theory” isn’t actually that scary. Its basic premise is grounded in the notion that legal formalism won’t always be adequate to the task of finding, and eliminating, the institutional biases and rules that often harm minorities. CRT, for example, takes a hard line against hate speech and “true threats,” like cross burning, and the latter position has since found a home in Supreme Court precedent. If Hannity wants a debate about race theory that goes beyond “professors are scary!” — a possibility that, admittedly, seems unlikely — it’s one we can probably win.

But the right’s new jihad on Bell should be worrying. It’s just the most recent in a series of offensives seeking to indict minorities for the tactics they tried, sometimes used and sometimes abandoned, in their quest to obtain some semblance of equality. Bell’s radicalism, if that’s what it is, can only be understood as the product of a world where “extreme” anti-racism was necessary to fight “extreme” racism. When men and women can be beaten, even killed, for sitting at a lunch counter, Bell’s claim that we actually need to change the world to end the oppressive effect of centuries of racism makes a bit of sense. Revolutions carried out to procure things we take for granted were often won by tactics that we today have the luxury to condemn as “excessive.” Unless you know it was said by Thomas Jefferson, and in response to a century of British oppression, the violent assertion that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” should sound crazy to modern ears. But that’s what revolutions require. To indict Bell over the rhetoric of racial change is to forget how far we’ve come since then, and give up on those tasks that still remain to be done.

More, it’s a strange world that calls a “radical” reformer “racist” for fighting against the oppression of black Americans, but politely airbrushes the records of the white politicians that made such “extremism” necessary. That the same people who shake their heads at Derrick Bell rush to defend the Confederate battle flag, name highways after an unapologetic segregationist like Lester Maddox, and lionize Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms alike, evinces a shocking hypocrisy, and a willingness to blame the victims of racism for their role in the fight, while holding harmless the very villains they fought against and ultimately deposed. We might as well build a monument to King George III, and posthumously convict of murder that anonymous minuteman who fired the “shot heard ’round the world.”

Black Americans and their white allies won great victories in the latter half of the twentieth century. Let’s not let racial recidivists like Hannity use those victories, in a shameless exploitation of white resentment, to take down a black president.


  1. Great post, thanks for it. RIP Derrick Bell. I think that you might like my blog, Rhymes and Reasons. It’s a series of interviews with hip-hop heads who discuss their lives in the context of a few songs that matter to them. The interviews discuss some serious issues like racism, sexism, white privilege, sexual violence, etc. Pretty powerful stuff. Check’em out here:

  2. […] be safely ignored). Call it a variant of one of the central theses of Critical Race Theory (yes, we’re back there) — narrative matters, but manipulated narrative matters […]

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