For Whom the Bell Tolls

ON BOOKS:

And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice

By Derrick Bell

Basic Books: 288 pp.; $19.95.

THERE NO longer are laws requiring that white children and Black children go to separate schools. Nor are there left any laws which set aside bathrooms, lunchcounters or drinking fountains for the use of whites only. In addition, there are laws which actively affirm and protect the right of Blacks to vote, making possible substantial Black representation among the nation's mayoralty and a growing and influential Black voting bloc in Congress.

But as Derrick Bell makes clear in And We Are Not Saved, racism cannot be made illegal, and white dominance cannot simply be struck down in a majority opinion.

Bell, a professor at Harvard Law School, abandons the standard language of legal discourse, employing instead the device of parable to make his points about race, law, religion, and the intersection of the three. Through dialogues between his fictional characters Geneva Crenshaw, a civil rights lawyer who has tapped into an otherworldly body of Black demi-gods known as the Celestial Curia, and her Black law professor friend, Bell lays the groundwork for a new way of understanding the legal process--a way that is uniquely Black.

JUST AS Blacks took the white man's religion and made it their own, Bell argues, it is necessary for them to take the white man's law and make it Black folks'. As Crenshaw says in the book's final chapter, "If our slave ancestors could do so much with the Bible, we should be able to do no less with the Constitution."

What the slaves did with the Bible is the key to understanding how Bell's otherwise radically pessimistic work nonetheless exhibits an unabiding faith in redemption. As historians such as Lawrence Levine have shown, the Black slaves reconstructed a text designed to justify their servitude into one that brought about spiritual liberation.

This reinterpretaiton of the Bible was more than a psychological escape from the pains of this world. Rather, it was a practice that eventually defined as "sacred" traditionally secular spaces, such as the cotton fields.

After redefining the white man's words, the slaves hurled them at him from all corners of the plantations with raised voices. The Negro spirituals became what Bell calls "a theology in song," and everywhere it challenged those masters who professed to believe in the Bible most deeply.

Bell is searching for a "theology of litigation" less concerned with victory in individual cases than with the morality of the arguments which civil rights lawyers proffer in public. His argument is that Blacks need to define as sacred the American legal system and turn its courtrooms into a forum for Black religion to voice itself. In this way the Constitution, a document initially designed to protect slavery and since used to legitimize Black oppression, could be redefined as an instrument of liberation.

"In order to appraise the contradictions and inconsistencies that pervade the all too real world of racial oppression, I have chosen in this book the tools not only of reason but of unreason, of fantasy," Bell writes. Given the seeming intractability of American racism, imagination is needed to bring about racial justice.

Since America's courtrooms are a space where the contradictions between ideals of freedom and the reality of racism frequently collide, the legal realm, it would seem, is a forum uniquely suited for the allegorical discourse of Black religion to express its faith in redemption and deliverance. The traditional reliance of legal discourse on abstractions such as "equal protection" and "due process" only further conceals the gap between American norm and reality.

Of course the flight to fantasy in the courtroom is not without its dangers. It is more than a little disturbing to hear someone from the left-wing suggesting that God needs to be put back in the courtroom.

Logical, rather than creative, capacities are emphasized in court, and not without reason. The power to create a reality, to imagine an allegory which lays bare the essence of a case, is as unfair as it is liberating, allowing the tangible reality to give way to the perceived reality of a mind such as Bell's. Should justice be meted out based on his--or even a people's--collective imagination? Can real cases be seen most accurately as allegories of imagined realities?

ALL OF this reflects Bell's emphasis on long-term process rather than immediate result. His goal is less to find legal remedies to the immediate problems confronting Blacks than it is for America somehow to transcend its racist past and present through its own legal practices.

In the "Chronicle of the Amber Cloud," a strange affliction attacks priviliged white adolescents and is quickly diagnosed as "Ghetto Disease." Their skin color darkened, "youngsters who had been alert, personable, and confident became lethargic, suspicious, withdrawn and hopelessly insecure."

A cure for the disease is discovered, but when it is suggested that the same cure be given to poor black youngsters, the public balks. The courts defend the exclusion of Blacks from treatment on the grounds that since the disease itself afflicted whites, the cure could be limited to caucasians on medical and not racial grounds. Such are the limits of the "Equal Protection Clause."

Bell invokes the metaphor of disease throughout And We Are Not Saved to describe negative aspects of Black behavior. Thus the crime rate among Blacks can be cured like an illness. Again and again, cures for Black pathologies are discovered, then destroyed. But Bell is doing more than laying bare the hypocrisy of whites who blame the victims. By harping on the analogy of disease as an absurd explanation for Black behavior, he makes the unstated point that it is whites who are stricken with a disease: racism. Ultimately, it is they who must be cured. And, Bell seems to be saying, only Blacks can do it.

As the Curia sisters say, "We find courage in the knowledge that we are not the opressors and that we have commited our lives to fighting the oppression of oursleves as well as others." One hopes that Bell does not abandon his search for a new way of talking about civil rights and that And We Are Not Saved marks the beginnings of a legal movement that forces Americans finally to realize their own ideals.