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Publisher's Summary

The classic work on American racism and the struggle for racial justice

In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, civil rights activist and legal scholar Derrick Bell uses allegory and historical example to argue that racism is an integral and permanent part of American society. African American struggles for equality are doomed to fail so long as the majority of Whites do not see their own wellbeing threatened by the status quo. Bell calls on African Americans to face up to this unhappy truth and abandon a misplaced faith in inevitable progress. Only then will Blacks, and those Whites who join with them, be in a position to create viable strategies to alleviate the burdens of racism. "Freed of the stifling rigidity of relying unthinkingly on the slogan 'we shall overcome,'" he writes, "we are impelled both to live each day more fully and to examine critically the actual effectiveness of traditional civil rights remedies."

©1992 Derrick Bell (P)2018 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"Effective...chilling." (New York Times Book Review)

"A disturbing but ultimately inspiring book." (San Francisco Chronicle)

"Eerily prophetic, almost haunting, and yet at the same time oddly reassuring." (Michelle Alexander, from the foreword)

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This is a classic for a reason.

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.

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A must-read

A must read for all who want to better understand the operation of race in American society and history

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Better the 2nd Time

Read this book for a philosophy class over 20yrs ago. As frustrating as it is to understand the book's relevance since its print and thru to today, I continue to marvel in the parables creativity and simplicity. A must read for every Black American but only with rigorous analysis and challenge. Without serious analysis the full impact of the stories are not realized.

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Haunting and brilliant!

An extremely insightful book that should be read or listened to by all! Words cannot explain how important and powerful this book really is!

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Well worth listening to at least thrice....

.The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman - Shahrazad Ali

.Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution - Leonard Shlain

.The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the disposable sex - Warren Farrell, Ph.D

.The Rational Male - Rollo Tomassi

·The Wretched Of The Earth - Frantz Fanon

·Dark Light Consciousness: Melanin, Serpent Power, and the Luminous Matrix of Reality by Edward Bynum

·Blacked Out Through Whitewash: Exposing the Quantum Deception/Rediscovering and Recovering Suppressed Melanated by Suzar

·Christopher Columbus & the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery & the Rise of European Capitalism by John Henrik Clarke

·They came before Columbus: The African Presence In Ancient America by Ivan Van Sertima

·Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy by George G M James

·How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney

·The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism Within US Slave Culture by Vincent Woodard

·Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter

·Germany's black holocaust, 1890-1945 by Firpo W. Carr

·Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

·The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

·The Willie Lynch Letter and the Making of a Slave by Willie Lynch

·Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X Kendi

·White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

·The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood by Tommy Curry

·They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie Jones-Rogers

·The Destruction of Black Civilization : Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. by Chancellor Williams

·The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

·Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

·The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction by Daniel Brook

·Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino

·African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean
By Herbert S. Klein, Ben Vinson III

·The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

·John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds

·Sex and Racism in America by Calvin C Hernton

· The Blackwoman's Guide to Understanding the Blackman - Shahrazad Ali

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Shockingly Racist

I actually have to commend the author for his honesty. He doesn’t even attempt to hide his overtly racist views. Ironically, he explicitly engages in the very racism he admonishes throughout the book, not only in his obvious contempt for whites, but worse in his disgustingly low regard for minority groups, particularly blacks. It’s clear that the author views whites as fundamentally and irredeemably racist, but in describing this bigoted and subjective opinion of his, he also paints blacks as perpetual subordinate victims incapable of overcoming adversity. Shameful. Among the themes found in this vapid and nihilistic book are a complete rejection of enlightenment philosophy, individual liberty, personal responsibility, rational critical thinking, equality of opportunity, legal neutrality, as well as the principles of free market capitalism. Clearly Marxist in his collectivist thinking and rationale, the author dismisses the many hard fought achievements of the civil rights movement, and openly calls for the abandonment of integration philosophy and traditional anti-discrimination law. At one point the author not only argues for a legalized form of discrimination, but actively promotes segregation. As disturbingly racist as this book is, I recommend that every American read it. I suspect that the more people who read up on the anti-enlightenment and racist philosophical underpinnings of Critical Race Theory, the more people will reject this poisonous Marxist pedagogy wholesale. Read this book, but also prepare for it’s bigoted concepts to infuriate you.

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Simply perfect

This book opened my mind to possibilities I never knew I needed. simply perfect indeed!

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one of the best books I've ever read

This book was recommended to me and I initially was hesitant as it was published in 1992. Its themes are mostly timeless and, save for a few dated references in the final story, as hard hitting as ever.

I never thought I could learn so much from 90s sci fi short stories written by a law professor.

I'll recommend this to everyone I know. Do yourself a favor if you're reading this review and please give it a chance.

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Read to understand why many blacks are angry with whites

You’ll see firsthand why blacks are angry at white after reading this. Certainly some blacks have reason to be angry at certain whites, but this book lumps us all into one or the other group with the premise that racism is in every white person and system.

I suggest this reading to those who want to better understand why people think they’re racist without even knowing them. The stories and dialogues are so well written I found myself becoming angry at white people before I remembered it’s allegory.

Bell opens with a true story of him interviewing and elderly woman fighting injustices. Asking why she carries on the fight, she responds “I live to Harass white folk.” harassing white people is celebrate. Bell reiterated this sentiment in his recounting of the story.

Bell makes it clear racism on a large systemic scale will never end and the only option solution is a Wakanda oasis nation ruled solely for and by black people. The forward by Michelle Alexander alludes to her desire that the United States will cease to exist and “new founding fathers and mothers” will arise to bring in a new country.
Bell makes up the story of “Afrolantica,” the newly discovered Atlantis of old.

“I’ve long held education is the key to the race problem”

Space traders chapter paints a picture of extra terrestrials coming to only the United States and offering Gold, resources, and solutions to all the country’s problems for one thing in return: all the nations black people. Most of the chapter highlights conservatives who are all white arguing to make this trade in the name of patriotism, with the one token black conservative arguing against. This of course enlightens the “Uncle Tom” to realize how wrong he’s been to fight for conservative values and he seeks to save his (black) people. However, he’s now rejected by whites and blacks. The story alludes to the thought “get with the program now or you’ll really be on your own” towards blacks who go against the liberal agenda.
FYI: I (and practically everyone I know) will vote and fight to keep black people in the US if aliens want to trade them for resources. Write it down!

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Always good to hear from all perspectives

Amazingly different view point from what’s commonly available and very well presented. I learnt a great deal from this recording.

1 person found this helpful