The existence of a speech by Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, praising Derrick Bell, the godfather of critical race theory, and citing his book, “Faces At the Bottom of a Well”, as an influence has been widely reported. Conservatives have covered Bell’s racist views, his praise for Farrakhan, his antisemitism, and attacks on America. Much of this was already hashed out during the exposure of the relationship between Barack Obama and Derrick Bell.
But it’s important to specifically focus on Jackson’s interest in “Faces At the Bottom of the Well.”
In her speech, Jackson mentions that Bell, whom along with his wife she praises throughout her speech, “wrote a book in the early 1990s about the persistence of racism in American life”.
The subtitle of the book, which few people have mentioned, is, “The Permanence Of Racism”.
Persistence and permanence are not the same thing. But this is another example of Jackson subtly distorting Bell and his book in order to make their extremism seem more moderate.
Jackson goes on to say that, “My parents had this book on their coffee table for many years, and I remember staring at the image on the cover when I was growing up; I found it difficult to reconcile the image of the person,who seemed to be smiling, with the depressing message that the title and subtitle conveyed. I thought about this book cover again for the first time in forty years when I started preparing for this speech.” That would have made her ten years old.
As others have pointed out, “Faces At the Bottom of the Well” was published when Jackson was in her early twenties during Bell’s tantrum against Harvard University. It’s unlikely that Biden’s Supreme Court nominee grew up with the hateful text, but it’s entirely plausible that she was influenced by the book which came out when she was at Harvard and then Harvard Law.
Since Bell began his racial strike against Harvard Law before she had completed her undergraduate degree, it’s unlikely that she had taken any of his classes, but the former member of the faculty was clearly an influence on her. Perhaps Jackson’s memory is faulty or she’s deliberately backdating the book’s influence to her childhood to make it seem more innocent. Surely no one could blame a ten year old for being attracted to a racialist text.
“Faces At the Bottom of the Well” is the sort of racist book that could conceivably appeal to a bright ten year old. Bell, despite his position, was never much of a legal or constitutional scholar, and Faces, like the preceding “And We Are Not Saved”, conveys its message that the constitution is just a facade for a white racist agenda through science fiction short stories.
Where “And We Are Not Saved” transports the protagonist back to the Constitutional Convention to denounce the Constitution, “Faces At the Bottom of the Well” indulges in more hyperbolic science fiction scenarios including the rise of a new continent of Afroatlantis and space aliens offering Americans profits in exchange for selling black people into space slavery.
While the scenarios are absurd, they’re there to illustrate Bell’s argument that the Constitution is nothing more than what benefits white people at any given time. This is the same argument that the godfather of critical race theory had repeatedly made throughout his career, contending, for example, that the ban on segregation was not a rejection of racism, only a ploy by white people to defeat the Soviet Union and Communism by showing that they weren’t racist.
(Likewise, Faces, along with a defense of Farrakhan and condemnation of Jews for opposing black antisemitism, portrays Jews as protesting against the plan to sell black people into slavery only because in the absence of blacks, “Jews could become the scapegoats”.)
Such racial conspiracy theories, ubiquitous in the work and thought of black nationalists and supremacists, who always begin and end with the premise of white evil, pervade Bell’s work.
“Faces At the Bottom of the Well” was a way to popularize and communicate this central idea at a level that even a child or a not particularly bright Harvard student, already nursing resentments, would be able to understand by depicting scenarios in which the white society and white people would cheerfully revamp the Constitution to bring back black slavery.
Thus near the end of the “Space Traders” story, Bell has the Supreme Court unanimously rule that, “if inducted in accordance with a constitutionally approved conscription provision, blacks would have no issues of individual rights for review” and tells us that, “By 70 percent to 30 percent, American citizens voted to ratify the constitutional amendment that provided a legal basis for acceptance of the Space Traders’ offer”. Behind the SciFi is the message that the majority of Americans, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution would allow black people to be enslaved again and that therefore black people should not rely on whites or the Constitution.
The Constitution, according to Bell, is merely the whim of a white agenda that serves its purposes. To the extent that the law has outlawed segregation and slavery, it did so only because it temporarily served white purposes and the moment that it would serve white purposes to enslave black people again, it would be done within the Constitution.
That is the message of “Faces At the Bottom of the Well”: the book that influenced Jackson.
Does Jackson believe that the Supreme Court would rule that black people could be sold into slavery? Like everything about her record, we know we can’t expect an honest answer.
And yet her speech, which touches not only on the racist rants of Bell and his wife, but on the 1619 Project, introduces the idea that our founding documents are racially untrustworthy.
Praising the racial revisionist history of the 1619 Project, Jackson touts Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “provocative thesis that the America that was born in 1776 was not the perfect union that it purported to be” and that only black civil rights activism made America “the free nation that the Framers initially touted.”
Much like the 1619 Project, this description is rife with historical anachronisms and fundamental inaccuracies that is even less befitting a Supreme Court justice than a New York Times hack, but also implicitly echoes the critical race theory understanding that the civil rights struggle was not about upholding the Constitution, but overcoming it, that America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were racist and remain the enemy.
In the process of her lecture, Jackson invokes critical race theory, the pernicious concept of “white privilege”, and intersectionality.
The radicalism oozes around the edges of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s talk.
The Supreme Court nominee praises Gloria Richardson who, in Jackson’s words, “took part in several protests that ended in violent clashes with white residents” and “indirectly challenged SNCC’s non-violent ideology.” She quotes Richardson as saying, “[w]hen we were attacked at demonstrations, [we women] were the ones throwing stones back at the whites.”
Gloria Richardson was a wealthy leftist organizer with political connections during the Cambridge Riots who had contemptuously dismissed Martin Luther King and asserted, “We weren’t going to stop until we got it, and if violence occurred, then we would have to accept that.”
Black nationalists hail her because she’s seen as breaking the embargo on local nonviolence in protests. And Richardson had emphasized that to the extent to which she used nonviolence was as a “tactical device”. To Jackson, most of the law seems to likewise be a tactical device.
And that’s the problem.
Absorbing the paranoid racism of the godfather of critical race theory during her formative years at Harvard makes for a bad judge and a worse justice. Bell’s approach to the Constitution, like that of black nationalists, was that it was a trick to lure black people into lowering their guard.
White people, he believed, could never be trusted and all that mattered was seizing power.
Any laws or documents made by white people would only serve them. Only black people could secure the rights of black people. Like the Nazis, the ultimate truths were race and power.
Everything else was a distraction.
If that is Ketanji Brown Jackson’s worldview, she cannot be expected to come out and say it. But the highest court in the land is the last place for racial paranoia and nationalism. The Supreme Court is charged with upholding the Constitution. A judge who does not believe in the Constitution, but believes in critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and white privilege is manifestly unfit to decide the fate of a nation and its hundreds of millions of people.
Derrick Bell and his hateful ideology believed that white racism was the only abiding truth.
There’s no room for that kind of thinking on the Supreme Court.