Surpassing the Impasse of Racism in Derrick Bell’s And We Are Not Saved

Derrick Bell argues in And We Are Not Saved that racism courses thickly through America’s blood. Majoritarian at its core, the country’s democratic capitalist society precludes equality in any true sense of the word. Indeed, Bell guides his readers through a bleak, sobering tour of the undergirding subjugation of black Americans—the dominant system’s very sustenance. Unraveling these depressing details throughout the book’s Chronicles, Bell concludes with a chapter titled, “Salvation for All: The Ultimate Civil Rights Strategy.” Here, Bell capitalizes on his literary methodology, guiding his readers to an aporetic state in order to point towards a potential light at the end of the tunnel: unification within the black community and across racial boundaries. His solution amounts to a pragmatic inversion of the interest convergence phenomenon, laying bare the shared interest between poor whites and suppressed minority groups. In his final chapter, Bell makes two arguments in constructing his strategy: firstly, through The Chronicle of the Black Crime Cure, he reiterates the permanence of racism and the need for a different approach; secondly, he breaks through the latter impasse with constructive dialogue, laying the grounds for an eclectic coalition.

Chapter ten administers a final blow to the conceit that racism is contingent upon some changeable quality in “blackness” as perceived by the dominant class. Hyperbolized through myth, the truth of racism’s permanence gains excruciating weight as, once again, nothing changes for black Americans. Bell’s protagonist, Geneva Crenshaw, presents her final vision in which a cure for “black crime” rids the community of its “criminal tendencies.” Shying away from an idealistic happy ending, Geneva describes a realism that threads throughout the Chronicle: racism is an indestructible, intrinsic barrier embedded in every rung of America’s socioeconomic ladder. She recounts, “now that blacks had forsaken crime and begun fighting it, the doors of opportunity … were not opened more than a crack.”[1] Educators, employers, and de facto all-white neighborhoods clench tightly to their racist impulses, couched in the rhetoric of “violent blacks.” This perceived “common danger” provides the pretense on which dominant whites justify discriminating against blacks and dupe poor whites into sharing their fear and hatred—a practice with its roots in pre-Civil War America.[2] The latter historical context remains one of Bell’s key tools in exposing America’s racist roots.

Bell contextualizes racial permanence and conflicting social and economic interests between rich and poor whites from the book’s outset. In the Chronicle of the Constitutional Contradiction, he has a southern delegate to the Congressional Convention recount a common argument: that it is no coincidence a unified America arose in tandem with slavery.[3] As indentured servants gained the status of yeomen, they posed a threat to the rich property owners. Reacting against imminent peril, property owners reduced the importation of servants and increased that of slaves. The Colonel explains, “The fear of slave revolts increased as reliance on slavery grew and racial antipathy became more apparent. But this danger, while real, was less than that from restive and armed freedmen.”[4] Geneva responds, quoting historian Edmund Morgan as claiming that only in Virginia did a belief in republican equality rely so heavily on slavery.[5] In fact, the surge in slave importation, accompanied by an abatement of servants, rendered poor whites too few in number to pose a real threat to rich whites. Regardless, Bell shows in this Chronicle what he briefly mentions in the tenth tale, as he writes, “By causing whites with otherwise conflicting economic and political interests to suspect all blacks as potential attackers, the threat persuades many whites that they must unite against their common danger.”[6] In other words, the real myth is that violent blacks comprise the “common danger” in relation to a coalition of whites. In actuality, whites maintain a system that feeds on the subjugation of the poor and powerless.

Geneva finishes her Chronicle to the silence of her fellow civil rights delegates. Though “None of her stories had been models of optimism,” the narrator reports, “the Chronicle of the Black Crime Cure touched the very nadir of our despair.”[7] Geneva’s “ultimate depiction of futility and defeat” serves an aporetic purpose in this chapter. Committing a kind of violence on superficial optimism regarding racism’s demise, it leaves the conference attendees and the readers without their fickle resources they once applied to racism’s permanency. Bell writes, “Although the crime excuse was gone, the barriers to racial equality… that had from time to time given way to black pressure, were in the end unable to prevail against the apparently implacable determination of whites to dominate blacks by one means or another.”[8] Geneva’s Chronicle shows that those in power, as an effective reaction to their perceived danger, choose to do nothing. That is, by default, the inherently racist system perpetuates black exclusion; blacks resort to criminality once again; and the cogs in society’s wheel creep back into motion. No doubt, such a message is disheartening, but not without its utility. Bell uses the opportunity to strip away any remaining dependence on traditional black rights advocacy, like that pursued by litigants of the Brown v. Board of Education case and its stagnant rhetoric in desegregating schools “with all deliberate speed.”[9] Likewise, in the previous Chronicle of the Slave Scrolls, education connects blacks to their past, effectively lifting the heavy burden of slavery within their psyches.[10] Like clockwork, America’s public and private institutions enact policies that stymie, or reverse their advancements. One ought to be wary of temporary, narrow solutions to the multifarious dimensions that constitute racism in America. Treating black crime as a potential cure to the historical fact and condition of racism, Bell argues, is an equally fruitless endeavor and doomed to fail. Bringing his readers to a deadlock, Bell shows the necessity of a new, creative approach to defeating racial discrimination.

The prologue preceding the final chapter depicts the fractured climate within the civil rights conference. Delegates mull over Geneva’s previous Chronicles, devising individual plans of attack. The narrator describes, “As the presentations began, the spirit of fellowship and unity so intense at the beginning of the session started to wane. One impassioned speaker followed another, each advocating the common goal of an effective strategy against racism.”[11] A back-to-Africa strategy, the narrator explains, “received a positive response” from the delegates. The amount of ink Bell spills over this strategy throughout the book betrays his own conflicting, if positive views of the plan. One of the two Curia Sisters, as well as Delia Jones, advocates for this extreme response to racism.[12] However, even black exodus cannot escape racism’s prohibitive grip. The narrator explains to Delia that white southerners used coercive means to prevent blacks from migrating north during the First World War.[13] Less overt, but equally discriminatory, was the government’s response to Paul Robeson’s criticism of the black condition in the United States in the 1950s. The government withheld a passport from the musician, barring him from leaving the country. In both situations and eras, whites labeled blacks a liability to the country and determined to secure the status quo at the cost of blacks’ freedom. The country’s response to exodus is to effectively hold black people as prisoners in their own “home.” Exposing historical precedents that threaten the exodus approach, Bell reveals the potential, perhaps inevitable pitfalls that await those who seek to escape.

The narrator discusses subsequent plans the delegates raise for consideration. Each plan resembles the circumstances in one Chronicle or other. That is, each plan was previously developed in a thought experiment and picked apart by the narrator and Geneva through rigorous discourse. Bell explains this process in his introduction, likening it to myth and dialogue employed in Plato’s works as a means to truth.[14] Differences in character between Geneva and the narrator enable Bell to tease out differences within his own civil rights campaign through their dialogue. For instance, the narrator inclines toward the potential liberating qualities of the law, while Geneva expresses its futility. After discussing the inherent racism often involved in strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, the narrator offers a plan, “perhaps we could convince the Court to undertake a full-scale review of equal protection jurisprudence and its usefulness in contemporary racial cases,” to which Geneva responds, “I fear that your efforts to effect change through unthinking trust in the law and the courts place you not on the side of black people, but rather in their way.”[15] This disagreement enables Bell to work through his own biases and ideas. Constructive to a point, the perpetual debate, carried out in the book’s civil rights conference, hinders necessary action. By exposing his readers to the previous dialogues in which surfaced no clear plan of attack, Bell communicates the impasse that plagues the current civil rights debate.

Dialogue between the narrator and Geneva is absent, however, from the final chapter. Instead, Geneva resorts to conjuring the celestial Curia Sisters—mystical beings responsible for her visions—in order to grapple with the stalemate. As mentioned above, one sister represents the black exodus movement, and the other maintains a violent uprising as the only sufficient means for battling racism. These two extremes find more moderate, yet practical common ground in Geneva. The latter’s project throughout the book is to discover a “Third Way.” Indeed, she assumes a kind of Christ-like mediator between the gods of black experience and the humanist needs of her community. She voices her frustration in this position as she asks, “Why have you required me both to experience and to recount your Chronicles if their only message is that our civil rights programs are worthless opiates?” to which the Curia respond, “There are no new truths. There are only new perspectives for seeing what you already know.”[16] Bell employs Geneva’s experiencing the Chronicles to emphasize the power of storytelling and the perspective of unique voice. His tactic here is to communicate truths about racism that mere legal discussion fails to capture. Capitalizing on storytelling as a powerful means of communication and empathy, Bell successfully gets his point across to the white readers who lack the oppressive experience shared by his black audience. Storytelling invests Bell’s readers in discovering the “Third Way” with his characters. He carves out the contours of this plan in the dialogue between the Curia and Geneva.

Geneva and the Curia Sisters proceed to discuss the potential for a Third Way, not yet seeing eye-to-eye. The Curia explain the function of the Chronicles as “intend[ing] to serve as dramatic diagrams pointing away from your earthbound yearning for equal opportunity and acceptance.”[17] Ending the system of oppression, Bell argues through his Curia, demands something beyond black ascendency. Geneva speaks for the “earthly” delegates as she says, “We deserve, we want, and we are determined to have a share of America’s dividends.”[18] Justifiably, Geneva expresses the want to appropriate the benefits that accompany a position of dominance. But simply swapping one oppressive group for another perpetuates society’s dependence on slavery’s evils. Here, Bell’s argument maintains an idealistic vision for black liberation—one that transcends capitalist society through a Marxist model. At this point, Bell’s argument belies his anti-determinist view of capitalist society. Whether or not defeating the system itself is practical remains an open question. For now, however, Bell lays out his plan for a coalition that exploits the interest convergence phenomenon and calls for faith in the tireless work of civil rights advocates.

Interest convergence helps to account for the various perceived advancements in civil rights litigation throughout the movement’s history. Bell points to W. E. B. DuBois’ remarks regarding the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which he stated, “no such decision would have been possible without the world pressure of communism.”[19] In other words, the country merely sought to save face in the eyes of the world, erecting a faux façade of equality to further its own interests. This phenomenon raises the question: Is it possible to achieve civil rights advancements that withhold, even destroy benefits to dominant whites? The Chronicles display the impossibility of black and white coexistence within the status quo; the need to change tactics requires a new perspective on the coalition of interests. Bell elaborates his plan to unite poor and oppressed Americans around the “common danger” of the dominant white class. His Curia Sisters explain, “Just as many blacks are losing their jobs to automation, factory closings, and farm bankruptcies, so are white families suffering similar affliction. The stark truth is that whites as well as blacks are being exploited, deceived, and betrayed by those in power.”[20] Convincing poor whites to give up the fables of fear and hatred, spoon-fed to them by the dominant class, remains a daunting task for which Bell provides no practical direction. Perhaps piecing out these details remain a task outside of this book’s program. Regardless, Bell’s argument here falls short of a comprehensive means to forming a powerful coalition of the poor and oppressed.

More convincing is his treatment of litigation as a pedagogical tool. The Curia maintain that, despite failed legal attempts to secure basic rights, civil rights attorneys ought to aim for making the power relations clearer. They state, “Lawyers have placed too much weight on whether they win a case, and too little on the impact of the litigation.”[21] This tactic neatly ties together the notion of liberation through law with the justified jadedness of those experienced in the law’s shortcomings. Bell calls on civil rights lawyers and activists to capitalize on legal indeterminacy, writing, “A fact in your favor…is that the structure of your country’s government, as well as the interpretation of the basic law of the Constitution and its few dozen amendments, are in constant flux—a fluidity you must take advantage of to make the laws reflect the needs of both blacks and whites.”[22] In other words, the same flexible system that turned “all deliberate speed,” “desegregation,” and “equal protection,” into mechanisms of oppression can be exploited to the advantage of those people the laws and policies purport to protect. Bell’s argument here is one steeped in faith—that is, a faith in a kind of Sisyphean struggle through perpetual legal failure. Faith, in spite of that failure, will lead the black community into a new light. Indeed, Bell makes explicit this faith in a unified cause, ending his book with the imagery of harmony in a celestial choir.

And We Are Not Saved provides Derrick Bell with a genre capable of capturing his program. As myth, or fairytale, it enables him to explore the various ways in which racism is ingrained in society. The Chronicle of the Black Crime Cure depicts extreme conditions that unveil important nuggets of truth upon close examination. Likewise, these stories help Bell to emphasize the truth in experience and its powerful expression in narrative. Geneva, having taken on the burden of the celestial Curia Sisters’ experiences, functions as the personification of the unique voice. Throughout the course of ten Chronicles, Bell explodes the notion that any single method might cure America’s racism—a fact not easily swallowed in Brown v. Board of Education’s painful message—thereby reaching a state of aporia. It is here, without pretenses to knowledge of any one proper method, Bell lays the grounds for his eclectic tactics. Geneva and the Curia Sisters achieve this through dialogue, exchanging ideas and facts that build firmer knowledge for devising a successful plan. Forming a coalition with poor whites, blacks and other minority groups may finally undermine their common enemy: oppressive capitalist society. Despite the attractiveness of Bell’s argument here, the book lacks a necessary further elaboration on pointed details concerning the poor whites’ awakening. Next, Bell synthesizes his narrator’s marriage to the law with Geneva’s legal skepticism, arguing that litigation—both failed and won attempts—serve a pedagogical function in the quest for racial justice. Implicit here is a call for civil rights activists to keep the faith. A steady, multifaceted course forward and a coalition of interests ought to hand a heavy blow to a system bent on subjugation.

[1] Bell, Derrick, And We Are Not Saved, 246.
[2] Ibid., 247.
[3] Ibid., 38-40.
[4] Ibid., 39.
[5] Ibid., 41.
[6] Ibid., 247.
[7] Ibid., 248.
[8] Ibid., 246.
[9] Ibid., 107-122.
[10] Ibid., 215-221.
[11] Ibid., 241.
[12] Ibid., 54, 188.
[13] Ibid., 189.
[14] Ibid., 6.
[15] Ibid., 175-176.
[16] Ibid., 249-250.
[17] Ibid., 250
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 62.
[20] Ibid., 254.
[21] Ibid., 255.
[22] Ibid.

Bell, Derrick. And We Are Not Saved. San Francisco, Calif: Basic Books, 1989.

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