On Faces At the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992), a foundational text in critical race theory that presents stories and essays related chiefly to the philosophy of law. Lawrence Ware returns to talk with Mark, Seth, and Dylan about “The Space Traders.”
What is racism, and how can we measure its acuity? Bell thinks that an argument that racism in America has not come to an end needs no philosophical argument: It’s reflected obviously and directly in the data about disparities in wealth and quality of life.
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Why are these disparities evidence of racism? To a racist, they might not seem so, as such a person can blame the quality of black characters and culture. But granting that all people are as aggregates more or less inherently equal, i.e. by denying racist assumptions, it seems reasonable to conclude that current disparities are a result of the legacy of slavery, and Bell adds to this a few ideas of his own about the continuing role of black people in American class relations: The rich and powerful them as a buffer against widespread rebellion among poor white workers. If the latter can at least point to someone and claim superiority (i.e. they look down at the black “faces at the bottom of the well”), someone they can blame for all of society’s ills, this distracts from the real source of their oppression, i.e. capitalism. This is a chief reason why Bell regarded racism as permanent: It will last as long as our current economic system does. To actually address racial disparities would require substantial income redistribution away from the distribution of wealth that capitalism has given us.
This “racial realism” is hostile to merely symbolic remedies for racism. People merely being more respectful, celebrating Martin Luther King Day, and otherwise paying lip service to equality doesn’t correct the disparities that are at the heart of racist cycles. Even if a “talented tenth” of people of color rise to positions of influence, so long as the mass of black people are impoverished, then they will be the target and source of most crime. The presence of those like Bell himself who have “risen” makes the judgment of white people on the rest that much more damning: Clearly there must be plenty of opportunity if such rising is possible! Being “racially blind” just ensures continuation of the status quo. Any laws requiring equal treatment will fail if racist sentiments and preferences are widespread. Opportunity and honors are most doled out according to “who you know,” i.e. systems that are not necessarily racist in their intent but have definitely perpetuated racial disparities.
Bell claimed that white people as a group are incapable of sympathizing with the plight of black people, and this has been shown time and again in political bargains that sacrifice black interests, starting with the American Constitution, where the acute necessity for unification caused concessions to slave owners. The Brown vs. the Board of Education court decision was supposed to be the landmark that would solve segregation in one swoop, but lax enforcement and subsequent court decisions gutting its force have left de facto segregation in place in many schools. Besides which, even if a law says that schools can no longer be segregated, this doesn’t prevent “white flight” from urban areas to white-dominated school districts.
“The Space Traders,” the final chapter of the book, is a science fiction story wherein aliens come to Earth during a time of economic and environmental catastrophe (the inevitable outcome of laissez faire capitalism) offering to solve all of our problems if only we give up the American black population to them, to be taken up into space to an unspecified fate. Bell posits that after due consideration, white America would take the deal, claiming that any group of Americans should be patriotic enough to sacrifice themselves for their fellows, but characters in the story claim that if the aliens were asking for all white women, or redheads, or any other segment of the population, we’d tell them to go to hell. Bell’s thesis is that black people are only given rights when it’s in the interests of the white majority to do so, as when after World War II it would have looked especially bad for us to not provide a sharp contrast to those racist Nazis, especially with so many American black veterans. It was important for us to look free as compared to the Communists. But as soon as times get tough, when there is economic uncertainty or hardship, black welfare is sacrificed first.
Buy the book. Watch the Space Traders short film. Bell’s previous book that we mention that focuses more on specific court cases and such is And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1989).
Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.