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Homicide perspectives: Derrick Bell, constitutional law professor

September 26, 2007 |  2:51 pm

With this feature, HR begins an occasional series seeking perspectives on homicide from various experts and observers.

First is Derrick Bell, visiting professor at New York University School of Law and author of "Faces at the  Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism." Bell is one of America's most well-known thinkers on race. He was in Los Angeles last week for the 40th anniversary of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, an organization he once led.

Bell_derrick_3_4 Derrick Bell holds that issues involving race and poverty, homicide included, are difficult to combat because America has convinced itself that "if you work hard, you will make it, and if you don't, it's your fault," he said.

Click "Read on" below for the rest of Bell's comments, and his Q&A with the Homcide Report.

Bell said the notion of fault, which he considers flawed, makes it easier to abandon poor blacks to their troubles. It comforts whites with the notion of always being one step up--and so somehow buffered from the same forces of economic insecurity, he said.

Bell_derrick "Racism is necessary to maintain a kind of stability in this system," he told the Western Center on Law and Poverty group in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. "That doesn't mean white people are evil.... It means that a lot of white people of lowly station feel they are not so low because they are the same color as the people above them."

Blaming personal failings and not the system also is seductive to blacks, he argues--and even to those who seek to combat poverty and racism. "In our society, the hard road is to take a stand against the system," he said. "It's easier to say, 'It's these people's fault ... so there is not sense in my knocking myself out.'"

But Bell also urges against this conclusion--discouraging as it may be to view the system as rigged. "The obligation is not to win," he said. "It's to recognize evil, and trying to do something about it."

Q&A with the Homicide Report:

HR: The black men I speak to while doing the Homicide Report are often very pessimistic. They talk of a feeling that they are being somehow eliminated. Sometimes they talk as if there is actually a conspiracy to eliminate them. Have black men always felt this way?

Bell: Yes, I think so. But in some ways they are worse off now. In the 1930s, for example, times were tough, but there were jobs that were seen as "n----- work," jobs just for black people. Now, in Los Angeles, Latinos have all those jobs. I was just at dinner here last night. All the waiters were Latino. There was one cook at the buffet table. I said to him, "I think you are the only African American here!" and he said, "Yes, they prefer Latinos. They think they have a better work ethic." He said he had told his friends to keep applying, but how long can they do that?

When my father came from Alabama, he worked in a steel mill, and that was considered a black job, a "n----- job." Those jobs now are gone. All the manufacturing jobs. They are gone for whites too, of course.

HR: What does the word racism mean to you now?

Bell: I try not to use the word. It's too general. Racism now is not like the Ku Klux Klan, and n---- and all that. It is the sense that whites, in any role in society, are presumptively entitled, whereas blacks have to prove it.

HR: When I said I wanted to come to last night's event and see you, Syd Whalley, executive director of the  Western Center for Law and Poverty executive, sounded taken aback. She said: "Homicide? I don't see the connection." Do you think there's a connection?

Bell: Oh yes! It is related to race and poverty. It is all part of this context. The frustration. The quick resort to violence.

HR: The Homicide Report discloses the race of homicide victims. Some have criticized this. Does it trouble you?

Bell: No. The truth is the truth.

HR: One of the most common explanations I hear for the prevalence of black-on-black homicide has to do with notions of personal responsibility and perverse decision-making--people just not making better choices. What do you think of this?

Bell: There is almost nothing you can say to it. It is such a comforting thought--the idea that it's their fault. It relieves us from responsibility, and it verifies long held beliefs. It keeps us from seeing the fragility of our own situation. But what's missing is the context. Why do you see this violence? Why is manhood determined by not taking slights? These questions are harder to answer.

HR: I just finished a story on black/Latino violence in Los Angeles. Some scholars concluded there is no clear trend, and said that the media had sensationalized the story. Why would that happen? What would be the story's appeal?

Bell: It's a comfort, isn't it. A lot of white folk are insecure--justly. They take reassurance in knowing that 'at least I'm not involved in that.'

(Above, Bell, in conversation with HR, and talking with the attendees of the Western Center for Law and Poverty's anniversary.)