Derrick Bell's legacy and the sordid effort by the right to sully it

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/5/2012, 4:37 p.m.
Derrick Bell was a gentle-spoken legal scholar who was dedicated to the difficult task of...
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Derrick Bell was a gentle-spoken legal scholar who was dedicated to the difficult task of exposing racism with methods that were truly reflective of his personality and life's journey. He was the first African-American tenured professor at Harvard Law School and held the distinction of being one of the first Black deans of a non-historically Black law school.

More than anything, Bell was a pioneer, providing new prisms through which people might explore the topic of race in America. He looked deeply into an area known as critical race theory, a collection of legal scholarship that examines how racism may be entrenched into the nation's laws.

After a full and provocative career, Bell died last October. His death was followed by a flurry of tributes to a man who marched to his own distinctive beat.

But for the conservative hard right--specifically, the folks at Fox News--his death was not the point at which to let Bell rest in peace. Instead, the right-wing media have given the late professor--and his onetime student, Barack Obama--quite a beating. Led by a raving Sarah Palin, they have portrayed Bell as some sort of loopy radical, calling him an outright racist.

Furthermore, they have produced a 21-year-old video of then-student Obama introducing and hugging Bell at a rally calling for more Black faculty at Harvard. That hug, the Fox folks and their allies insisted, provided evidence of the radical, racist leanings of the nation's first African-American president.

It is reprehensible that an encounter between a student and professor in 1991 would be used as evidence of some sort of far-left leanings from a decidedly centrist president. It's even more disgusting when one considers that Palin, Fox commentator Sean Hannity and the right wing waited until Bell was dead before attempting to sully his reputation.

One of the ironies of this sad incident is that the attempt to build media hype for this old clip comes from the influence of the late Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media personality who was a thorn in the side of progressives and liberals. For some time, Breitbart's so-called hot scoop on Bell and Obama had been widely anticipated. Though Breitbart died before the attack on Bell went public, his company carried on his work. Alas, the Bell video was merely a part of Breitbart's track record for hyping non-stories and, in the process, doing real harm to people.

Take the case of Shirley Sherrod, the Black United States Agriculture Department official who was forced out of her job after Breitbart released an edited version of video of remarks she made to the NAACP that--at first--portrayed her as racist. When the full video was played, however, it became clear that Breitbart had taken her words out of context. Sherrod was vindicated and she received an apology from the Obama administration--but never from Breitbart.

It is yet another sign of the distressing lengths to which the far right will go in their overarching mission to discredit this particular president of the United States. In the case of Bell, they are dragging through the mud the reputation of an African-American legal giant who cannot defend himself.

And so, sadly, it was left to Bell's widow, Janet Dewart Bell, to respond on behalf of her deceased husband. Speaking on MSNBC's "The Ed Show," she said she was "angry and sad" that the far right and Fox commentators had been dishonest about her husband's legacy. Calling the charges from Palin and the right-wing zealots at Fox an "outrage," Bell's widow asked, pointedly, "Where are the good people who are going to speak up on the right side?"

Good question. One would have hoped that Hannity and the far right would have at least demonstrated a little of the grace and decency that Sherrod and others on the left demonstrated after Breitbart's death just a few weeks ago.

"The news of Mr. Breitbart's death came as a surprise to me when I was informed of it this morning," Sherrod said in a statement. "My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart's family as they cope during this very difficult time. I do not intend to make any further comments."