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Excerpted From: Derrick A. Bell, Who's Afraid of Critical Race Theory? , 1995 University of Illinois Law Review 893 (40 Footnotes) (Full Document)



As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it.

Radical assessment can encompass illustration, anecdote, allegory, and imagination, as well as analysis of applicable doctrine and authorities. At the outset, I want to utilize all of these techniques to comment on a contemporary phenomenon: The Bell Curve.

For the past three or four months, a great deal of attention and energy has been devoted to commending and condemning Mr. Charles Murray and the late Dr. Richard Herrnstein, authors of the best-selling book on racial intelligence, The Bell Curve. This book suggests great social policy significance in the fact that black people score, on average, fifteen points below whites on I.Q. tests.

This thesis has been criticized as the rehashing of views long-ago rejected by virtually all experts in the field. There is, critics maintain, no basis for a finding that intelligence is inherited and, indeed, no accepted definition of the vague term “intelligence.” There is, on the other hand, a depressingly strong and invariant correlation between resources and race in this country, and resources and success—including success in taking I.Q. tests. These are settled facts.

Even so, the book has enjoyed an enormous success that its critics find difficult to explain. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, writes:

The Bell Curve, with its claims and supposed documentation that race and class differences are largely caused by genetic factors and are therefore essentially immutable, contains no new arguments and presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism, so I can only conclude its success in winning attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time—a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low I.Q. scores.

Criticism of The Bell Curve has been so universal among biologists that one must wonder: Why did these two well-known men produce a book filled with rejected theories? Surely they must have known that the book would provide pseudoscientific support for racial hostilities that always worsen during times of economic stress and anxiety.

The all too easy answer is that The Bell Curve's authors saw a market opportunity and they took it. The book has sold over 300,000 copies and has become a major source of discussion in the media. But utilizing the conceptual and experiential tools of critical race theory, I want to suggest another possibility.

It is not difficult to imagine that the authors were aware of the generally accepted findings regarding the lack of any connection between race and intelligence. Suppose, as well, that recognizing the debilitating effects of discrimination and exclusion on African Americans, they devised an “oppression factor” and, adding it to existing data, discovered that there was indeed a discernible racial difference in intelligence measured by I.Q. tests. However, when the I.Q. data playing field was leveled via the “oppression factors,” contrary to their own expectations, they discovered that blacks performed fifteen points higher than whites. Quite likely, they disbelieved and thus reviewed painstakingly their data several times. Each time they did so, the conclusion that they (perhaps) did not want became ever more certain. It was beyond denial. There was an answer beyond simple faith that explained why blacks survived two centuries of the world's most destructive slavery and a century of utter subordination under segregation: Black people are simply smarter than whites.

What would they do with this information? Its release would almost certainly throw the country into turmoil. Let me explain. As history indicates all too well, blacks have suffered greatly as a result of discrimination undergirded and often justified by the general belief in black inferiority. But history shows with equal clarity, though it is less frequently acknowledged, that indications of black success and thus possible black superiority result in racist outrage. Most of the many race riots in this nation's history were sparked by white outrage over black success.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blacks who were successful at business or farming were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups for death and destruction. While protection of white womanhood is deemed the major motivation for the thousands of blacks lynched during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, in fact, retaliation against blacks who dared compete successfully with white men was the real source of many, and perhaps most, of these atrocities.

A debate raged in Florida over a bill intended to compensate black victims for losses suffered more than seventy years ago, when the Klan absolutely destroyed a thriving black town called Rosewood—murdering, raping, pillaging, and finally burning all the property in sight. Denial is the usual response to even such well-documented racist rampages. State officials who opposed the measure noted that the statute of limitations had expired, and that “compensation would be 'bad for the county and bad for our state’ because it would encourage similar claims.”

In more recent times, discrimination aimed at skilled or talented blacks is a well-understood fact of life in the black community. Dozens of able and ambitious blacks were interviewed by journalist Ellis Cose in his book, The Rage of a Privileged Class. They complained bitterly:

I have done everything I was supposed to do. I have stayed out of trouble with the law, gone to the right schools, and worked myself nearly to death. What more do they want? Why in God's name won't they accept me as a full human being? Why am I pigeonholed in a 'Black job’? Why am I constantly treated as if I were a drug addict, a thief, or a thug? Why am I still not allowed to aspire to the same things every white person in America takes as a birthright? Why, when I most want to be seen, am I suddenly rendered invisible?

In the context of law school faculties, my character Geneva Crenshaw describes an experience with which many professors of color can relate:

When I arrived, [the first Black hired], the white faculty members were friendly and supportive. They smiled at me a lot and offered help and advice. When they saw how much time I spent helping minority students and how I struggled with my first writing, they seemed pleased. It was patronizing, but the general opinion seemed to be that they had done well to hire me. They felt good about having lifted up one of the downtrodden. And they congratulated themselves for their affirmative-action policies.

Then after I became acclimated to academic life, I began receiving invitations to publish in the top law reviews, to serve on important commissions, and to lecture at other schools. At this point, I noticed that some of my once-smiling colleagues now greeted me with frowns. For them, nothing I did was right: my articles were flashy but not deep, rhetorical rather than scholarly. Even when I published an article in a major review, my colleagues gave me little credit; after all, students had selected the piece, and what did they know anyway? My popularity with students was attributed to the likelihood that I was an easy grader. The more successful I appeared, the harsher became the collective judgement of my former friends.

Professor Richard Delgado, a well-known critical race theorist, believes the shift may be caused by “cognitive dissonance”:

At first, the white professor feels good about hiring the minority. It shows how liberal the white is, and the minority is assumed to want nothing more than to scrape by in the rarefied world they both inhabit. But the minority does not just scrape by, is not eternally grateful, and indeed starts to surpass the white professor. This is disturbing; things weren't meant to go that way. The strain between former belief and current reality is reduced by reinterpreting the current reality. The minority has a fatal flaw. Pass it on.

Recognizing this strong, though often unconscious, white preference for black mediocrity in even the most elite professional schools, The Bell Curve's authors faced a dilemma that they chose to resolve by intentionally falsifying their data, to spare blacks the reprisals and even bloody retaliation they would have suffered had the real truth regarding superior test performance by blacks come out. Dr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray may well have foreseen the serious criticism of their work, if published without their new findings, criticism that, in fact, has been heaped on them by social scientists and experts in biology. They may have feared, though, that if they published the new data revealing the superiority of black intelligence, black people would be deemed a threat to many whites and thus placed in far greater danger than if the book served simply as a comfort to whites by repeating the oft-told tale of black inferiority.

The Bell Curve's authors must have known what every professional and skilled black has learned the hard way: that policies of affirmative action are endangered far more by the presence of blacks who are clearly competent than they are by those blacks who are only marginally so. Because it has been difficult for many whites to acknowledge that black people are competent—even superior—at some sports, it would be impossible to gain the same acknowledgement for blacks across the board, particularly if the reluctant recognition required the admission that inferior status is the result of discrimination rather than the old racial rationales of inferior skills, lack of drive, or the unwillingness to compete. The Dodger's official, Al Camparis, lost his job for saying so, but he was far from the only white person who believed that blacks lack “some of the necessities” to become managers in baseball.

Finally, Dr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray may have feared that, even if they were to convince a reluctant America of blacks' superior intelligence and ability—much of which has been smothered by racial discrimination—that reality may have opened the question for many whites as to whether they had not been similarly disadvantaged on the basis of class. Such a long-overdue revelation could well spark serious political unrest and perhaps a rebellion.

Given the potential for societal mischief at this level, the authors would almost certainly opt for conclusions that conform closely with what most people already believe. Better one more libel of blacks as an inferior people than a truth posing a greater threat that could lead to racial atrocities and class warfare. Thus, while The Bell Curve, as published, is condemned as a perversion of truth and a provocation for racial stereotyping, we should view it less harshly for what it is, and more sympathetically for what it might have been.

The moral: To understand the motivation for and the likely intent of racial policies in America, one need only be willing to reverse the racial composition of the major components of those policies. To see things as they really are, you must imagine them for what they might be. In this instance, the effort is intended to delegitimize the illegitimate. The Bell Curve captured the nation's fascination precisely because it laid out in scientific jargon what many whites believe, need desperately to believe, but dare not reveal in public or even to their private selves. The critical race theory perspective offers blacks and their white allies insight, spiked with humor, as a balm for this latest insult, and enables them to gird themselves for those certain to follow.

[. . .]

Comparing critical race theory writing with the Spirituals is an unjustified conceit, but the essence of both is quite similar: to communicate understanding and reassurance to needy souls trapped in a hostile world. Moreover, the use of unorthodox structure, language, and form to make sense of the senseless is another similarity. Quite predictably, critics wedded to the existing legal canons will critique critical race theory, and the comparable work by feminists, with their standards of excellence and find this new work seriously inadequate. Many of these critics are steeped in theory and deathly afraid of experience. They seek meaning by dissecting portions of this writing—the autobiographical quality of some work, and the allegorical, story-telling characteristic in others. But all such criticisms miss the point. Critical race theory cannot be understood by claiming that it is intended to make critical race studies writing more accessible and more effective in conveying arguments of discrimination and disadvantage to the majority. Moreover, it is presumptuous to suggest, as a few critics do, that by their attention, even negative attention, they provide this work with legitimacy so that the world will take it seriously. Even if correct, this view is both paternalistic and a pathetically poor effort to regain a position of dominance.

I hope that those doing critical race theory, when reviewing these critiques, will consider the source. As to a response, a sad smile of sympathy may suffice. For those who press harder for explanations, both Beethoven and Louie Armstrong are available for quotation. When questioned about the meaning of his late quartets, Beethoven dismissed the critics with a prediction: “it was not written for you, but for a later age.” And when asked for the meaning of jazz, Armstrong warned, “Man, if you don't know, don't mess with it.”

These are wonderful retorts precisely because they do not seek to justify. The work, they say, speaks for itself and is its own legitimation. It was written to record experience and insight that are often unique and prior to this new work, too little heard. There is sufficient satisfaction for those who write in the myriad methods of critical race theory that comes from the work itself.

Visiting Professor of Law, New York University. A.B. 1952, Duquesne; L.L.B. 1957, University of Pittsburgh.


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