Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Man Who Changed Middle-Class Feminism, or Derrick Bell and Critical Race Theory, Where Racism and Anti-Racism Intersect

“This is the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention. WisCon encourages discussion and debate of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class.” —from WisCon’s web site

When Emma and I went to WisCon in the 1980s, the convention used a simple definition of feminism like my favorite, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” It recognizes that people of any political stripe may be feminists—only a fool would argue that conservatives like Maggie Thatcher and Condi Rice are not the equal of any man.

But feminism changed, thanks to Derrick Bell, the man called the Father of Critical Race Theory.

According to the UCLA School of Public Affairs’ “What is Critical Race Theory?”:
CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.
One of Bell’s harshest critics, black conservative lawyer Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr., acknowledges that Bell’s early work was impressive:
Bell had come out of the litigation struggle during the 1960s. Rightly concerned with the “snail pace” of racial progress, he began writing arguments critical of traditional civil rights law. He continued his provocative work after his appointment to the Harvard Law School faculty in 1969 and tenure in 1971. ... Because he taught at the premier law school in the country, Bell’s thoughts had a disproportionate impact on the best and the brightest black law students. Bell became more of a fiction writer than a scholar of constitutional doctrine. He devised more and more imaginary narratives that infused the law with the experience of racism. He wrote about space ships that came to take blacks away. He wrote about imaginary civil rights lawyers, to keep it real. And the bright ones took their lead from Bell’s troubled sojourn into irrelevance. Kimberle Crenshaw graduated from Harvard Law in 1984 and began to expand upon the mysticism that became loosely coined ‘Critical Race Theory’.
Crenshaw gets the credit for CRT’s name; Bell originally called his theory “Racial Realism”, the same name former Klan leader David Duke uses for his beliefs. In both cases, “racial realism” means “I divide people by race because I’m a realist, so don’t call me a racist.”

Bell believed:
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 ... white self-interest will prevail over black rights.
Critical Race Theorists say their realism about race explains why the wealth gap between whites and blacks changed very little after the civil rights movement, a question that matters to anyone who cares about justice.

In 1967, Martin Luther King wrote, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” Believing the problem of poverty for all race lay in unregulated capitalism, King said, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

Malcolm X targeted the problem bluntly: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

But Bell was no follower of King or Malcolm X. He said, “I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since.” Since Bell’s heroes included black socialists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, his lack of interest in socialism is surprising until you remember that many middle and upper class black folks celebrate King’s and Malcolm X’s opposition to racial privilege and ignore their opposition to economic privilege.

The most criticized aspect of Critical Race Theory may be its embrace of subjectivity. Because there’s no data to support it, its believers rely on stories, both memoirs and fiction. Bell’s “The Space Traders” is a CRT sacred text about an alien race that offers wealth to humanity in exchange for carrying off the Earth’s black folks. Whites—and, I assume, Asians—make the deal. It’s a parable that only works if you already accept its premise. (Full disclosure: I tried to read it, but Bell’s storytelling didn’t impress me. My summary is based on what I’ve read about it.)

Bell’s capitalism-friendly model of power may have been essential to his success in academia. Instead of teaching upper class students to share the wealth, he taught privileged whites to apologize for their white privilege and privileged blacks— Well, Adolph Reed Jr.’s comment about Barack Obama and his black supporters applies to all Critical Race Theorists of color:
...the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement...
Because CRTheorists think dark-skinned folks are best qualified to discuss race, here are critics of color from the left and right rejecting the approach to racism that comes from Bell:

 Adolph Reed Jr. wrote in “The limits of anti-racism”:
The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality—whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism”— over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them. And, no, neither “overcoming racism” nor “rejecting whiteness” qualifies as such a step any more than does waiting for the “revolution” or urging God’s heavenly intervention.
Rev. Thandeka said in “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail” that anti-racists “make an erroneous assumption about the nature and structure of power in America…The privilege that, according to the anti-racists, comes with membership in white America, actually belongs to a tiny elite.”

Priyamvada Gopal wrote in “Anti-racism has to go beyond a facile representation game”:
Anti-racist politics has become a facile “representation” game that involves appeasing the fragile sensitivities of a vocal few claiming to represent the whole community. It is about harassing artists and writers, demanding that they conform to “right” ways of representing the community.
Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr. wrote in “The Lightness of Critical Race Theory”:
Our best and brightest … should not be spending their energies planning the next hot Critical Race Theory workshop where the irrelevant write for one another. ... For all intents and purposes, Critical Race Theory is a non-issue in the real world.
Bell’s effect on feminism came through his protégé, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. Late in the 1980s, she fused middle-class feminism and Critical Race Theory with a concept that’s loved by identitarians, “intersectionality.”

Crenshaw wrote:
Among the most troubling political consequences of the failure of anti-racist and feminist discourses to address the intersections of race and gender is the fact that, to the extent they can forward the interests of “people of color” and “women,” respectively, one analysis often implicitly denies the validity of the other. The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.
In Crenshaw’s model, different forms of oppression are unrelated and only sometimes intersect. Identitarians now include class in that model, but social justice warriors are not interested in ending the class system. Like 19th century promoters of noblesse oblige, they’re only concerned with ending “classism”, the prejudice against people lower on the class ladder.

Which is why WisCon’s FAQ now says
We define “feminist” broadly to include race and class issues, gay/bisexual/lesbian/transgender issues, and anything else that touches on strong women (authors, artists, readers, characters) in science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
The most interesting claim in that statement is that their definition is broad. Withdrawing their Guest of Honor offer from Elizabeth Moon suggests their definition of feminism is so narrow that only believers in Critical Race Theory need apply.

Derrick Bell would be very proud of what WisCon and third-wave feminism have become.

ETA: On black racism, and Adolph Reed Jr.'s comment about Derrick Bell, father of Critical Race Theory