Wednesday 29 October 2008

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell

Is racism still alive and kicking in 21st century USA? Are black people doomed to fail despite the achievements of the Civil Rights Era? And who is responsible for this situation, blacks or whites?

These and other questions are asked and analysed in detail by the influential writer and academic Derrick Bell in his book 'Faces at the Bottom of the Well' (the title is based on a quote by W.E.B. Du Bois) and his conclusions are rather pessimistic. To Bell, “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this [American] society”. These are hardly encouraging words in a year when a Democratic candidate is running to become the first black president of the United States of America. But with typical pragmatism Bell sweeps aside suggestions that the US is heading towards a state of racial harmony.

That this book came out in 1992, when the Bill Clinton era was ushered in, should in no way be a deterrent to a reader in 2008. In chapters like 'The Racial Preference Licensing Act' and 'The Space Traders' we see examples of how even under the administration of a 'racially moderate' President, the mechanics of the racial debate have changed and become subtler. In 'The Racial Preference Licensing Act', Bell imagines a USA where people could apply for a license authorising them to exclude or separate persons on the basis of race and colour. One of the conclusions he arrives at is that such an act, illogical and crazy as it might sound, would work in black people's favour: at last they would stop second-guessing whether they are being discriminated against, as everything would be out in the open.
And as the race for the White House enters its final bend, issues like these, explored and masterfully debated, will make all the difference when it comes to marking those ballot papers.
This review appeared first on Catch a Vibe, a new online alternative guide to black culture in London.
Copyright 2008


  1. I find it extrordinary that "race" is still such an issue in the United States in C21st, but I don't live there. I am also constantly amazed at how rascist other races are too; even Asians look down upon other Asians, so it's not exactly a "black & white" issue, (pun intended). My problem is that I just look down upon people who are bigoted and ignorant. But I truly hope that Obama's election to the presidency firstly will happen, (how can it possibly still be so "close"?!), and secondly, that his election will go some significant way to changing hard set minds about blacks in America. There are already shining examples of the very best of Americans who happen to be black, (gay, muslim etc etc), but having one at the pinnacle of their society will mean a great deal.

  2. And I'm not implying that Obama is gay, or muslim. But we should not care if he were.

  3. Thanks for your witty comments, columnist. My conclusion after reading this book a few times is that wherever there's been racil mix, miscegenation and domination of one race by another, racism, racial prejudices and bigotry will prevail. I don't expect the world to be perfect, but I trust the individual to make wise and right decisions most of the time.

    Greetings from London.

  4. "...apply for a license authorising them to exclude or separate persons on the basis of race and colour."

    This does sound illogical and crazy.

    From an American viewpoint, this election has brought race to the forefront...the hate, bigotry, fear, ignorance that is mostly buried has been uncovered. I feel as though I've lived in a state of delusion until this point. I thought America had finally reached a point of, if not racial harmony, at least peaceful racial coexistence.

    Disillusioned, but ever hopeful

  5. Thanks, diva, from across the pond I can only marvel at the resilience shown by most Americans, a trait that hardly ever gets a mention. I hope the right candidate wins next Tuesday (yes, the same one you're thinking of!).

    Greetings from London.

  6. Great post - I soo agree with "columnist" aboe: "My problem is that I just look down upon people who are bigoted and ignorant"..!
    I'm in the midst of gift-wrapping an early, early Christmas present for all my delightful favourite bloggers - it'll be ready this evening if you'd like to pop by my blog and pick it up..:)

  7. we cubans tend to be folksy in general.
    and for most of us, few things deserve to be taken seriously for more than one hour.
    but i have noticed that among the mostly white cuban population in south florida, the veiled racism brought from the island meets lots of room to manoeuvre and spring everywhere in not so subtle ways.
    we don't care too much about being politically correct.
    and most the cubans in miami won't vote for obama simply because they are not ready to accept a black president, even if they argue about obama's policies and past.

    and that sucks.
    big time.

  8. Racism is well and alive in the USA as well as everywhere around the world. To say it doesn't exist, you are either the clueless entitled white race or living in Disney Land. Thank for bringing this important topic to your blog today. This is something that I feel very passionate about. I adopted transracially, and I am myself a minority. I know what I faced and I know what my children will face. I cannot protect them but I can empower them. We cannot remain silent to racial insults. When someone spews them, we have to call them out. Change comes one person at a time. Expose yourself to other races instead of critizing them.

    Amigo, me dio alegria que vas a leer "The Raven" para Halloween. Poe tiene un lugar especial en mi corazon.

  9. Very heavy topic--well done review of Bell's book. I appreciate your contemplation of the nuanced nature of race in America. However, I have a question for you: Would Obama win in the UK? What are some of the racial realities in your country?

  10. Unfortunately racism IS alive. I cannot believe the insults addressed to Obama in the midst of the campaigns.
    Like Diva says the upcoming US election fosters an uneasy feeling.
    I would love to see Obama at the White House and most of all....stay there

  11. Thanks to everyone for their kind comments.

    Garri, you are spot-on, man. Yup, I have noticed that, too, with white Cubans living in GB, outnumbered as they are by us, black Cubans. But guess who sit mostly on the right side of the political spectrum?

    'Would Obama win in the UK? What are some of the racial realities in your country?'

    The answer is no. After eleven years (almost eleven years actually!) here I have realised that British racism is far deeper and better structured than the US one. It's the hidden issue for many reasons:

    Even as far back as 1701, whilst slavery was ubiquitous in the British colonies, a black person (or Negro, as they were labelled by the edicts at the time) was declared upon arrival in the UK. Just like that. That was way before the abolition of the slave trade first and of slavery afterwards.

    Black people had the right to vote and to political representation in GB way before they had the same rights in the USA. However, before we become too complacent with this notion, let's not forget that hte black population in GB at the time was tiny as compared to that in the colonies and ex-colonies. Just a point, though.

    Thanks for your feedback. It's been most appreciated.

    Greetings from London.

  12. This is the most excited that I have ever been about an election.
    We are at the forefront of a new ERA in wich diversity has finally reached the white house.

    un abrazo a todos.

  13. Buena esa cuban.

    El hecho de que el hombre se llame Obama, que su padre fuera un africano musulmán y que él sea mulato, le colocan en un lugar ideal para defender algo bien importante. LA DIVERSIDAD. En este momento de crisis financiera, vacío de poder y crisis en los valores morales de una Sociedad con sueños tan hipotecados como su propia economía.
    Obama representa la posibilidad de una nueva INTEGRACIÓN.
    Este país necesita integrarse plenamente y no solo en el ámbito racial, sino también en torno a sus diferentes credos políticos, unidos por el nuevo fenómeno de la relatividad partidista y en torno a una clara prioridad, la nación norteamericana. Aquí, presenciamos toda una RENOVACIÓN en los valores de las generaciones más jóvenes e incluso, dentro de los ‘jóvenes-adultos’ de Estados Unidos. Hoy como en los 60’s hay un tremendo hueco generacional, los muchachos no comparten ni sienten como suyo un pasado segregación bochornosa, y ‘además’ quieren y necesitan PARTICIPAR realmente en los eventos políticos que sacuden el país.

    El fenómeno de Internet y de las comunicaciones está propiciando un nuevo estilo de INTERACTUAR en la sociedad (del monologo al dialogo, de la acción a la interacción) que gradualmente se ha insertado en la arena política y que -con todo el respeto que se merece- Mc Cain no logra participar o representar aunque lo intente. El ticket republicano está demasiado comprometido con su partido y con su forma obsoleta de discutir y exponer sus ideas atacándolas a preceptos morales y no a temas de discusión.

    Existen fuerzas contrarias a un cambio en los estándares morales y es lógico que los conservadores se movilicen en torno a la rigidez, (bienvenidos) pero en mi opinión el triunfo de Obama es solo cuestión de tiempo. Norteamérica tiene hoy el chance de salir beneficiada y convertirse en un ejemplo de Sociedad moderna, donde interactúen y convivan en un amplísimo espectro de fuerzas y tendencias políticas que aborden los temas no desde la intransigencia, sino desde la base del CONSENSO y del respeto a las ideas. En última instancia eso es la democracia.
    Las elecciones están por delante ya veremos que sucede.

    Saludos, tony

  14. Viendo las cosas de aca (desde las entrañas del monstruo :) ) estoy totalmente de acuerdo con Diva. Es increible como ha salido a la luz el odio y los prejuicios.
    Creo que apesar de que todos sabemos que el racismo esta bien vivo en el mundo entero debemos ver lo positivo de las elecciones al ver que un mulato (y con padre musulman) pueda llegar a ganar. Esperemos que no solo gane sino que sobreviva los cuatro anios de presidencia. Espero que Estados Unidos pueda demostrales al mundo que estan un poco mas avanzados que hace treinta o cuarenta anios atras.

  15. Tanto asere como lena, estoy muy de acuerdo con ustedes y omo mencioné hace semanas estoy preparando "un especial" post-eleccion.

    Por supuesto que incluso si Obama ganara, los problemas fundamentales de la sociedad estadounidense no se van a erradicar asi como asi, pero al menos, como dices asere y tu también lena, algo es algo. Poquito a poquito, metiendo el cuerpo, luchando por esa DIVERSIDAD.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  16. I particularly appreciated Bell's use of mythical characters and situations. My favorite chapter was "Afroatlantica Awakening"--reminded me of Marcus Garvey.

  17. Oh, yes! Afroatlantica Awakening! I love that one and the one about the space traders. Thanks for your comment.

    Greetings from London.

  18. “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this [American] society”.

    i can pretty much agree with this statement. it just is. it's what the nation was founded on. some people have a hard time just accepting that, and i'm not sure why.

    i can't necessarily say that it's indestructible. may or may not be. not sure.

    i've heard of this book and will have to read.

  19. Thanks, fly, yes, it's worth a read.

    I think that we can circumvent racism but not destroy it. I am not being pessimistic, but realistic. Let's face it, we have been taught to hate ourselves (I'm black) for many centuries and that situation won't change overnight. But we also need to acknowledge the victories.

    Greetings from London.

  20. @ Columnist:

    bigoted: "obstinately convinced of the superiority or correctness of one's own opinions and prejudiced against those who hold different opinions."

    Isn't looking down upon a certain group just perpetuating the prejudice and bigotry? I don't pretend to agree with racists, but as you said, it's not a "black and white" issue. You should perhaps be careful about how you look at things yourself - how does "even" Asians sound to you?

    @ a cuban in london:
    ¡Muchas gracias por su comentario hoy! It will for sure be an interesting country to live in for a while.


  21. Thanks, carroca, this is just the dawn of a new era.

    Greetings from London.



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