The Too-High Price of Prestige

Derrick Bell

IT IS NOT pleasant to consider that one’s protest action can cause more consternation to those you consider to be on your side than it does to those you know are in your way. As Camus warned, we must often go forward "with weapons in our hands and a lump in our throats."1 We must face the difficult dilemma of choosing between two evils: injuring others as the price of serving our cause, which Camus labels expediency, or "ineffectual purity." If we do nothing, we not only sacrifice the cause to which we are committed but do so knowing that others will also be hurt by our failure to fight.2 Perhaps the protester should take comfort in the fact that, whatever course one selects, one will have to live nagged by doubt about that choice.

Not that the choice is easy or even fair. Probably the most painful aspect of my Harvard protest was that Regina Austin, a woman I con­sidered not only a good colleague but also a close and valued friend, may have felt that my action had not only destroyed her chances for a permanent appointment but also added more trauma to Austin’s long and challenging year. On the day following my protest, a New York Times story carried interviews with several students in her classes.3 Most of the comments were positive, but the story focused—complete with their photos—on two white males who claimed that she was a poor teacher. The story and the unwanted publicity hurt Austin deeply. While she found the courage to complete the school year, she did not speak to me for years after.

I was pleased that most black women teaching law publicly sup­ported my protest.4 There were some, though—including some I had known for years and had encouraged and mentored—who reacted quite adversely to my protest. It was months before any of them spoke to me directly, but in the meantime I learned through others that they resented the fact that I had announced my unpaid leave without first getting Austin’s approval or at least giving her notice of my plans. They did not thank me for risking my own position to call national attention to the plight of black female academics and criti­cized me for taking the public lead on the issue. As one of them put it, "None of us elected Bell as our leader and spokesperson."

As for my failing to share my protest plans with Regina Austin, the women may have been right. At the time, though, consulting her seemed both unnecessary and unfair. Unnecessary because Austin seemed far more militant and insightful about whites and racism than I was. I found her writings invigorating and admired her out­spoken statements on issues of race and gender. As to fairness, it seemed at the time an unfair burden to enlist Austin in my fight with Harvard. I had not consulted her before mounting a campaign that helped secure her visit. How could I approach her and ask whether she approved my putting my job on the line to support the student campaign to get minority women on the faculty? The permission would have been difficult for me to seek and her response even harder to follow had she said, "Don’t do it." After all, I had already decided to go ahead despite my wife’s reservations.

After long years of public involvement, I failed to consider how daunting it can be for a basically private person to be thrust suddenly into a very controversial spotlight. I should have considered my own devastating experience a few years before during a one-semester visit at the Stanford Law School, where my teaching ability became a pub­lic issue. A month or so into the term, a delegation of outraged black students came to my office and reported that the Law School had re­sponded to student complaints about my teaching not by approach­ing me but by quietly setting up a series of lectures by other profes­sors to ensure that my students would gain from the lectures what it was feared they were missing in my course. To shield the real pur­pose of the lectures, I was invited to present one of them. It is hard to understand the magnitude of this insult without knowing the length to which schools will go to cover up the misconduct or incompetence of faculty members and to ignore students’ frequently justified com­plaints. Yet Stanford neither defended me nor even consulted me about the complaints.

When the black students protested, the lectures were canceled. I accepted the school’s apologies but insisted on writing a long essay on the affair, copies of which I sent to every law school in the country with a request that the matter be discussed in faculty meetings.5 It was not easy to concede that my teaching ability had been put in question, but I publicized the incident in the hope that other minority law teachers, subjected to similar experiences, would gain a better understanding of such student criticism. A few years later, I pre­sented a lecture at Stanford, and Dean Paul Brest offered me a public apology on behalf of the school. Significantly, at the time, Stanford students were engaged in a major effort to gain more minority repre­sentation on the faculty.

It is not difficult to find my failure to consider the effect of my protest on Regina Austin both selfish and sexist. Selfish in that the protestor’s voluntary sacrifice of privacy, security, and the warmth of group identity carries with it the risk of involuntary sacrifice of those interests by loved ones and friends. As to sexism, I had conceded in my speech at the student rally that there was a patriarchal element in my protective feelings about the black women students. I viewed these women as both my students, to whom my greatest obligation was to teach by example, and surrogates for the daughters I never had.

I have been spared the deep sense of inadequacy that must come to a father who, jobless, cannot provide bread for his family’s table, but I have experienced the frustration of watching the thus far futile efforts of my daughters who look like me, and by extension those who are white but are no less my charges. I have watched them—and the men who stand with them—drafting the petitions, attending the rallies, standing in the vigils, sitting long nights in the dean’s office, and experienced the pain of not being able to help them secure a most urgent component of their legal training. I was determined to help these students, come what may.

Some black women teachers, unaware of my motives, charged that my emphasis on their potential as role models for the black women students on whose particular behalf I protested had the effect of obscuring their skills and accomplishments.6 Ironically, their argu­ment was similar to that which Regina Austin had made in "Sapphire Bound!" in analyzing the Crystal Chambers case. As Austin pointed out, the desire to help minority girls in a counseling program by hir­ing Chambers as a role model backfired for Chambers and became grounds for firing her when she did not conform to their require­ments. The law professors worried that to stress their value as role models also would hurt them by detracting from the achievements that entitled them to positions on the Harvard law faculty regardless of their potential value as mentors. That they had not been hired, and were unlikely ever to satisfy the faculty’s shifting and elitist stan­dards, did not deter them from advancing this argument.

In addition, some of the women felt that I had deprived them of their right to speak for themselves. They had not requested me to be their advocate or to advance any arguments on their behalf. Although none of them had come forward to do so, that was understandable. A protest on their own behalf would have seemed even more obviously self-serving than my own. Furthermore, many women of color were still early in their careers. They did not have the professional or finan­cial standing to enable them to take this kind of action or to command attention in this or similar ways. In any event, none of them elected me to this role, and, based on the criticism many women raised about my "Chronicle of the 27th Year Syndrome," in And We Are Not Saved, it was clear they would not have done so.7

Indeed, in one of those cruel tricks of fate that outdoes fiction be­cause the truth is hardly believable, I may have inadvertently placed women of color in law teaching in a position like that of the unfortu­nate young black women in my "Chronicle," in which an ailment puts a randomly selected group of black women to sleep for a few months and permanently deprives them of their professional skills— all because they have not received bona fide offers of marriage from black men. I had hoped that this allegory, in which a tragedy occurs that only black men could prevent, would motivate black males to shake off our societally imposed powerlessness, with all its unhappy attributes, and move us to act more responsibly in relationships with black women. My critics pointed out that the much desired sense of power and responsibility for black men came at too high a price for further subjugation of black women. Moreover, the frightening facts in the allegory serve to silence and incapacitate young black women, so that they are unable to participate in the healthier black man/black woman debate the "Chronicle" was intended to promote.

In real life, women of color are totally excluded from Harvard and many other law schools and therefore have no way of changing the exclusionary policies. By acting out of my own frustration and powerlessness to correct this condition, I proved my willingness to do battle, but in a fashion that—according to some faculty mem­bers—will retard the hiring of minority women for years to come. Even if they are wrong, the difficulties my critics saw in the "Chroni­cle" may come home to haunt women of color seeking law teaching jobs. In addition, my action may make it harder for these women to express their honest views on my protest. If they express their sup­port, it will seem self-serving, yet any reservations they express will be used by unabashed opponents of affirmative action to place them in the camp with those black beneficiaries of affirmative action who now deem such policies "demeaning" and in conflict with the great American principle of merit. The parallels are not precise, but if some women argue that I have harmed the cause I claim to support, I can hardly dismiss their criticism as groundless.

If there is a moral or at least a lesson here, it is that individual protests are a disruptive anomaly. They interject into a conflict an ele­ment of uncertainty and the potential for chaos that is as likely to throw allies off stride as it is to cause opponents to reconsider their positions. Upset by the tension generated by the protest and, even more so, the debate that comes out of it, neither side wants to ac­knowledge that the protest has prompted a change—even a decisive change in the conflict.