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The Obligation Thesis: Understanding the Persistent 'Black Voice' in Modern Legal Academia

Posted: 6 May 2008  

Monica C. Bell

Harvard University - Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Harvard Law School


This Article revisits the debate over minority voice scholarship, particularly African-American scholarship, that raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the advent of critical race theory (CRT). Many critical race theorists elevated the voices of minority scholars, arguing that scholarship in the minority voice should be accorded greater legitimacy than white intellectuals' work on race. Many scholars of all ethnicities disagreed with Crits' analyses. They charged that good scholarship by minority writers should be judged as a fact-in-itself, not ghettoized or subjected to less rigorous analysis than other scholarship. This Article explores the work of four current up-and-coming black legal scholars to revisit that early disagreement and its ramifications in the modern black legal academy. By and large, it appears that the anti-CRT writers have won the debate. Today's legal academy more closely reflects the anti-narrative perspective on scholarship. Black scholars continue to write on racial topics, but tend not to convey points through claims of authenticity. This Article suggests that one reason African-American legal scholars continue to write about race, despite the risks of doing so, is their sense of obligation to the black community. I contend that this obligation runs just as deeply for black academics as it does for black practitioners, who tend to closely relate the legal profession with the struggle for racial justice.

Keywords: academia, voice scholarship, critical race theory, obligation, African-American, authenticity, civil rights, Derrick Bell

Suggested Citation

Bell, Monica C., The Obligation Thesis: Understanding the Persistent 'Black Voice' in Modern Legal Academia. University of Pittsburgh Law Review, Vol. 68, No. 3, 2007. Available at SSRN:

Monica C. Bell (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Faculty of Arts and Sciences ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard Law School ( email )

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