The controversy over the videotape of Harvard Law School student Barack Obama speaking in support of his professor Derrick Bell during Bell’s one-man 1990 uprising against the law school’s failure or refusal to hire a black woman as a professor has caused a predictable back-and-forth about what it might mean for Obama to have a favorable view of Bell. Michael Powell of the New York Times reflected conventional opinion in liberal media circles when he tweeted: “Derrick Bell, Radical? We’re to pretend our history cleansed? He fought 4 Civil Rights in Mississippi.”
It is incumbent on Powell and others, if they want to get in on the conversation about Bell, to explain what on earth is mainstream about comments he made in an eye-opening New York Observer interview published on October 10, 1994, that is not available online. Among other remarks, Bell denounced Henry Louis (Skip) Gates for writing a New York Times op-ed condemning black anti-Semitism:
I was furious. Even if everything he said was true, it was inexcusable not to mention what might have motivated blacks to feel this way, and to fail to talk about all the Jewish neoconservative racists who are undermining blacks in every way they can.
Bell went on to say, “Now, that wouldn’t excuse anti-Semitism, which is awful, but it would at least provide a context for this anger…”
It might seem nice of Bell to acknowledge the awfulness of anti-Semitism, but he didn’t mean it. The very same interview began as follows: “We should really appreciate the Louis Farrakhans and the Khalid Muhammads while we’ve got them.” Khalid Muhammad was Farrakhan’s right hand, who made a name for himself referring to Jews as, among many other things, “bloodsuckers” whose “father was the devil.” As for Farrakhan, if you need a refresher course in his vileness, look here.
Why exactly were we supposed to appreciate them? Quoth Bell: “While these guys talk a lot, they don’t do anything. The new crop of leaders are going to be a lot more dangerous and radical, and the next phase will probably be led by charismatic individuals, maybe teenagers, who urge that instead of killing each other, they should go out in gangs and kill a whole lot of white people.”
Note how he seemed to relish this prospect even as he tut-tutted it. Note also how almost unimaginably wrong he was. For no marauding gangs of black teenagers went around killing white people after he spoke; in fact, the ongoing crime drop that followed his words had its most remarkable impact in black communities, where the number of murders fell, by some counts, as much as 80 percent over the decade that followed.
And of course, 18 years after he spoke these words, a black man who gave him a nice hug back in 1990 was elected president of the United States.
Bell, in the same interview: “Blacks will simply never gain full equality in this country.”