Evaluating the Perpetually Forthcoming Racial ReckoningBreaking News
tags: racism, civil rights, James Baldwin, Police, Memphis, critical race theory, Derrick Bell
Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement. He is a contributing editor to The Marshall Project.
Moments after first watching the video footage of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death, I turned to The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin’s 1985 essay about what was then the country’s most perplexing true-crime story.
The terror in Atlanta stretched 22 months from 1979 to 1981 and resulted in more than two dozen corpses—all of them Black, most of them children. Nearly everyone assumed that the slayings were the work of a single perpetrator. Many, perhaps especially in Black Atlanta, took as a given that the killer was white, probably a Klan member. Then officials announced the arrest of a Black man named Wayne Williams, who was charged with two of the killings but, authorities tenuously insisted, could be tied to the rest as well. This news unleashed, as Baldwin writes, “the instinctive attempt to calculate the meaning of the new dimension suddenly given to an old dilemma.”
Speculation swirled about whether the murders were an act of self-hatred. It’s true, Baldwin concedes, that there are self-hating Black Americans, especially among police forces. But inasmuch as race was a factor here, Baldwin observes, it was in the way Black Atlantans had been left abused and abandoned by their nation. Descendants of those enslaved in America had been forced into crowded ghettos and kept out of quality schools; degraded by a criminal legal system that sought to scapegoat them for society’s ills; denied jobs and wages, the opportunity and means for the socioeconomic advancement also known as the American dream.
Baldwin understood then what many still fail to see now: Racism can reside not just in the heart of a killer but also within the skeleton of the system that produces him. “The moral vacuum of any society,” Baldwin wrote two years before his death, “immediately creates an actual social chaos.”
My copy of Evidence lived for years on my father’s bookshelf before being clandestinely expatriated to my own. It has a fading black-and-white spine, and its cover features a close-up of Baldwin’s face cropped so tightly that all you see is his right eye. The foreword to the paperback, issued in 1996, was written by Derrick Bell, who was Harvard Law’s first Black tenured professor.
“James Baldwin was not a lawyer, yet his commentary on the Atlanta trial is enlightened by his astute assumption that racism in American law cannot be understood by reading statutes and legal decisions removed from the context of the political, economic, and social concerns that gave rise to them,” Bell writes. “Deeply embedded racial beliefs and presumptions doomed the Atlanta children to an environment where all manner of predicaments and perils haunted their days and threatened their lives.”
Bell began his legal career in the 1950s as a civil-rights attorney and later worked under Thurgood Marshall, but his best-known legacy is the early inspiration for what became known as “critical race theory,” or CRT—a discipline that applies a critical lens to legal statutes and precedents, considering not just the words on the page but the context in which they were drafted.
“From the perspective of critical race theory, some positions have historically been oppressed, distorted, ignored, silenced, destroyed, appropriated, commodified, and marginalized—and all of this, not accidentally. Conversely, the law simultaneously and systematically privileges subjects who are white,” Bell said during a 1995 speech at the University of Illinois in which he said CRT’s aim is “to empower and include traditionally excluded views and see all-inclusiveness as the ideal because of our belief in collective wisdom.”
In the decade or so since his death, Bell’s work has been subject to a steady stream of histrionics.