'Yes, but Will You Condemn ...'

Here's a piece from Jonathan Chait that's largely sympathetic to Derrick Bell. It focuses on Joel Pollak, and the charge of anti-Semitism. I think this paragraph warrants some discussion:


None of this is to say that Bell was merely an inoffensive academic toiling at his labors until Pollak decided to smear him. He's a justifiably controversial figure, whose complexity is well captured by this 1993 profile by James Traub. Among other problems, Bell refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan at a time when most black intellectuals did. Bell is not an anti-Semite, but he has tolerated anti-Semitism.

I've written some about Farrakhan and the feelings toward him among young black people, in the 90s, given his baggage. One thing that some of us were too slow to understand was that it wasn't simply "baggage." Farrakhan actually had an active hatred of Jews--one which he continues to exhibit up until this very day. 

But beyond that, there's an unspoken double-standard which, I suspect, black people of that era asked to denounce Farrakhan always chafed under. If you check out the piece which Chait links, Bell becomes notably agitated when asked to denounce Farrakhan:

In the course of our three-hour conversation Bell's genial expression slipped only once--when I suggested that he was "endorsing" Farrakhan. "I'm not endorsing him," Bell flashed, pounding the air with his fist. "No, no. I resent being asked because I'm black to jump up and denounce Farrakhan when he says things that are despicable when nobody comes and asks me when [Pat] Robertson made his despicable comments [at the Republican Convention] to jump up and do that." 

I asked Bell about Gates's argument, advanced in a New York Times op-ed piece last summer, that black intellectuals have an obligation to denounce black bigots. Bell wasn't interested in the question. "If that's what Skip wanted to do," he shrugged, "that's fine. My criticism would only enhance his standing. The only thing it does is serve as a comfort to whites who are upset." 

That's Derek Bell's bottom line: if it comforts whites, it's bad; if it comforts blacks--i.e., Farrakhan--it's good.

It should be remembered that this is the magazine of Marty Peretz. That The New Republic of that era should offer lectures on how to dispense with bigots is rich. But it is also the kind of standard which pissed off black intellectuals like Derrick Bell in the 90s. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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