All American Professor Derrick Bell: Maybe I just need to take my meds

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By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

Over at Joy-Ann Reid does a take on the Harvard video that may be of interest.  The attacks on Derrick Bell gnaw.  I am tired by the well oiled dissing machines instrumentalization of all things without a sense of propriety (“One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”). I never was taught by Derrick Bell (he was at Oregon at the time I was at HLS), but, like many, found his work thought-provoking  (“And We Are Not Saved” in particular) and cause for despair as one gazes into the abyss side of the black experience in America.

I recognize that under the veil of “vetting Obama” this new effort is about caricaturing/bogeymanifying Obama but the caricaturing/bogeymanifying of Bell makes me shake my head in the way old folks use to do it – guess I am getting in touch with my inner old black man – that at 56 this is part of my America.

The flippancy/ahistoricity of the Foxnews commentators’ (Hannity/Palin/O’Reilly/Sowell/ reporters/other reporters) approach to Bell and his work struck me (in a great irony) as reflecting the exact kind of smugness that reeks of a sense of entitlement that comes up every once in a while in daily life.

I know he would put it much better than me, but I imagine that Bell might have described this smugness in terms of white entitlement/privilege and fawning that is definitely a big part of the pedigree of this thing.

At the same time, for me, that smugness resonates in the “my version of Christianity is the only version” religiosity, in the non-objection of a rainbow coalition of leaders on the right and the left to surveillance othering of Muslims for fear of being seen as “soft on terrorism,” in the attacks on GLBT’s by those in many communities including some of the black religious leaders I see on television, and to our collective authoritarian streak that trains us to fawn for our President in the national security sphere, particularly since 9/11.

And, of course, that smugness resonates in the sense of entitlement in leaders created by our collective deafening silence on accountability for the high-level civilians for torture and for the War in Iraq that they perpetrated.

In this case the smugness plays out in a sense of entitlement to denigrate Bell.  Shaking my head at that, I go back to Absalom Jones and the 1808 conference we had at Toledo and am reminded again of what is no doubt unremarkable to most of you about the battles in each of these persons’ periods of life in their then current iteration of physical and/or psychic oppression as black folks in America.  Whatever the time, they were denigrated and then after their death hailed by the same coopting machine that instrumentalizes everything while denigrating the current crop of thinkers who challenge the structure of power even if it is an integrated structure of power.

The joy in the integration of that structure of power is coupled with the sadness at the timidity of the exercise of that power for things that one thinks count.  Why?  Because not enough people think these things count – getting back to Bell’s sense of interest convergence with that convergence not happening to a sufficient extent in sufficient arenas.

This issue of interest convergence was exactly what Bell wrote about (and even is shown on tape speaking about on these shows) in confronting a sense of white privilege.  But the irony in all this completely escapes the commentators who in smugly denigrating Bell are confirming his exact thoughts.

And, for good order’s sake, I add that I write this as a black, a jew, a hispanic, an irishman, a cherokee, and a chinese. All inside and all American. Maybe I just need to take my meds.  I hope my kids read this some day and it has meaning for them.