Faces at the Bottom of the Well

The Permanence of Racism


By Derrick Bell

Foreword by Michelle Alexander

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The groundbreaking, "eerily prophetic, almost haunting" work on American racism and the struggle for racial justice (Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow).

In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, civil rights activist and legal scholar Derrick Bell uses allegory and historical example—including the classic story "The Space Traders"—to argue that racism is an integral and permanent part of American society. African American struggles for equality are doomed to fail, he writes, so long as the majority of whites do not see their own well-being threatened by the status quo. Bell calls on African Americans to face up to this unhappy truth and abandon a misplaced faith in inevitable progress. Only then will blacks, and those whites who join with them, be in a position to create viable strategies to alleviate the burdens of racism.

Now with a new foreword by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, this classic book was a pioneering contribution to critical race theory scholarship, and it remains urgent and essential reading on the problem of racism in America.



AT THE OUTSET, LET ME ASSURE HER MANY FRIENDS THAT the lawyer-prophet Geneva Crenshaw, the fictional heroine of And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, has returned. In that earlier book, through a series of allegorical stories, she and I discussed the workings—and the failures—of civil rights laws and policies. Here, I again enlist the use of literary models as a more helpful vehicle than legal precedent in a continuing quest for new directions in our struggle for racial justice, a struggle we must continue even if—as I contend here—racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.

The challenge throughout has been to tell what I view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair. For some of us who bear the burdens of racial subordination, any truth—no matter how dire—is uplifting. For others, it may be reassuring to remember Paulo Freire’s words: “Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of… [the individual]; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.”1

Albert Camus, too, saw the need for struggle even in the face of certain defeat: “Man is mortal. That may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice!”2 In a similar vein, Franz Fanon conceded that “I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.… My life [as a Negro] is caught in the lasso of existence.… I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: that of demanding human behavior from the other. One duty alone: that of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.”3

Fanon argued two seemingly irreconcilable points, and insisted on both. On the one hand, he believed racist structures to be permanently embedded in the psychology, economy, society, and culture of the modern world—so much so that he expressed the belief “that a true culture cannot come to life under present conditions.”4 But, on the other hand, he urged people of color to resist psychologically the inheritance they had come into. He insisted, despite pages of evidence suggesting the inviolability of the racial order, that “I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. For the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”5 Fanon’s book was enormously pessimistic in a victory sense. He did not believe that modern structures, deeply poisoned with racism, could be overthrown. And yet he urged resistance. He wrote a book—perhaps to remind himself that material or cultural fate is only part of the story.

While Martin Luther King spoke much about racial justice in integrationist terms, in an essay, A Testament of Hope, published after his death, he wrote of his setbacks, the time he spent in jails, his frustrations and sorrows, and the dangerous character of his adversaries. He said those adversaries expected him to harden into a grim and desperate man. But: “They fail, however, to perceive the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles.”6 So, while Dr. King led a struggle toward a goal—racial equality—that seemed possible, if not quite feasible, in the 1960s, there was a deeper message of commitment to courageous struggle whatever the circumstances or the odds. A part of that struggle was the need to speak the truth as he viewed it even when that truth alienated rather than unified, upset minds rather than calmed hearts, and subjected the speaker to general censure rather than acclaim.

Statements of faith by men who had thought deeply about the problems of human life, whether white or black, encouraged me in writing this book. And I was moved and motivated by the courageous example of the many black people with whom I worked in the South during my years as a civil rights lawyer. Judge Robert L. Carter, one of the leading attorneys in the NAACP’s school desegregation litigation, has spoken of this courage when, back in the early 1950s, whites exerted economic pressures to curb the new militancy among blacks who were joining lawsuits challenging segregation. In that climate, Carter and the other lawyers urged parents to consider carefully the risks before making a final commitment to join in the litigation. “That so few stepped back still astounds me,” says Carter.7

Carter’s observation takes me back to the summer of 1964. It was a quiet, heat-hushed evening in Harmony, a small black community near the Mississippi Delta. Some Harmony residents, in the face of increasing white hostility, were organizing to ensure implementation of a court order mandating desegregation of their schools the next September. Walking with her up a dusty, unpaved road toward her modest home, I asked one of the organizers, Mrs. Biona MacDonald, where she and the other black families found the courage to continue working for civil rights in the face of intimidation that included blacks losing their jobs, the local banks trying to foreclose on the mortgages of those active in the civil rights movement, and shots fired through their windows late at night.

Mrs. MacDonald looked at me and said slowly, seriously, “I can’t speak for everyone, but as for me, I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.”

Since then, I have thought a lot about Mrs. MacDonald and those other courageous black folk in Leake County, Mississippi, particularly Dovie and Winson Hudson. Remembering again that long-ago conversation, I realized that Mrs. MacDonald didn’t say she risked everything because she hoped or expected to win out over the whites who, as she well knew, held all the economic and political power, and the guns as well. Rather, she recognized that—powerless as she was—she had and intended to use courage and determination as a weapon to, in her words, “harass white folks.”

As I do throughout this book, Mrs. MacDonald assumed that I knew that not all whites are racist, but that the oppression she was committed to resist was racial and emanated from whites. She did not even hint that her harassment would topple those whites’ well-entrenched power. Rather, her goal was defiance, and its harassing effect was likely more potent precisely because she did what she did without expecting to topple her oppressors. Mrs. MacDonald avoided discouragement and defeat because at the point that she determined to resist her oppression, she was triumphant. Her answer to my question reflected the value of that triumph, explained the source of courage that fueled her dangerous challenge to the white power structure of that rural Mississippi county. Nothing the all-powerful whites could do to her would diminish her triumph.

THIS BOOK’S UNORTHODOX form is a testament to the support and the persistence of Martin Kessler, president and editorial director of Basic Books. For her assistance as well as valuable ideas and editing help, I owe a real debt to my former student Erin Edmonds, J.D., Harvard ’91, a demon writer in her own right. The interweaving of fact and fiction requires writing skill and experience possessed by few law teachers, including this author. To fill the gap between idea and execution, I relied on Basic Books’s development editor Phoebe Hoss, who here, as she did in And We Are Not Saved, labored far beyond the awesome obligations of her unsung profession to give these chapters intelligible form and logical structure.

Lynn Walker, the director of the Ford Foundation’s Human Rights and Social Justice Programs, provided a grant that helped with research assistance. I also received a grant from the Harvard Law School’s summer research program. Earlier versions of some of these stories were written for and discussed with my Civil Rights at the Crossroads Seminars at the Harvard Law School in 1989 and 1990. My thanks to the many persons who read all or portions of this manuscript. They include: Anita Allen, Karen Beckwith, Carter Bell, Arlene Brock, Janet Dewart, Dagmar Miller, Cindy Monaco, Linda Singer, Krenie Stowe, Sung-Hee Suh, and Ayelet Waldman. John Hayakawa Torok helped with research, and Dan Gunnells, Michelle Degree, and Cheryl Jackson performed various secretarial functions.

Several of the stories were written to facilitate classroom discussion. Some were then published elsewhere, usually in substantially different versions, and I gratefully acknowledge permission to reprint them: Chapter 1, “Racial Symbols: A Limited Legacy” in “A Holiday for Dr. King: The Significance of Symbols in the Black Freedom Struggle,” University of California at Davis Law Review 17 (1983): 433; chapter 3, “The Racial Preference Licensing Act,” in “Foreword: The Final Civil Rights Act,” California Law Review 79 (1991): 597; chapter 4, “The Last Black Hero,” in “The Last Black Hero,” Harvard Blackletter Law Journal 8 (1991): 51; chapter 5, “Divining a Racial Realism Theory,” in “Xerces and the Affirmative Action Mystique (A Tribute to Professor Arthur S. Miller),” 57 George Washington Law Review 1595 (1989): 701; chapter 6, “The Rules of Racial Standing,” in “The Law of Racial Standing,” Yale Journal of Law and Liberation 2 (1991): 117; chapter 9, “The Space Traders,” in “A Forum on Derrick Bell’s Civil Rights Chronicles,” 1989 Sanford E. Sarasohn Memorial Lecture, St. Louis University Law Journal 34 (1990): 393; and in “Racism: A Prophecy for the Year 2000,” Rutgers Law Review 42 (1989): 1.


Divining Our Racial Themes

In these bloody days and frightful nights when an urban warrior can find no face more despicable than his own, no ammunition more deadly than self-hate and no target more deserving of his true aim than his brother, we must wonder how we came so late and lonely to this place.

—Maya Angelou

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN THE YEARS BEFORE THE Second World War, our slave heritage was more a symbol of shame than a source of pride. It burdened black people with an indelible mark of difference as we struggled to be like whites. In those far-off days, survival and progress seemed to require moving beyond, even rejecting slavery. Childhood friends in a West Indian family who lived a few doors away often boasted—erroneously as I later learned—that their people had never been slaves. My own more accurate—but hardly more praiseworthy—response was that my forebears included many free Negroes, some of whom had Choctaw and Blackfoot Indian blood.

In those days, self-delusion was both easy and comforting. Slavery was barely mentioned in the schools and seldom discussed by the descendants of its survivors, particularly those who had somehow moved themselves to the North. Emigration, whether from the Caribbean islands or from the Deep South states, provided a geographical distance that encouraged and enhanced individual denial of our collective, slave past. We sang spirituals but detached the songs from their slave origins. As I look back, I see this reaction as no less sad, for being very understandable. We were a subordinate and mostly shunned portion of a society that managed to lay the onus of slavery neatly on those who were slaves while simultaneously exonerating those who were slaveholders. All things considered, it seemed a history best left alone.

Then, after the Second World War and particularly in the 1960s, slavery became—for a few academics and some militant Negroes—a subject of fascination and a sure means of evoking racial rage as a prelude to righteously repeated demands for “Freedom Now!” In response to a resurrection of interest in our past, new books on slavery were written, long out-of-print volumes republished. The new awareness reached its highest point in 1977 with the television version of Alex Haley’s biographical novel, Roots.1 The highly successful miniseries informed millions of Americans—black as well as white—that slavery in fact existed and that it was awful. Not, of course, as awful as it would have been save for the good white folks the television writers had created to ease the slaves’ anguish, and the evil ones on whose shoulders they placed all the guilt. Through the magic of literary license, white viewers could feel revulsion for slavery without necessarily recognizing American slavery as a burden on the nation’s history, certainly not a burden requiring reparations in the present.

Even so, under pressure of civil rights protests, many white Americans were ready to accede to if not applaud Supreme Court rulings that the Constitution should no longer recognize and validate laws that kept in place the odious badges of slavery.

As a result, two centuries after the Constitution’s adoption, we did live in a far more enlightened world. Slavery was no more. Judicial precedent and a plethora of civil rights statutes formally prohibited racial discrimination. Compliance was far from perfect, but the slavery provisions in the Constitution* did seem lamentable artifacts of a less enlightened era.

But the fact of slavery refuses to fade, along with the deeply embedded personal attitudes and public policy assumptions that supported it for so long. Indeed, the racism that made slavery feasible is far from dead in the last decade of twentieth-century America; and the civil rights gains, so hard won, are being steadily eroded. Despite undeniable progress for many, no African Americans are insulated from incidents of racial discrimination. Our careers, even our lives, are threatened because of our color. Even the most successful of us are haunted by the plight of our less fortunate brethren who struggle for existence in what some social scientists call the “underclass.” Burdened with life-long poverty and soul-devastating despair, they live beyond the pale of the American Dream. What we designate as “racial progress” is not a solution to that problem. It is a regeneration of the problem in a particularly perverse form.

According to data compiled in 1990 for basic measures of poverty, unemployment, and income, the slow advances African Americans made during the 1960s and 1970s have definitely been reversed. The unemployment rate for blacks is 2.5 times the rate for whites. Black per-capita income is not even two thirds of the income for whites; and blacks, most of whom own little wealth or business property, are three times more likely to have income below the poverty level than whites.3 If trends of the last two decades are allowed to continue, readers can safely—and sadly—assume that the current figures are worse than those cited here.*

Statistics cannot, however, begin to express the havoc caused by joblessness and poverty: broken homes, anarchy in communities, futility in the public schools. All are the bitter harvest of race-determined unemployment in a society where work provides sustenance, status, and the all-important sense of self-worth. What we now call the “inner city” is, in fact, the American equivalent of the South African homelands. Poverty is less the source than the status of men and women who, despised because of their race, seek refuge in self-rejection. Drug-related crime, teenaged parenthood, and disrupted and disrupting family life all are manifestations of a despair that feeds on self. That despair is bred anew each day by the images on ever-playing television sets, images confirming that theirs is the disgraceful form of living, not the only way people live.

Few whites are able to identify with blacks as a group—the essential prerequisite for feeling empathy with, rather than aversion from, blacks’ self-inflicted suffering, as expressed by the poet Maya Angelou in this Introduction’s epigraph. Unable or unwilling to perceive that “there but for the grace of God, go I,” few whites are ready to actively promote civil rights for blacks. Because of an irrational but easily roused fear that any social reform will unjustly benefit blacks, whites fail to support the programs this country desperately needs to address the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, both black and white.

Lulled by comforting racial stereotypes, fearful that blacks will unfairly get ahead of them, all too many whites respond to even the most dire reports of race-based disadvantage with either a sympathetic headshake or victim-blaming rationalizations. Both responses lead easily to the conclusion that contemporary complaints of racial discrimination are simply excuses put forward by people who are unable or unwilling to compete on an equal basis in a competitive society.

For white people who both deny racism and see a heavy dose of the Horatio Alger myth as the answer to blacks’ problems, how sweet it must be when a black person stands in a public place and condemns as slothful and unambitious those blacks who are not making it. Whites eagerly embrace black conservatives’ homilies to self-help, however grossly unrealistic such messages are in an economy where millions, white as well as black, are unemployed and, more important, in one where racial discrimination in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when employers posted signs “no negras need apply.”

Whatever the relief from responsibility such thinking provides those who embrace it, more than a decade of civil rights setbacks in the White House, in the courts, and in the critical realm of media-nurtured public opinion has forced retrenchment in the tattered civil rights ranks. We must reassess our cause and our approach to it, but repetition of time-worn slogans simply will not do. As a popular colloquialism puts it, it is time to “get real” about race and the persistence of racism in America.

To make such an assessment—to plan for the future by reviewing the experiences of the past—we must ask whether the formidable hurdles we now face in the elusive quest for racial equality are simply a challenge to our commitment, whether they are the latest variation of the old hymn “One More River to Cross.” Or, as we once again gear up to meet the challenges posed by these unexpected new setbacks, are we ignoring a current message with implications for the future which history has already taught us about the past?

Such assessment is hard to make. On the one hand, contemporary color barriers are certainly less visible as a result of our successful effort to strip the law’s endorsement from the hated Jim Crow signs. Today one can travel for thousands of miles across this country and never see a public facility designated as “Colored” or “White.” Indeed, the very absence of visible signs of discrimination creates an atmosphere of racial neutrality and encourages whites to believe that racism is a thing of the past. On the other hand, the general use of so-called neutral standards to continue exclusionary practices reduces the effectiveness of traditional civil rights laws, while rendering discriminatory actions more oppressive than ever. Racial bias in the pre-Brown era was stark, open, unalloyed with hypocrisy and blank-faced lies. We blacks, when rejected, knew who our enemies were. They were not us! Today, because bias is masked in unofficial practices and “neutral” standards, we must wrestle with the question whether race or some individual failing has cost us the job, denied us the promotion, or prompted our being rejected as tenants for an apartment. Either conclusion breeds frustration and alienation—and a rage we dare not show to others or admit to ourselves.

Modern discrimination is, moreover, not practiced indiscriminately. Whites, ready and willing to applaud, even idolize black athletes and entertainers, refuse to hire, or balk at working with, blacks. Whites who number individual blacks among their closest friends approve, or do not oppose, practices that bar selling or renting homes or apartments in their neighborhoods to blacks they don’t know. Employers, not wanting “too many of them,” are willing to hire one or two black people, but will reject those who apply later. Most hotels and restaurants who offer black patrons courteous—even deferential—treatment, uniformly reject black job applicants, except perhaps for the most menial jobs. When did you last see a black waiter in a really good restaurant?

Racial schizophrenia is not limited to hotels and restaurants. As a result, neither professional status nor relatively high income protects even accomplished blacks from capricious acts of discrimination that may reflect either individual “preference” or an institution’s bias. The motivations for bias vary; the disadvantage to black victims is the same.

Careful examination reveals a pattern to these seemingly arbitrary racial actions. When whites perceive that it will be profitable or at least cost-free to serve, hire, admit, or otherwise deal with blacks on a nondiscriminatory basis, they do so. When they fear—accurately or not—that there may be a loss, inconvenience, or upset to themselves or other whites, discriminatory conduct usually follows. Selections and rejections reflect preference as much as prejudice. A preference for whites makes it harder to prove the discrimination outlawed by civil rights laws. This difficulty, when combined with lackluster enforcement, explains why discrimination in employment and in the housing market continues to prevail more than two decades after enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 19655 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.6

Racial policy is the culmination of thousands of these individual practices. Black people, then, are caught in a double bind. We are, as I have said, disadvantaged unless whites perceive that nondiscriminatory treatment for us will be a benefit for them. In addition, even when nonracist practices might bring a benefit, whites may rely on discrimination against blacks as a unifying factor and a safety valve for frustrations during economic hard times.

Almost always, the injustices that dramatically diminish the rights of blacks are linked to the serious economic disadvantage suffered by many whites who lack money and power. Whites, rather than acknowledge the similarity of their disadvantage, particularly when compared with that of better-off whites, are easily detoured into protecting their sense of entitlement vis-à-vis blacks for all things of value. Evidently, this racial preference expectation is hypnotic. It is this compulsive fascination that seems to prevent most whites from even seeing—much less resenting—the far more sizable gap between their status and those who occupy the lofty levels at the top of our society.

Race consciousness of this character, as Professor Kimberlè Crenshaw suggested in 1988 in a pathbreaking Harvard Law Review article, makes it difficult for whites “to imagine the world differently. It also creates the desire for identification with privileged elites. By focusing on a distinct, subordinate ‘other,’ whites include themselves in the dominant circle—an arena in which most hold no real power, but only their privileged racial identity.”7

The critically important stabilizing role that blacks play in this society constitutes a major barrier in the way of achieving racial equality. Throughout history, politicians have used blacks as scapegoats for failed economic or political policies. Before the Civil War, rich slave owners persuaded the white working class to stand with them against the danger of slave revolts—even though the existence of slavery condemned white workers to a life of economic privation.8 After the Civil War, poor whites fought social reforms and settled for segregation rather than see formerly enslaved blacks get ahead.9 Most labor unions preferred to allow plant owners to break strikes with black scab labor than allow blacks to join their ranks.10 The “them against us” racial ploy—always a potent force in economic bad times—is working again: today whites, as disadvantaged by high-status entrance requirements as blacks, fight to end affirmative action policies that, by eliminating class-based entrance requirements and requiring widespread advertising of jobs, have likely helped far more whites than blacks. And in the 1990s, as through much of the 1980s, millions of Americans—white as well as black—face steadily worsening conditions: unemployment, inaccessible health care, inadequate housing, mediocre education, and pollution of the environment. The gap in national incomes is approaching a crisis as those in the top fifth now earn more than their counterparts in the bottom four fifths combined. The conservative guru Kevin Phillips used a different but no less disturbing comparison: the top two million income earners in this country earn more than the next one hundred million.11

Shocking. And yet conservative white politicians are able to gain and hold even the highest office despite their failure to address seriously any of these issues. They rely instead on the time-tested formula of getting needy whites to identify on the basis of their shared skin color, and suggest with little or no subtlety that white people must stand together against the Willie Hortons, or against racial quotas, or against affirmative action. The code words differ. The message is the same. Whites are rallied on the basis of racial pride and patriotism to accept their often lowly lot in life, and encouraged to vent their frustration by opposing any serious advancement by blacks. Crucial to this situation is the unstated understanding by the mass of whites that they will accept large disparities in economic opportunity in respect to other whites as long as they have a priority over blacks and other people of color for access to the few opportunities available.

This “racial bonding” by whites12 means that black rights and interests are always vulnerable to diminishment if not to outright destruction. The willingness of whites over time to respond to this racial rallying cry explains—far more than does the failure of liberal democratic practices (regarding black rights) to coincide with liberal democratic theory—blacks’ continuing subordinate status. This is, of course, contrary to the philosophy of Gunnar Myrdal’s massive midcentury study An American Dilemma. Myrdal and two generations of civil rights advocates accepted the idea of racism as merely an odious holdover from slavery, “a terrible and inexplicable anomaly stuck in the middle of our liberal democratic ethos.”13 No one doubted that the standard American policy making was adequate to the task of abolishing racism. White America, it was assumed, wanted to abolish racism.*

Forty years later, in The New American Dilemma, Professor Jennifer Hochschild examined what she called Myrdal’s “anomaly thesis,” and concluded that it simply cannot explain the persistence of racial discrimination.15 Rather, the continued viability of racism demonstrates “that racism is not simply an excrescence on a fundamentally healthy liberal democratic body, but is part of what shapes and energizes the body.”16


  • "Eerily prophetic, almost haunting, and yet at the same time oddly reassuring."—Michelle Alexander, from the Foreword
  • “Bell’s perspective retains its relevance. Even after his death, it has been far easier to disagree with him than to prove him wrong.”—Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker
  • "Derrick Bell, who is often described as the founder or godfather of critical race theory…. has been an important influence on some of today’s most influential writers on race, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander…. For his supporters and critics alike, Derrick Bell remains a central figure. Nearly three decades after the publication of his most widely read book [Faces at the Bottom of the Well], his stark vision of the racial divide in American society and history has retained its power to provoke debate and activism across the political spectrum."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Effective...chilling."—New York Times Book Review
  • "A disturbing but ultimately inspiring book."—San Francisco Chronicle

On Sale
Oct 30, 2018
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Derrick Bell

About the Author

Derrick Bell (1930-2011) was a civil rights attorney, pioneering legal scholar, professor, and political activist. A full-time visiting professor at New York University Law School for over two decades, he was previously the first tenured African American professor on the faculty of Harvard Law School and the first African American dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. He is also the author of And We Are Not Saved and several other books.

Learn more about this author