Professor takes up race and runs with it At UMBC: Derrick Bell, who clashed with Harvard, stays in the fray and talks about an issue that divides America.

April 10, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

When Derrick Bell walked away from a tenured position at Harvard Law School in a dispute over its hiring practices, he lost a job but gained a platform.

"I am a proselytizer," says Mr. Bell, who now is a visiting professor at New York University Law School. "And my message is much more likely to be heard now."

Mr. Bell, 65, will be proselytizing tonight at the University of Maryland Baltimore County about civil rights, affirmative action and the great divide between blacks and whites

"Race is my area," he says unapologetically. "People form views on race by the age of 6. They may not be able to articulate their views, but they have them."

Mr. Bell is sure to have an interesting spin on race issues from his professional and personal perspective, says Daphne Harrison, professor of African-American studies at UMBC. His speech is being sponsored by her department and the Humanities Forum.

Mr. Bell joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 1969 and became the first black tenured staff member in 1971. Then, in 1989, he took on the law school, publicly complaining that minority women were being locked out of tenured positions at Harvard.

Amid much media hoopla, he protested by going on a leave of absence until a minority woman was hired. It eventually cost him his $100,000-a-year job when neither he nor Harvard Law School blinked.

"No, there are no regrets," says Mr. Bell in a telephone conversation from his New York home. "We tend to worry too much about the bad things that are going to happen. We tend not to think about the good things that can happen."

Although his actions often seem to shout, Mr. Bell comes across as low key.

Since he left Harvard, he's been writing books, including the soon to be published "Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival for an Alien Land Called Home" (BasicBooks, 1996) and "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: Reflections on the Permanence of Racism" (BasicBooks, 1992).

The books are no one's idea of technical legalese -- what one might expect from a former civil rights attorney and current law professor.

"Faces at the Bottom of the Well," which was made into an HBO film, concludes with the notion of whites bartering away all blacks to space aliens in exchange for solutions to solve society's urgent problems.

"There's a national referendum and whites vote 70 to 30 to accept the trade," he says.

"I thought I would bring along the film," Mr. Bell says. "That should generate a lively discussion."

Mr. Bell believes the nation "is in a very difficult period" right now. When the economy takes a nose dive, whites tend to take their frustrations out on minorities.

"They don't take it out on the leadership on corporations," he says.

But no, he is not expecting the government to ride to the rescue of blacks. African-Americans, he says, have got to get more involved in everything from public demonstrations to the labor movement to "looking into your own circle and seeing what you can do to help someone."

And no African-American should be lulled into complacency, he says. "Some of us are more fortunate than others and say, 'I do feel sorry for these people, but I have made it.' "

Pub Date: 4/10/96

Derrick Bell

TC Where: University of Maryland Baltimore County, University Center Ballroom

When: 7 tonight

Cost: Free

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