Professor Derrick Bell: Scholar credited with founding critical racetheory

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The Independent Online

Derrick Bell, a civil rights lawyer and writer who has died of cancer, was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School. With his provocative views about race, he often found himselfin conflict with the establishment. Never one to shy away from his principles and with an unwavering passion for civil rights, Bell backed his words with actions – which saw himresigning, losing top jobs and landing in jail. "I cannot continue to urgestudents to take risks for what they believe if I do not practice my own precepts," he argued.

Despite his success, Bell was dissatisfied with the progress of race relations in the US and was later credited with developing "critical race theory", which suggested that the US legal system was intrinsically biased against African-Americans and other minorities. He was not only angered by what he viewed as the sluggish progress of racial reform, but also believed that the gains brought about by the 1960s civil rights laws were being eroded in the 1970s.

In 1969, Bell was appointed a lecturer at Harvard Law School and two years later became their first tenured African-American professor. His casebook Race, Racism and American Law (1973), became a seminal work and standard text, still used today.

Derrick Albert Bell, Jr, was born in Pittsburgh in 1930. His parents had moved north from Alabama and his father ran a refuse collection business. In 1952, Bell received a BA from his home-town university, Duquesne, before serving in the Air Force during the Korean War. In 1957, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where he was the only black member of his class.

His first job was in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, though he resigned in 1959 when the department asked him to withdraw his membership of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) due to a conflict of interest. He joined the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, and from 1960-66 administered over 300 desegregation cases concerning schools and restaurant chains in Mississippi. During this period he spent a night in jail when he refused to leave a railway waiting room reserved for whites.

Bell served as deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights in the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and as executive director of the Western Centre on Law and Poverty at the University of Southern California Law School. He left Harvard in 1980 to become Dean at the University of Oregon Law School, but resigned five years later in protest against the school's decision not to employ an Asian-American woman. Some viewed this as a face-saving pretext for leaving a position from which he was about to be fired. He returned to Harvard and led a five-day sit-in in his office protesting against the school's failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved critical race theory.

In 1990, Bell took a leave of absence to protest against the absence of black women on the law school faculty but after two years and several warnings Harvard interpreted his absence as a formal resignation and stripped him of his tenure. His protest garnered national coverage and stirred the passions of many students.

Bell argued that the criteria for promotion and tenure at law schools, in particular Harvard, were inherently discriminatory and excluded a broad group of minorities. By recruiting only graduates from top-tier law schools who had clerked at the Supreme Court, Bell claimed, "academia is populated by a uniform group of standard-issue professors, most of them white men."

In 1990 Bell was appointed visiting Professor of Law at New York University, continuing until his retirement. He wrote two autobiographies and a series of allegorical stories about race. One, The Space Traders, was filmed.

Martin Childs

Derrick Albert Bell, academic and civil rights activist; born Pittsburgh 6 November 1930; married firstly Jewel Hairston (died 1990; three sons), 1992 Janet Dewart; died New York 5 October 2011.