Friday, November 18, 2016

Not His Supreme Court Justice

I am thinking about Derrick Bell, whom I had the privilege to know as the editor on his groundbreaking casebook, Race, Racism, and American Law.

I hasten to add, I was not the editor who signed the book, or the editor who developed the book, or the editor who copy-edited the book. I was the editor meant to persuade Bell to put more cases in the Fourth Edition of his book.

As the word implies, casebooks generally include some lightly edited cases.

A little background: Bell was the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School, a position that he left in protest of the school's failure to give tenure to black women (prior to Lani Guinier's appointment).  Bell was also a prominent civil rights activist, scholar, and author.

For the same reason that Trump is not my president, Bell maintained that the Supreme Court was a racist institution and therefore not a true court of justice.

Heavy on exposition and scholarship, Bell's book was a tour de force of legal analysis, period. So he didn't have to put cases in if he didn't want to.

But it was my job to persuade him, after several editions, to change his mind.

I was warned that Bell would probably not warm to the idea, and might even come across as testy.

In fact, rather than reacting defensively, he took quite a bit of time to patiently explain to me why he had left the cases out of the book in the first place.

A perusal of his 1000-page tome was enough to give me a healthy respect for the intellectual giant on the other end of my phone. I wasn't going to argue with him--nor did I disagree with anything he said.

I did point out, however, that I had spoken with a number of his esteemed colleagues--people who absolutely revered him--and they, as teachers, were hoping for some lightly edited cases--even though they well understood his objections.

I think it was my idea, (if I'm not taking too much credit; I might have trotted over to someone else's office with my problem and returned with the solution) to suggest that the lightly-edited cases could be tucked discretely away in the Appendix.

Bell was actually open to this idea. In the Appendix, the cases would not get in the way of his book. They would be off to the side, like end notes. So that's what we did.

When the new edition was published, he sent me a copy in which he inscribed a note to my mother (his idea) saying very flattering things about me. I dutifully gave that copy to my mother, until Bell passed away, when I stole it back from her because that's the kind of daughter I really am.

I continued to be Bell's editor for the next edition. We spoke occasionally over the phone, and he was always warm and personable. He talked to me about the state of society and its progress, or lack thereof.

My office was in Cambridge, so I went to see Bell give a lecture at Harvard Law School in 2002. It was the first time that he had returned to Harvard after leaving in protest and becoming a Visiting Professor at New York University School of Law.

Bell spoke at a large in a full auditorium. More than half of the audience (mostly law students, presumably) were people of color. They seemed jubilant.  They were aware of Bell's history with the school, and I think they were eager, as Harvard law students, to have their own school redeemed by Bell's tacit (or explicit) benediction.

Bell had just published a new book that year, called Ethical Ambition (Bloomsbury Copyright 2002).

Bell and I had never met face to face. I stood in line to ask him to sign my copy of his book. When I got to the front, I introduced myself.

He looked surprised, as though I was not at all what he expected.

"I took you to be in your fifties," he said.

No wonder he was so concerned about my mother--she would have been really old.

I was 37 at that time, and felt greatly complimented.

He inscribed the book, "...great editor and friend."

The last time we spoke on the phone would have been a year at most from that day at Harvard.

Harvard finally hired Lani Guinier.  Law school faculties and student bodies across the country were becoming significantly more integrated.  Yet Bell was feeling very discouraged about the state of our society and its institutions.

Incredibly, (now that I think about it) Derrick Bell himself explained to me the term "institutional racism."  He described how the criminal justice system, the education system, the political system, the housing system, the economic system, etc., etc., were structurally and systemically racist.

I knew he was sick. I knew his life was drawing to a close. (It was not a secret.)

I felt very sad that his life, which I and so many others viewed as brilliant and ennobling, should end in a kind of despair.

His unhappiness troubled me more than what he was actually telling me.  Because, on some level, I failed to grasp it until years later, when I read Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, which  documents the travesties of injustice for black men on death row in the South and for juveniles in prisons throughout the country. That was the book that made me understand how institutional racism works.

I read Stevenson's book, and I was reminded of my last conversation with Bell, and I wished that I hadn't been so ignorant of what he was talking about.

Bell gave me too much credit. I knew that he had justice on his side, but I did not always know what he was talking about. I was not always sure that he had a perfectly clear view of things.

I thought society was making progress.

I saw a black women getting tenure at Harvard.

I saw women and minorities become half of the faculty at most of law schools--whereas, when I started out in legal publishing in 1996, the law faculties were overwhelmingly white men.

It looked like progress to me.

I thought Bell was a little bit wrong.

He wasn't. It was my ignorance.

So now, of course, following this travesty of an election, I'm screaming my head off, raging all over the place, processing like a maniac. It's very undignified.

Radical feminist. Raging lunatic. Social menace. Late to the party.

Because it's happening to me now, in a roundabout way. Of course, it's happening to other people too, but now I get it. I get what institutional prejudice looks and feels like. I understand how profoundly discouraging it is...the more so because I thought we were making such progress.

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