We Should Defend Our Own
Smearing the late Derrick Bell is the latest salvo. When will blacks fight back?
That's why the recent efforts to besmirch the reputation of Bell must be powerfully challenged. Bell's record is sufficiently voluminous and impressive that no Breitbart video or Sean Hannity rant will change his legacy. But as we learned with the 1993 right-wing smear of Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, a great deal of damage can be done in a short amount of time.
Sherrod described her life as having been turned "upside down" by Breitbart's smear. Van Jones, a White House adviser on environmental issues, felt compelled to resign when the right's character assassins set their sites on him.
Jeremiah Wright, a Marine Corps veteran with a 36-year career as a distinguished preacher in a predominantly white Protestant denomination, may never fully recover his reputation. If one goes on the Rev. Wright's website, one can order from among more than 50 sermons he delivered since the year 2000. But most Americans will only know several out-of-context sentences from two of Wright's sermons.
It's unfortunate that young people may be introduced to Bell through the sordid slanders of Fox News commentators. They will not know that Bell was the first in his family to attend college. That he was an army veteran. That he litigated school-desegregation cases in Boston and Georgia. That he was the first African-American tenured professor at Harvard Law School and that he gave up that position in protest of that school's failure to hire and tenure an African-American female law professor. The rally at which the then-student Obama introduced Bell took place in the midst of that controversy.
Bell is perhaps best-known for his provocative and groundbreaking scholarship. He argued that racial progress in America is tied to the self-interest of whites and demonstrated how America's concern with its Cold War image laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education. He wrote a series of books featuring the character Geneva Crenshaw, a statuesque black woman who traveled back in time to engage in robust debates with America's slave-holding founding fathers.
Mainstream news sources, which are well able to examine Bell's rich and powerful writings and speeches, have no particular interest in pushing back against right-wing smears. Instead, the media advances the right-wing objective -- asking only about how the association with Bell will harm President Obama rather than exploring the systematic effort of some on the right to discredit the reputations of highly respected black leaders. Headlines ask, "Did Obama Hug a Radical?" or, even more obnoxious, "Derrick Bell's Widow: Unaware of Second Hug Between Prez and Prof" -- as if Bell were some kind of contaminating force whose very touch might infect our president with a dangerous form of radicalism.
It was particularly galling to watch the mainstream media's failure to give Bell the benefit of the doubt during the same week that encomiums were offered to the suddenly deceased Breitbart. In countless articles and media accounts, Breitbart was described routinely as a "journalist" -- a curious title for a writer who never let the truth or fact-checking stand in the way of an inflammatory story. But Breitbart's untimely death appears to cover a multitude of his ills.
By now it should be apparent that the Breitbarts and Hannitys of the world would character-assassinate Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King if they could get away with it. They have no standards. They only have one unrelenting goal: to damage President Obama without regard to the cost.
And so it falls on us to fight hard, early and unrelentingly for the good name of great men and women whose reputations are smeared for political gain. Let it be said that Derrick Bell was one of the most courageous, brilliant, humane, visionary men I have ever known. Let the rocks be silent.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Root.