Is it possible to be successful, as the world measures success, and also morally responsible? Is it possible to rise to a position of leadership, earn a generous income, even achieve a degree of celebrity, while adhering to a strict ethical code?
In the face of our corporate crime wave, with its cast of piratical CEOs, lax lawyers, crooked accountants, sleazy brokers, shoddy regulators, and bribed politicians, we might be inclined to say no. As the white-collared miscreants parade across the television screens, young people, in particular, might suppose that succeeding in business or government requires playing along, bending the rules, wearing moral blinders.
From the experience of a life devoted to fighting for equality, Derrick Bell insists that we need not abandon our ethics in order to pursue our ambitions and he has the credentials to back up his claim.
The son of working-class parents who did not finish high school, he served in the Korean War and returned home to earn a law degree. During Eisenhower's administration, he became one of only three black attorneys in the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department. He left that post in 1959 after he was ordered to cancel his membership in the NAACP, and went on to oversee litigation in the South for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the early 1960s, a dangerous and momentous time for the civil rights movement.
During the latter half of the 1960s, Bell took his legal expertise from the courtroom to the classroom, joining the faculty at the University of Southern California. Harvard wooed him away, but when officials there sought to postpone his tenure decision, Bell defied them, and in 1971 he became the first black person to gain tenure at Harvard Law School. He left Massachusetts in 1980 to become dean of the law school at the University of Oregon, only to leave Oregon six years later because of the university's refusal to grant tenure to an Asian-American woman. Harvard offered him his old position back, and so he returned; but in 1990, he resigned a second time when the university failed to grant tenure to any black women in the law school. He landed at New York University, where he has been teaching constitutional law. Along the way, he has published half a dozen books, including a pioneering volume on legal responses to racism.
One cannot help noticing the pattern of protest in Derrick Bell's biography. Again and again, he has risked his career and financial security to stand up for a principle. When friends asked him why he would jeopardize his family's welfare in this way, he replied, "Because I am committed to a cause that matters more to me than my own comfort."
His ambition was never to acquire wealth or fame, but rather to end discrimination and relieve suffering a cause he sums up in the phrase, "our justice quest." Among his guides in that quest, Bell cites W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Mohandas Gandhi, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Hebrew prophets. He is forthright about his religion, explaining that his conscience was shaped by the music and preaching of the black church, and by the "revolutionary essence of Jesus' message."
While respecting those who follow other religions or no religion, Bell upholds the "vision of radical inclusiveness" that he finds in the teachings of Jesus. According to that vision, everybody deserves a place at the table, no matter their skin color, age, or condition. And likewise everybody deserves a place in the voting booth and the classroom. Everybody deserves a chance to work up to his or her potential, in any profession, in any place. And everybody deserves a fair portion of the wealth we all produce by our common labors.
Many people give lip service to those ideals, but Derrick Bell has wholly embraced them, pursuing the "justice quest" in spite of resistance from his employers and his colleagues; in spite of risks to his livelihood or reputation. Without presenting him as a hero, let alone a saint, "Ethical Ambition" records one man's determined efforts, now stretching over seven decades, to lead a moral life. It's a story well worth hearing as an antidote to the evening news.
Scott Russell Sanders is the author of 'Staying Put,' 'Hunting for Hope,' and 'The Force of Spirit.'