Pitt Law Advances Bell's Legacy With Challenging Authority: A Symposium in Honor of Professor Derrick Bell

Challenging Authority: A Symposium in Honor of Professor Derrick Bell
Continuing Professor Bell’s Legacy of Race Law Scholarship and Social Justice Advocacy

View video, panel discussions, lectures and opening and closing remarks from the Derrick Bell Symposium at the Pitt Law YouTube channel.

Professor Derrick A. Bell, LLB, '57, eminent scholar and one of the founders of Critical Race Theory, saw a life that took him from the Hill District of Pittsburgh to Pitt Law, Harvard Law, and beyond. In his tireless work to explore dynamic legal responses to racial injustice, Bell at times encountered controversy. For example, early in his career the U.S. Justice Department asked him to relinquish his membership in the NAACP if he desired to continue working there. To Professor Bell this demand was inimical to his identity and principles, and he resigned, creating space for an academic career that would span decades and blaze a trail for generations of diverse and innovative legal scholars.

While Professor Bell passed away in 2011, and the segregation battles of the mid-20th century may seem a distant memory, his immense scholarly legacy continues to inform legal thinkers today in crafting theoretical and pragmatic approaches to contemporary racial justice problems. Professor Bell's work shows us all that it would be a mistake to assume racism, legal inequality, and social injustice are in the past and inspires us to seek true equality.

In honor of Professor Bell’s dedication and contributions to legal scholarship, teaching, and mentoring, and in honor of his stature as one of Pitt Law’s most notable alumni, the University of Pittsburgh Law Review and School of Law held a symposium in March in his honor, titled “Challenging Authority.” Challenging Authority served to reignite conversations Professor Bell helped to spark and to seek answers to the problems of inequality that our social and legal frameworks continue to pose.

(Professor Jasmine Gonzales Rose, University of Pittsburgh School of Law. View more photos from the Derrick Bell Symposium on Flickr.)

Assistant Professor Jasmine Gonzales Rose, a critical race scholar at Pitt Law, was instrumental in initiating the symposium. For the opening lecture, Professor Gonzales Rose introduced Pitt Law Dean William M. Carter Jr., a foremost scholar on the 13th Amendment and civil rights. In his remarks in the Teplitz Courtroom, Dean Carter said he would not be where he is professionally today were it not for the groundbreaking scholarship, the courage, or the legal work to desegregate institutions for which Professor Bell made his name. [Watch video]

“[Professor Bell] was really an inspiration and path-clearing for so many of us,” Dean Carter said. “I would not have had the opportunities I have had were it not for his work.”

(Janet Dewart Bell. View more photos from the Derrick Bell Symposium on Flickr.)

Attending the symposium was Professor Bell’s wife, Janet Dewart Bell, an author, scholar, and policy advocate in her own right. In remarks, Dewart Bell spoke movingly about the Bell family philosophy of “students first” and discussed how that infused Professor Bell’s drive to remain a visiting professor at New York University (NYU) until his death.

“Derrick continued to teach until the week before he died,” Dewart Bell said. “Teaching kept him alive. He always thought there was no higher calling than being a teacher.” [Watch video]

The symposium’s opening distinguished lecturer was John H. Boalt Professor Ian Haney-López of the University of California at Berkeley Law, one of the nation’s leading race and legal theorists and author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford University Press, 2014). Professor Haney-López kicked off the multiple panels and roundtable discussions that occurred over the two-day period with a lecture on the state of equal rights, Bell’s legacy, and Bell’s influence on his book. [Watch video]. 

(Prof. Ian Haney-López, University of California at Berkeley Law. View more photos from the Derrick Bell Symposium on Flickr.)

“If you look at equal protection now, it has suffered a very perverse reversal such that contemporary equal protection offers no protection to minorities,” Professor Haney-López said in his lecture.

Distinguished scholar and professor Richard Delgado, the John J. Sparkman Chair of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law and former Distinguished Professor of Law and Derrick Bell fellow at Pitt Law, gave the luncheon keynote address. Professor Delgado, a leading critical race theorist, has authored more than 20 books on human rights and race theory, eight of which have won national book prizes, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He is also coeditor—along with Professor Jean Stefancic, also a panelist at the symposium—of The Derrick Bell Reader from NYU Press.

During the luncheon keynote, Professor Delgado presented his article “Law’s Violence: Derrick Bell’s Next Article.” Delgado’s article examines the direction Professor Bell’s scholarship was taking toward the end of his life and what Professor Bell may have written next had he lived. He reveals that a new concern of Professor Bell’s was the inherent violence of law itself in realms of politics, nation building, and lawgiving powers. He also argues that the relation of law and violence is complex and, contrary to common belief, law often does not contain interpersonal violence itself but increases it. 

(University of Alabama School of Law Professor Richard Delgado, editor of The Derrick Bell Reader from NYU Press, greets attendees of the symposium.)

For the closing keynote of the symposium, Pitt Law was honored to have three key leaders in critical race studies from the University of California Los Angeles School of Law: Professor Devon Carbado, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Professor Cheryl Harris. Professor Carbado is the Honorable Harry Pregerson Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. His latest book on employment discrimination Acting White?: Rethinking Race in Post-Racial America has been published by Oxford University Press. His presentation in the closing keynote of the symposium was titled “Color Blindness, Derrick Bell, and the Fourth Amendment.” [Watch video]

“Derrick Bell is here right now,” Professor Carbado said at the start of his lecture. “He’s here in our thoughts, he’s here in spirit, and he’s certainly here in intellectual presence.”

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, and her publications include Critical Race Theory (edited by Crenshaw et al). She is an editor for The African American Policy Forum, a major think tank on promoting women’s rights and advancing racial justice both in the United States and internationally.

“Bell was indeed a trailblazer,” Professor Crenshaw said in her lecture. “He was a pusher, a contester. He fell out with his colleagues. He fell out with his allies, unafraid to march to the beat of his own drum when necessary.” [Watch video]

(From left to right: UCLA School of Law Professor Devon Carbado, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Professor Cheryl Harris)

Professor Cheryl Harris, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at UCLA School of Law, said she takes great inspiration from Professor Bell's story and trajectory. [Watch video]

“Like most good teachers, Bell’s greatest lessons were not what to think but how and where to look for questions, how to look under the hood so to speak, and for that I thank Derrick always,” Professor Harris said at the end of her lecture.

Event cosponsors included the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the Black Law Students Association at Pitt Law, the Community Empowerment Association, the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work.

This symposium was also a celebration of the 75th volume of the University of Pittsburgh Law Review in which several of the symposium speakers will have papers published. The volume will be published this fall.  

View video, panel discussions, lectures and opening and closing remarks from the Derrick Bell Symposium at the Pitt Law YouTube channel.

View photos from the Professor Derrick Bell Symposium at Pitt Law on Flickr.