Derrick Bell, a leading legal scholar and the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School [official website], died Wednesday in New York of carcinoid cancer. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bell graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law [official website] in 1957, the only African-American in his class. He subsequently worked for the US Justice Department and the NAACP before beginning an academic career in the 1960s. Bell pioneered a new approach to the study of racism known as critical race theory, exploring the extent to which racism is fully embedded into societal institutions, including laws. He theorized that a majority population would only support efforts to improve the position of a minority when and to the extent that the interests of the groups converge. In his own scholarship Bell embraced allegorical storytelling rather than traditional legal analysis. His parable The Space Traders [PDF], published in 1992, is perhaps the best known example of this still controversial approach.
Throughout his life, Bell repeatedly took public stands against what he perceived as racism. In 1959, he resigned his position with the Justice Department rather than give up his membership in the NAACP. In the 1980s, he resigned as Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law [official website] when he believed that minority candidates were not being properly considered for the faculty. After returning to Harvard Law School, Bell engaged in a public battle regarding the school's hiring practices and lack of diversity, ultimately leading him to take an unpaid leave of absence in 1990, followed by the school formally removing him in 1992. Bell continued to work as a scholar and visiting professor at New York University School of Law [official website, faculty profile] until his death. In 2003, Bell contributed an essay to an early JURIST online symposium on the Gratz and Grutter affirmative actions cases then recently decided in the US Supreme Court.