One of the more interesting periodicals of the hard-left, Jacobin, used to have a book review column for old and new conservative titles called “Books we read, so you don’t have to.” It included mostly mass-market polemics the outlet’s average reader would find especially triggering. If such a column existed for an audience of the opposite orientation, one title that would have to make an appearance is Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by the late Harvard law professor, Justice Department attorney, and critical race theory pioneer Derrick Bell.
The book, published in 1992, is considered a founding text for the CRT movement. This is odd, as it’s not a jargon-heavy, law-based tome, but a collection of short stories, most of them science fiction-based. If you’re curious how sci-fi might translate CRT’s heavily abstract and legalistic ideas, the short answer is that it doesn’t. The stories are breathtakingly bad.
When originally published, the New York Times referred to Faces as “Jonathan Swift comes to law school”; a description no honest critic could ever make. Science fiction, of course, is often rich in satire. If done well, like Swift’s own satirical stories and pamphlets, it can help reveal something about ourselves and the world around us. Bell’s stories do none of this. All they reveal is his utter maladroitness as a writer, his acute persecution complex, and just how puddle-deep the CRT ideas he helped develop really are.
Getting through the thing will be too hard of a slog for most. Still, it’s an important book, and liberals and conservatives should acquaint themselves with it. Recently, the New Yorker called Bell “the man behind critical race theory” and referred to Faces as among his most significant works. It was a New York Times bestseller and has enjoyed multiple reprints since. Currently, it has 450 reviews on Amazon and ranks No. 2, 2, and 6 in the retailer’s civil rights law, discrimination constitutional law, and ethnic studies sections, respectively. It also appears on required or recommended reading lists at the University of California — Berkeley, American University, Brown University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania University, the University of Baltimore, New York University, and no doubt dozens more schools across the country.
Although nearly three decades old, all of today’s CRT tenets are present in the Bell’s stories: a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism; the denigration of “liberal” formal equality and “neutral” principles of constitutional law; the treatment of black slavery as America’s original sin; the concepts of white privilege and allyship; and the pathologizing of white America more broadly. And like when CRT arose decades ago, the stories never got the rough treatment they deserve.
Bell’s magnum opus opens with “The Afrolantica Awakening,” in which the mythic island of Atlantis emerges once again, presenting the earth with a new, green, and bountiful landscape. Unfortunately for American whites, however, the “air pressure in the surrounding atmosphere” somehow doesn’t comport with their constitution, leaving them deathly short of breath. Not so for black Americans. They can breathe just fine in the new paradise.
Why or how this is so, Bell doesn’t explain, thereby leaving out a key feature of the sci-fi genre. A big attraction for sci-fi readers is the world its authors create. Just as much as plot and theme, sci-fi is uniquely engaged with the background of these worlds and the explanations for the supernatural phenomena presented. Tellingly, this doesn’t happen in Faces. Clearly out of necessity, Bell slaps it all together on the quick.
Enter CRT. With the plot set, Bell spends the remainder of the story invigilating a debate within black America over the prospect of emigrating to the new land. There’s the pro-leave side highlighting America’s “permanently racist’”society, which apparently offers them nothing, and the remain side, which is satirized by Bell for naively appealing to modern black progress. As the latter argues, “the slavery and segregation eras were important history, but they were just that—history. They were not cast from some eternal, social mold determining all of America’s racial policies.” But, much like today’s 1619 Project (which he no doubt influenced), Bell indeed sees these periods in U.S. history as forever determinative of black America’s future. White America is irreconcilable.
From a pro-leave black minister, we then get CRT’s equality-versus-equity distinction. In a fiery speech, the minister tells his audience:
Now we endure the hateful hypocrisy of the equal-opportunity era that, like the “separate but equal” standard it replaced, denies the very opportunity its name proclaims. But at long last the lord has sent us a home that is hostile to others as America has been to us. Let us go there and show what—given the chance—we might have done here!
Others on the pro-leave side argue that establishing black communities is something whites have always opposed, so emigration must be a good thing. Putting aside that this would be an odd position for pro-segregation whites to take, Bell then sends the reader on a deep tangent about a real-life case involving black Muslims in Alabama being abused by white residents in the 1960s over their attempt to establish a farm there. For nearly two pages, Bell force-feeds the reader details not just about the episode, but also the black Muslims’ subsequent legal complaint, including its constitutional claims and litigation history. But this is pretension, not fiction, and it becomes a painfully common feature throughout the collection.
Bell’s literary flatness is oddly compounded by what he’s actually literate in: the law. Shoe-horned throughout the stories are long, jarring diversions into civil rights law, constitutional history, controversial SCOTUS rulings of the past, and even deep dives into the litigation process. The tangents are not just led by the narrator but the characters as well, making for incredibly clunky and unnatural dialogue — at times, even block quotes and footnotes show up embedded in the character’s speech.
But the collection’s leading contribution is “Space Traders, “which became part of a TV-movie anthology of “black science fiction” in the early 2000s under the unfortunate title Cosmic Slop. It received a small amount of attention in 2012 when it was revealed that then-student Barack Obama praised Bell’s protest against Harvard Law School over its supposed anti-black hiring practices.
The plot certainly makes it stand out. One day in America, aliens arrive from outer space offering the U.S. government a deal that will get chewed over for the rest of the story: In exchange for completely eliminating America’s debt (the country is on the brink of bankruptcy) and fixing all its environmental problems (due to the “white man’s capitalism,” the country’s an ecological disaster), the aliens ask to take the country’s entire black population back with them to space. What for and, again, why just black Americans, the reader is never told.
How can the aliens eliminate America’s debts? Bell simply tells us that they brought lots of gold bars with them. How will America replace fossil fuels and clean up its wastelands? The aliens have “special chemicals.” And how would the public actually respond to the arrival of extraterrestrial life? Bell doesn’t even give us a sentence. Ray Bradbury this is not.
The president’s cabinet, being all white and either overtly or covertly anti-black, are ecstatic over the offer. How to sell it to the American public, especially the black public, is the next challenge. The interior secretary, who, we’re told, just finished destroying the last old-growth forest in America, voices the idea of selling the transfer to black Americans as a helpful way to put them in a “less competitive environment” (after which he gives a smirk and a wink to the president). This provokes a laugh from adviser Gordon Golightly, the story’s Thomas Sowell-esque Uncle Tom protagonist — Bell derides non-CRT-supporting black Americans throughout the collection.
But not all whites are supportive. For example, much of big business (being portrayed as white, of course), fear what a loss of black consumers would mean to their bottom line. This especially includes businesses who “profit off” ghetto communities, like suppliers to law enforcement agencies and prisons. It also includes the real estate industry which, we’re informed, “annually reaped uncounted millions in commissions on sales and rentals, inflated by the understanding that blacks would not be allowed to purchase or rent in an area.”
Meanwhile, organized Jewish groups, we’re told, sign a petition against any non-voluntary mass transfer. But an unspoken motivation, Bell tells us, is that:
… in the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats for a system so reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations for societal disabilities about which they are unwilling to confront their leaders.
Following an inordinately detailed description of how the White House legally pushes through the population transfer (executive orders, congressional acts, constitutional amendments, in addition to a detailed discussion of long-gone post-Reconstruction and pre-Civil Rights-era court rulings), the story ends on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with 20 million black Americans in their underwear (the aliens want this for some reason), being forced into alien spaceships with U.S. soldiers standing behind them, machine guns drawn.
“The Last Black Hero” is a non-sci-fi contribution and it’s perhaps the most awkward and cringeworthy vehicle Bell uses to spout the tenets of CRT.
The story begins with Jason, a promising young leader of the black advocacy group, “Quad A”, convalescing in the hospital following a white racist’s bomb attack (of course). In the room is Sheila, his white doctor who was born poor in the Bronx but who is described as “white and born privileged” nonetheless. There’s also Neva, a high-up black member of Jason’s group, who, despite being a child of professional parents and raised in white, upper-class neighborhoods, gets no “privileged” descriptor.
Although Sheila grew up as a poor minority in the Bronx, she airs the kind of woke opinions commonly found in cloistered, white middle-class areas. When she develops a relationship with Jason, the story becomes one long struggle session for her about whether she should follow her heart and, in so doing, sully Jason’s image as a black leader. The dialogue that follows deserves the kind of trigger warnings that CRT professors call for today, but for the un-woke.
For instance, in the story’s I-can’t-quit-you moment, Sheila tells him:
Jason, I love you and want to marry you. In conformity with the age-old pattern of black sacrifice to serve white needs, will you risk your leadership role in Quad A and the respect you’ve earned in the black community in return for my love?”
But the internal agony proves too much for Sheila. Her white guilt and commitment to another group’s identity pushes the doctor into a neurotic meltdown. She dramatically (and oddly) tells him, “I cannot and will not change what I am: a white woman.”
“But,” she says, “I reject all the privileges society has bestowed upon me because of my race, and accept willingly all the burdens of yours, including a decision that you must return to your work without me.”
In the end, Sheila chooses to part with Jason for the good of the black cause. As she tells Neva, who comes to visit her leader in hospital (and who also has the hots for him): “I understand how black people, and particularly black women, feel about losing one of their most able men in an interracial marriage. I’m afraid it would destroy Quad A. I simply will not do that to Jason or to black people.”
Bell does capture Sheila’s self-punitive white guilt well, but his vehicle isn’t quite right. Although Sheila’s poor background is clearly a way to introduce the concept of white privilege, whites who attend BLM protests, for instance, generally don’t come from poor, mixed neighborhoods. They come from more homogenous areas where racial realities present themselves far less often.
From these as well as other stories found in the compilation, we can see that Bell’s impoverished fiction reflects the immaturity of the ideas and positions it seeks to promote. His portrayal of white America is especially bad, approaching as it does near-grotesque levels. Whites are shown as either enemies or neurotic allies; not people with complex lives and backgrounds or individuals with their own merits and faults. Given this is more or less de rigueur in so much of academia today, it can unfortunately be said that Faces at the Bottom of the Well has been a wild success. And if its highly caustic, thin-gruel ideas go unchallenged, we might indeed see a “permanence of racism” become a fixture in American education and beyond.
So, how can we challenge these ideas? To start, anti-CRT activists and students should be pointing out just how embarrassingly bad the book is to heads of departments wherever it’s taught while demanding its swift removal from all college reading lists. Something so outrageously offensive and utterly bereft of merit should have no place in any serious educational institution. Contacting alumni associations and grant-giving state agencies is another option. Such a project would seem to be ideal for conservative student groups on campuses where the book is assigned. Just one serious challenge should garner plenty of publicity and help bring attention to the vulgarity and depravity of one of CRT’s main founders.
Meanwhile, that such an appalling book forms the basis of CRT today is something every concerned anti-CRT advocate and parent group should know so they can integrate it into their talking points. By noting, for instance, that CRT is derived from a laughably dumb series of space alien stories peppered with the racist ravings of a deeply paranoid and embittered man will go far in stigmatizing its dangerous and anti-American sleight of ideas. Ironically then, in challenging the CRT movement at least, Faces at the Bottom of the Well does have much to offer.
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