The 22nd annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society, delivered by Theodore Shaw, posed a broad question in its title: “Race and Rights in a Time of Madness: What Would Derrick Bell Do?” Bell, an originator of critical race theory, taught at NYU Law for two decades before his death in 2011.

“In many ways, the country that [Derrick Bell] left us with is not the country that we have now,” said Shaw, who is the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill as well as the director of its Center for Civil Rights. “In fact, it’s hard to recognize the country we have now…. Since his passing, many of us have found ourselves in a time that challenges our souls. It is a time, I think, increasingly of madness.”

While expressing apprehension about appearing overly partisan, Shaw suggested that such an impression might be inevitable. “The current president…owes his position in no small part to the fact that President Obama is an African American, the cause of an immense tidal wave of extraordinary opposition to the very legitimacy of his presidency and to the very idea that an African American could become president.”

Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere have exacerbated racial issues, Shaw said, highlighting the fact that a “post-racial America” does not yet exist. “Those of us who are conscious of the continuation of racism in this country have been told that we are paranoid, that we’re stuck in the past. We’ve even been called at times ‘race pimps.’ That is to say that we are making a living off of race because presumably we couldn’t do anything else. And we’ve said for so long that we’re not done with the work of civil rights. Derrick knew that.”

As for the question in his lecture’s title, Shaw acknowledged that he couldn’t say how Bell himself would act in today’s circumstances, but, he added, “I know Derrick would one way or another be engaged in struggle every day…. We have to raise our voices. We have to vote. We have to organize. We have to speak against this day and bend the course of history back to a path where it’s something that we can be proud of when we leave what’s left of this world and this country to our children.”

Following the lecture, Professor of Clinical Law Anthony Thompson, faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, unveiled a new portrait of Bell painted by the artist Daniel Mark Duffy. “Derrick Bell represents the best of what we do,” said Thompson in his remarks, “and it’s because of Derrick that many of us do it.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 14 min):

Posted November 16, 2017