Derrick Bell's story "The Space Traders" is one of science fiction's scariest thought experiments — because of what it reveals about human nature. It's a misanthropic tale in which aliens arrive on Earth and offer America the solution to all our problems, in exchange for all of our black people. For Bell, who spent years of his career fighting segregation in America, it seemed all too plausible that Americans might choose to trade minorities for wealth and alien technology.


In any case, this story — which was made into an HBO special in the early 1990s, see video above — somehow managed to avoid getting on the radar of the 24/7 outrage machine, until now. Conservatives are seizing on the story as proof that Bell was racist against white people — and thus, President Obama must be racist too, because he embraced Bell once in 1990. Obviously, this is the sort of fake controversy that cable news runs on nowadays — but also, it's apparently the product of people who live in some sort of alternate universe where many people aren't alive nowadays who lived through segregation.


Over in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf surmises that as recently as 1992, Americans might have been willing to make the trade that Bell hypothesizes — but not any more. And he concludes:

Those objecting to "The Space Traders" would do well to acknowledge that for many decades of American history, including years during Professor Bell's life, a majority of Americans would have voted in favor of trading blacks for fantastic wealth, unlimited energy, and an end to pollutants. I wonder, if God could run the hypotheticals for us, and Americans were forced to wager $1,000 of their own money, what year they'd choose as the first when blacks would win the referendum. I'd be curious for an answer from Diane Ellis, who seems to think that the story is deplorable and evidence of Bell's alleged racism. I'd say it's evidence that his experiences made him understandably pessimistic about how racial majorities will treat racial minorities given the right circumstances. To label someone as a racist for honesty conveying his dark view of human nature is the sort of politically correct, reductive stifling of speech that conservatives are supposed to stand against.

Thanks to mekki for pointing us to the HBO video!

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