Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism book coverSummary: A classic book by one of the originators of the Critical Race Theory movement. 

A few weeks ago, I presented an intro to Critical Race Theory to my Be the Bridge group. The presentation is available here. While I created it with the intention of it having many links to articles and podcasts for further investigation, it was designed to be in addition to my audible presentation. It is of only mixed value without any audio. One of the group’s co-leaders suggested that I read Faces at the Bottom of the Well because I had not read any longer works by Derrick Bell, only a couple of articles.

I must say that this is unlike any other book on Critical Race Theory I have read. Faces at the Bottom of the Well is a mix of fictional dialogue, like Plato’s dialogues, and parable-like short stories. The short stories ran from simple discussion or working out of policy ideas to the final short story Space Traders, a sci-fi exploration of how much the country values its Black citizens (and why).

One of the common critiques of Critical Race Theory is that it is oriented toward viewing humanity as depraved. I always find this an odd critique from Christians. Traditional reformed perspectives of Christianity view all people as depraved. But the misunderstanding, I think, comes at how the depravity works. In CRT, the main point is that racism is not centered around individual animus against people of a different racial group, but systems that lock the disparity in. Those systems and how racial hierarchy is locked into those give Faces at the Bottom of the Well the subtitle, The Permanence of Racism.

My seminary systematic theology professor was a Black Liberation theologian, and I am eternally grateful for that early introduction to theology. One of the early books we read was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. (It is cheap on kindle because it is in the public domain, and I keep meaning to re-read it because my original reading was more than 25 years ago.) Niebuhr’s book’s main point is that while people are sinful, people are more likely to sin as members of groups than solely as individuals. Niebuhr wrote this before becoming a professor at Union Seminary and from his experience as an urban pastor in Detroit in the early years of the Great Depression.

Niebuhr was critiquing progressive liberal theological systems that thought we could bring about utopian or increasingly better societies through social gospel types of advocacy and policy change. There is a whole chapter on Niebuhr in James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As much as Niebuhr helps critique aspects of liberalism and the push toward ever-increasing progressivism, his own racial blindspots are exactly the type of issues that CRT arose to address.

There can be a nihilism to traditional CRT, but there is also an accuracy that opponents to CRT do not seem to want to address directly. The current move to make CRT incompatible with Christianity simply by declaring it so, without actually addressing the problems it raises, is accurately predicted by Derrick Bell and others. I mostly want to say to those who find CRT the most dangerous threat to Christianity is what are you going to do about racism to prove CRT’s nihilism wrong?

I think that Bradly Mason is right to explain CRT by addressing the historical reasons for its development. He has a six-part series at the Front Porch blog, but I do not believe he is done. His long, but helpful look at how the pushback against Civil Rights Era reforms starting in the 1960s but increasing in the 1980s, shows that even mild legal reforms to voting rights, housing, and other economic reforms, and within the church, the Promise Keepers ‘find a black friend’ strategies were not enough to overcome the culture of racial hierarchy, but were too much not to have a backlash against.

I have finished but not yet reviewed Daniel Hill’s White Lies. It is about the church’s importance, particularly White Christians, in naming white supremacy, or white superiority or racial hierarchy as the sin, not just opposing individualized racial animus that we can only see in others. I am not a whole-hearted proponent of CRT because I do not believe that its orientation is about solutions but about identifying the problem. But CRT does help identify the problem of systemic racism and its intractability. And as Christians, we need to be reminded that, at root, CRT identifies racism as a type of cosmic reality and a sin, albeit in secular terms and modes.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well is engaging. Its method of stories and dialogue remove the academic and legal language that other authors use. Bell is engaging the heart and imagination, not just the intellect, which is part of the need. The problem with many is that racism is abstract; there is no relational skin in the game. Even without relational skin in the game, books like this can help create empathy and imaginative understanding to help people see differently.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

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