Derrick Bell has once again moved my thoughts and my heart in a new direction which is both frightening and exciting. To appreciate the impact his latest book has had on me, it is important to review an experience centered in a question I have been asked numerous times.
The question I have heard so often is, “When do you think we will overcome racism in this country?” Over the years I have developed a guarded response which generally is something like, “My best guess is that we may overcome racism in 500 years.” People have usually thought that I am resorting to hyperbole rooted in pessimism when I respond that way. “You can’t mean that!” has been the tone of disbelief! “Yes, I do believe that, and that is my most hopeful prediction,” I have said.
In quiet reflection after such exchanges, I have frequently found myself confronted with my real thought, the one I dared not express, because of the consequences which might be implied both for me and for others. The thought I have not dared express says, “I am not sure that we will ever overcome racism in this country.” That thought trembles on the brink of the next obvious question, “Then why should we continue to work against racism, if there is no hope of overcoming it?” That is a frightening thought which threatens the essence of what I have seen my life to be about for well over twenty years. It is frightening because it leaves me, as with others who might also be tempted to give up, without hope. So I have instinctively backed away from an honest personal response to the question about the future of racism…. the five hundred years “best hope” has been said with a hole in my tongue!
Now comes Derrick Bell’s newest book, Faces At the Bottom of the Well, with a subtitle, The Permanence of Racism. It is the subtitle which grabs me! That is especially true when compared to the subtitle of his And We Are Not Saved (1987), which is. The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. From “Elusive Quest” to the ” Permanence of Racism” in five years is, in itself, a powerful message!
The truth is out, leapt my heart! Now at last I may dare to say that I believe we will never overcome racism! I raced through the pages of the book, hoping to find out how Derrick Bell deals with that next question which has so frightened me. What about the potential consequences of an answer which might for many undermine their anti-racist motivations? Very soon came the author’s response, set forth in this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.
Accepting the permanence of racism is not an act of submission, but is the ultimate act of defiance! !! ! I was dancing, free!
How on earth could I explain to myself or anyone else the exhilaration I felt in acknowledging the permanence of something I abhor with my whole being? For days I was almost evangelical, pushing Bell’s book into the face of everyone I met, declaring a new source of energy for the continuing task of working against racism. That was what excited me; I felt a new surge of energy and determination. To understand what was happening to me, I made some initial notes. I list them here, with a few comments, hoping that for someone else out there they might ignite similar excitement.
First, accepting the permanence need not be an act of submission. An alcoholic friend reminded me that acknowledging the permanence of his condition did not diminish but rather energized his determination to resist it. A person working to prevent child abuse said it may never be eliminated, but her work would always continue. A pacifist would not give up working for peace even if convinced that war would still be used as a means of settling international disputes. Continued efforts for any particular good are not dependent upon assurances that the offensive behavior will be eliminated. Suddenly my fearful question lost its hold on my heart, and I was indeed free in a new way. As a matter of fact my fear to address the future, knowing that racism is permanent, now looks almost stupid, and I must continue to wonder why I asked the question.
Second, accepting the permanence of racism eliminates despair as an option. Despair is borne out of recurring, deferred dreams, out of hopes never fulfilled. If I no longer expect the elimination of racism, then I have no option to despair over the frustration of that goal. The dream and the hope may still remain in redefined form. They are embodied in the continuation of opposition to racism, in the defiant fist raised against the oppression.
Third, once I have accepted the permanence of racism, being engaged in the struggle against racism becomes the end. I no longer need to look for signs of the ultimate victory somewhere out there in the future. I am now free to attend fully to the present moment of the struggle. That’s all that matters! No need to worry about measuring “success,” though we continue to celebrate every tiny sign of victory. Just knowing that I am engaged in the struggle is all that I have to ask for.
Fourth, accepting the permanence of racism adds another dimension to the task of opposing it. That dimension stretches into an unknown future. In some peculiar way I do not yet understand, a new kind of “hope” is being born. For me the new statement of “hope” is that “flying goal” of which Protestant theologians spoke after the early 20th century shattered the hopes of ultimate progress; that goal is always “out there” ahead of me, beckoning my heart and prodding my action. Or it is that much older Jewish tradition that reminds me that though I know I may never reach the goal, there is no excuse for failing to undertake the task?
The new sense of hope is that which Garrison announced when he demanded “immediate abolition” of the system which enslaved Africans in this country. Garrison well knew that there would not be “immediate” abolition, but he shouted that slavery “ought” to be abolished immediately! In the Civil Rights Movement, the shout was for “freedom now!” No one expected freedom on the spot, immediately; that was also a statement of what “ought” to be! So it is today, when we speak of the elimination of racism; it too is a statement of what “ought” to happen. That is a kind of hope which is not subject to despair or to “giving up” or to “burning out” but, rather, gathers energy even while it gives energy to the movement.
Fifth, accepting the permanence of racism emphasizes in a drastic way the seriousness of the problem and the struggle against it. Bell’s book specifically reminds me that even the best strategies, the most progressive accomplishments against racism are likely to be manipulated and become subversive of original intents. Racism has an almost diabolic way of consuming many of the mechanisms of its opposition. As those who are committed to the continuing struggle we must be always alert to that possible dynamic. At the very least it means that we must always be looking for new strategies.
So, there are my first reflections on The Permanence of Racism. Let’s talk about it, not in the luxury of drawing room discussion, but within the context of the continuing struggle.