Derrick Bell. (1992). Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York City: Basic Books.
Derrick Bell, a visiting professor at New York University Law School, specializes in civil rights law. He uses his knowledge of law and politics, combined with his personal experience as a black American, to write about racism in America: “I truly believe that analysis of legal developments through fiction, personal experience, and the stories of people on the bottom illustrates how race and racism continue to dominate our society” (p. 144). Each chapter of the book presents a different fictional scenario through which the issues and problems of racism come to life. Bell’s book is not only fascinating reading because of the narrative style, but it also becomes more real because it deals with individuals who are affected by racism. Also, any one of Bell’s chapters can be read by itself and be effective, making it an excellent tool for a small group to read together and discuss.
Bell has written this book to help illustrate his belief that “racism is a permanent part of the American landscape. The problem is that as soon as I express the view that racism cannot be vanquished by the enactment and vigorous enforcement of strong civil rights laws, most people conclude that I have given up, or surrendered, or worse, sold out…I try to explain that a realistic appraisal of racism’s crucial role in the society, far from being capitulation, would enable us to recognize the potential for effecting reform in even what appear to be setbacks” (p. 92). Bell, quoting a former student, reiterates that, in dealing with racism, “…it is not a matter of choosing between the pragmatic recognition that racism is permanent no matter what we do, or an idealism based on the long-held dream of attaining a society free of racism. Rather, it is a question of both, and “Both the recognition of the futility of action-where action is more civil rights tragedies destined to fail-and the unalterable conviction that something must be done, that action must be taken” (p. 199).
Chapter 1 deals with “symbols” of racial equality that make us think there is more equality than there actually is. Chapter 2 suggests that the power of racism is not economic or even political, but mental; black Americans must overcome racism mentally in order to make anything concrete happen. Chapter 3 proposes a bill that allows employers to buy a license to discriminate, arguing that at least black applicants would know what they are up against, and whites would have to suffer financially for discriminating. Chapter 4 deals with interracial romance and the related issues for both blacks and whites. Chapter 5 reminds that talking about racism and taking action are two different things, and both, especially the latter, are necessary. Chapter 6 outlines the unwritten “rules” used when racial issues are ever discussed. Chapter 7 imagines incredible progress as a result of a bombing of black faculty at a prestigious college. Chapter 8 proposes “raining data” about racism as one of the only ways to get through to whites, who seldom read the books that would help them get the information they need. Chapter 9 presents America with a crucial dilemma in which they consider sacrificing all of black America for white gain.
Derrick Bell does an excellent job with his topic; he illustrates how integral racism is to our society’s structure. He also brings it to a personal level without reducing his work to situational stories. The most striking aspect of this book, however, is that it makes for a great springboard for talking about the real issues of racism. While it is probably more appropriate for college age or adult discussions, the chapters that deal more with relationships (and less with law or politics) could be used with high school students, especially chapters 2, 4, 8, and 9.
Amy Allison Moreau
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