Please note that this article is the second part of a three-part series.
Trump’s presidency seems to have triggered a rhetorical arms race, in which extreme rhetoric is countered by even more extreme rhetoric. In this era of popular outrage, our anxieties are enough to justify inference from the specific to the general: some immigrants commit crimes; therefore, all immigrants are criminals. Trumpian “post-truth” reasoning, as misguided as it is, coheres with a pillar of poststructuralist thought: namely, the elevation of subjective, lived experience over what is shared, objective, or “totalizing.” Trump’s commitment to epistemic relativism would, no doubt, make Jean-François Lyotard proud. But is it possible that the accusations of the Racism Lives Here Too (RLHT) campaign—in which incidents of racism or perceived racism, irrespective of scale or frequency, justify claims that SLS is a pervasively racist institution—are motivated by similar reasoning?
Long before Trump embraced the narrative hermeneutics of poststructuralism, they were adopted as gospel in critical race theory. As leading theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in “Critical Race Theory: An Annotated Bibliography,” “counter-storytelling” draws on lived experience to illuminate alternative realities through a process they un-ironically call “naming one’s own reality.” While I can admire the creativity of the method, in practice, it blurs the distinction between an event and its interpretation. Consider, for instance, the poster RHLT hung that stated, “I have trouble with Chinese names. I am much better with German or Italian names.” The statement was reported to have been heard around SLS. No other context was provided. RLHT interpreted this event as a manifestation of the racism and ignorance pervading SLS. Can we challenge this interpretation without challenging the existence of the event? Not under the reasoning of the critical theorist. Challenging RLHT’s broad generalizations about pervasive white supremacy, as I am doing now, is to deny the very existence of their reality. To be sure, epistemically speaking, each of us is the authority on our own experience, our own “truths.” Claims grounded in lived experience, thus, provide strong immunity to criticism. The problem, of course, is that we are left with no way of resolving our conflicting “truths.” If RLHT’s claims are unassailable, then so too are Trump’s.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to communicate when our common ground is ceded to alternate realities and alternate facts. But maybe that’s the point. Where this rhetoric fails at dialogue it succeeds, brilliantly, at antagonizing and dividing. But from here, I’m left with a puzzle: Why would activists who genuinely care about effecting change use ostensibly divisive tactics?
RLHT’s proposal for an endowed critical race theory chair (among other things) may be a clue to this puzzle. Within the framework of critical race theory, I can find a cohesive, if conspiratorial, explanation for RLHT’s description of SLS. From inception, critical theory—of which critical race theory is a second-generation offshoot—has had an unapologetic activist agenda and neo-Marxist roots. It aims to right wrongs, not pursue knowledge or abstract notions of truth. Indeed, truth—like rationality, equality, and other liberal values—is exposed as a mere instrument of power in the literature. What is offered in place of liberalism is a neo-Marxian prism that reduces the complexity of interests and diversity of values in our heterogeneous society into a simplistic, irreconcilable struggle between oppressors and oppressed. History, as we know, provides many reasons to be wary of attempts to divide things by two. More immediately, this Manichean outlook is not much different from the way Trump views the world in terms of winners—what his father called “killers and kings”—and losers. The difference lies mainly in which side has claim to virtue. For Trump, it’s the winners, killers, oppressors. For critical theorists, it’s the oppressed. It is against this background that critical race theorists introduce the construct of race as a core axis of oppression.
As it happens, SLS became part of the history of critical race theory when it hired the late Derrick Bell, a chief progenitor of the discipline, to teach constitutional law in 1986. Bell would leave SLS on bad terms that same year after some students and faculty hosted “enrichment lectures” to supplement his class. SLS was either threatened by his interpretation of the constitution (according to Bell) or unsatisfied with his teaching. Nevertheless, by most accounts, Bell was a brilliant attorney and nonconformist thinker—an astute scholar who was as controversial as he was prolific. Bell is, in my estimation, key to understanding the substance and spirit of critical race theory.
Bell was outspoken in his criticism of the civil rights movement and, in particular, its white liberal advocates. He argued that white support for civil rights was cynically motived. Thus, any gains would be temporary as whites inevitably adapted in order to maintain their dominance. For Bell, the idea that there’s been progress toward racial equality was only a happy myth. To be sure, I don’t think RLHT has intentionally taken up Bell’s bleak outlook and ideology. True, RLHT has proposed that SLS endow a critical race studies chair (along with mandatory social/racial justice programing). Yet I suspect students have not so much studied Bell and critical theory as they have absorbed fragments of the ideology from the academic, cultural ether. All the same, the antipathy Bell and the critical race theorists held toward racial equality and liberalism echoes in the language of RLHT.
What I find most intriguing about Bell, given his influence as a scholar, is that he was not raised in academia’s ivory tower. His legacy began on the ground in the fight for civil rights. Bell worked on hundreds of desegregation cases between 1960 to 1966. As it happens, Bell was also the chief organizer behind Meredith’s legal fight for enrollment at Ole Miss (and like Meredith, he was an Air Force veteran). He was, therefore, not indifferent to actual differences between the segregated institutions in the pre-civil rights south and the places he later taught at like Harvard and Stanford. To explain the recalcitrant outlook of critical race theorists like Bell, Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his essay “Let Them Talk,” likens them to old generals still fighting the last war who are unable to adapt to changing realities. While that may be, it doesn’t explain the cynicism and bitterness discernible in Bell’s writing.
Bell made no bones about associating with black nationalists like Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. In “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism,” Bell described Farrakhan as “perhaps the best living example of a black man ready, willing and able to ‘tell it like it is’ regarding who is responsible for racism in this country”—a curious statement given that Farrakhan repeatedly blamed the Jews for racism and slavery. As the Southern Poverty Law Center warns, the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitism and ethno-nationalism have led to an odd alliance with white supremacist groups and more recently with the alt-right. To be sure, Bell condemned anti-Semitism. However, he sympathized with the separatist position, even arguing that, from the standpoint of education, Plessy’s “separate but equal” doctrine ought to have prevailed in Brown v Board. Moreover, Bell was ardent in his opinion that “black people will never gain full equality in this country.” He fetishized white supremacy. For Bell, it was an omnipotent and omnipresent force. Thus, it was only when black people acknowledged their “permanent subordinate status” and the futility of their struggle for equality that they could potently defy and harass their white oppressors. The only remedy Bell prescribed was a form of Camusian romanticism that seeks meaning in the act of struggle itself.
In contemplating Bell’s life and works, I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s warning: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.” I may be projecting from my own experiences in war, but I can’t shake the feeling that Bell did not emerge from his battles unscathed. A great tragedy of war is that its costs are not distributed fairly. Even victors in a just war can lose a great deal by it. The war against white supremacy was no exception. The viciousness and hate that Bell and many in his generation endured in their fight for racial equality left many with scars that remained long after their political victories were won. I envision Bell returning victorious from war but unable to join in the celebrations of those who were never in the trenches, and those who too easily and eagerly forget the ugliness of war. Soldiers don’t easily forget. The memories of war can turn even the most generous spirit into a cynic. And Bell was deeply cynical about the prospect of racial equality.
— James Banker J.D. ’17
Contact James Banker at jbanker ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu.