Homicide perspectives: Derrick Bell, constitutional law professor


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With this feature, HR begins an occasional series seeking perspectives on homicide from various experts and observers.

First is Derrick Bell, visiting professor at New York University School of Law and author of ‘Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.’ Bell is one of America’s most well-known thinkers on race. He was in Los Angeles last week for the 40th anniversary of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, an organization he once led.

Derrick Bell holds that issues involving race and poverty, homicide included, are difficult to combat because America has convinced itself that ‘if you work hard, you will make it, and if you don’t, it’s your fault,’ he said.


Click ‘Read on’ below for the rest of Bell’s comments, and his Q&A with the Homcide Report.

Bell said the notion of fault, which he considers flawed, makes it easier to abandon poor blacks to their troubles. It comforts whites with the notion of always being one step up--and so somehow buffered from the same forces of economic insecurity, he said.

‘Racism is necessary to maintain a kind of stability in this system,’ he told the Western Center on Law and Poverty group in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. ‘That doesn’t mean white people are evil.... It means that a lot of white people of lowly station feel they are not so low because they are the same color as the people above them.’

Blaming personal failings and not the system also is seductive to blacks, he argues--and even to those who seek to combat poverty and racism. ‘In our society, the hard road is to take a stand against the system,’ he said. ‘It’s easier to say, ‘It’s these people’s fault ... so there is not sense in my knocking myself out.’’

But Bell also urges against this conclusion--discouraging as it may be to view the system as rigged. ‘The obligation is not to win,’ he said. ‘It’s to recognize evil, and trying to do something about it.’

Q&A with the Homicide Report:


HR: The black men I speak to while doing the Homicide Report are often very pessimistic. They talk of a feeling that they are being somehow eliminated. Sometimes they talk as if there is actually a conspiracy to eliminate them. Have black men always felt this way?

Bell: Yes, I think so. But in some ways they are worse off now. In the 1930s, for example, times were tough, but there were jobs that were seen as ‘n work,’ jobs just for black people. Now, in Los Angeles, Latinos have all those jobs. I was just at dinner here last night. All the waiters were Latino. There was one cook at the buffet table. I said to him, ‘I think you are the only African American here!’ and he said, ‘Yes, they prefer Latinos. They think they have a better work ethic.’ He said he had told his friends to keep applying, but how long can they do that?