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The Sci-Fi Story That Offends Oversensitive White Conservatives

The right's latest bogeyman, Derrick Bell, once pondered what would happen if aliens offered gold in exchange for America's black people.

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Americans decided in 2008 that Barack Obama wasn't a radical black leftist, despite attempts by some conservatives to exploit his relationship with Jeremiah Wright and contact with Bill Ayers. Predictably, President Obama has not governed as a radical black leftist, or adopted the controversial rhetoric of a fiery preacher, or embraced the tactics of the Weather Underground. There is nevertheless another conservative attempt to persuade Americans that he's hiding something.

The evidence? A couple decades ago, Obama hugged the late law professor Derrick Bell after introducing him during a rally at Harvard Law School. You can read about Professor Bell here. Spoiler alert: there's no shame in having hugged him. True to its genre, the controversy is a big nothing-burger. But it has renewed interest in a provocative short story that Professor Bell published in 1992. Perhaps the easiest way to characterize it is "critical race theory meets sci-fi." It begins as alien ships unexpectedly arrive on earth. The aliens have a proposition for the United States.

Their offer:

Those mammoth vessels carried within their holds treasure of which the United States was in most desperate need: gold, to bail out the almost bankrupt federal, state, and local governments; special chemicals capable of unpolluting the environment, which was becoming daily more toxic, and restoring it to the pristine state it had been before Western explorers set foot on it; and a totally safe nuclear engine and fuel, to relieve the nation's all-but-depleted supply of fossil fuel. In return, the visitors wanted only one thing-and that was to take back to their home star all the African Americans who lived in the United States.

The jaw of every one of the welcoming officials dropped, not a word of the many speeches they had prepared suitable for the occasion. As the Americans stood in stupefied silence, the visitors' leader emphasized that the proposed trade was for the Americans freely to accept or not, that no force would be used. Neither then nor subsequently did the leader or any other of the visitors, whom anchorpersons on that evening's news shows immediately labeled the "Space Traders," reveal why they wanted only black people or what plans they had for them should the United States be prepared to part with that or any other group of its citizens. The leader only reiterated to his still-dumbfounded audience that, in exchange for the treasure they had brought, they wanted to take away every American categorized as black on birth certificate or other official identification. The Space Traders said they would wait sixteen days for a response to their offer.

Had white Americans swiftly repudiated the alien offer due to their basic decency and lack of racism, the story wouldn't be controversial, so I trust I am not spoiling anything by revealing that isn't how things go in the piece. Bell has a rather dark view of human nature -- see The Lottery for another dark exploration of a similar theme -- and can you blame him? He was born in 1930 and spent his early career helping to desegregate swimming pools and schools over the objections of racists who wanted to keep them segregated. And he was later forced to resign from the Justice Department for the transgression of refusing to give up his NAACP membership.

I don't really understand what the conservatives who conclude from this story that he is a racist are talking about. In fact, he seemed to think, circa 1992, that a majority of whites still harbored complicated but ultimately racist attitudes toward blacks. If the aliens came to America today, their ships loaded with gold, I don't think America would agree to sell them its black residents if it went to majority vote. I am less certain how a referendum on Muslims would go. America would certainly have sold aliens citizens of Japanese ancestry in 1941. And also Native Americans at various points throughout our history.

Those objecting to "The Space Traders" would do well to acknowledge that for many decades of American history, including years during Professor Bell's life, a majority of Americans would have voted in favor of trading blacks for fantastic wealth, unlimited energy, and an end to pollutants. I wonder, if God could run the hypotheticals for us, and Americans were forced to wager $1,000 of their own money, what year they'd choose as the first when blacks would win the referendum. I'd be curious for an answer from Diane Ellis, who seems to think that the story is deplorable and evidence of Bell's alleged racism. I'd say it's evidence that his experiences made him understandably pessimistic about how racial majorities will treat racial minorities given the right circumstances. To label someone as a racist for honesty conveying his dark view of human nature is the sort of politically correct, reductive stifling of speech that conservatives are supposed to stand against.

Flickr user MJTMail

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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