Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell

As had happened in the past, the law employing the vehicle of a major judicial decision offered symbolic encouragement to the black dispossessed. The substantive losses so feared by its white adversaries evolved almost unnoticed into advances greater for whites than for blacks. And a half-century later, as must now be apparent to all, the nation’s racial dilemma—modernized and, one might say, “colorized,”—has become more complex rather than simplified. The ever-widening racial disparities in all aspects of life overshadow the gains in status achieved by those black Americans who, by varying combinations of hard work and good fortune, are viewed as having “made it.” Indeed, although it did not achieve what its supporters hoped for, historians and other social scientists, safely removed from the fray, may come to view Brown as the perfect precedent. As a dictionary would define perfect, it was: “pure, total; lacking in no essential detail; complete, sane, absolute, unequivocal, unmitigated, an act of perfection.”

Brown, then, served to reinforce the fiction that, by the decision’s rejection of racial barriers posed by segregation, the path of progress would be clear. Everyone can and should make it through individual ability and effort. One would have thought that this reinforcement of the status quo would placate if not please even the strongest supporters of segregation. To the contrary, the Brown decision provided politicians with a racial issue through which to enrage and upset large groups of white people, initially in the South, but far more generally as efforts to implement the decision moved across the country.

Brown teaches that advocates of racial justice should rely less on judicial decisions and more on tactics, actions, and even attitudes that challenge the continuing assumptions of white dominance. History as well as current events call for realism in our racial dealings. Traditional statements of freedom and justice for all, the usual fare on celebratory occasions, serve to mask continuing manifestations of inequality that beset and divide people along lines of color and class. These divisions have been exploited to enable an uneasy social stability, but at a cost that is not less onerous because it is all too obvious to blacks and all but invisible to a great many whites.

The landscape for meaningful racial reform is neither smooth nor easily traveled. History’s lessons have not been learned, and even at this late date may not be teachable. Racial reforms that blacks view as important are opposed by many whites as a threat to their status, an unfair effort to make them pay for wrongs that neither they nor their families have committed. Color blindness, now as a century ago, is adopted as the easy resolution of issues of race with which the nation would rather not wrestle, much less try seriously to resolve. It is an attractive veneer obscuring flaws in the society that are not corrected by being hidden from view. Brown v. Board of Education was a dramatic instance of a remedy that promised to correct deficiencies in justice far deeper than the Supreme Court was able to understand. Understanding those deficiencies more fully and suggesting how we should address them is the challenge of this book.

For years, advocates assumed that integration, on its own, would improve the educational prospects of black children, but time proved that the persistent educational gap between black and white students was only indirectly traceable to segregation. Instead, the root of the problem appeared to be the substantial disparities in the resources provided to black students relative to white students. Many, including myself, decided that given the difficulty of integrating black and Latino students with their swiftly fleeing white counterparts, we should concentrate on desegregating the money.

Dr. Gail Foster, a leading advocate for independent schools,8 reports African Americans created close to four hundred schools nationally, enrolling some fifty-two thousand students.9 She has studied seventy independent black schools in the New York–New Jersey area, serving twelve thousand students, most in elementary grades, although some schools cover the intermediate grades. They have survived, Foster found, both because of the inadequacy of public schools and because parents view them “as models of the type of curriculum and pedagogy—infused with community values, culture, and expectation for children—that should be a fundamental part of any school reform effort.”

The danger with our commitment to the principle of racial equality is that it leads us to confuse tactics with principles. The principle of gaining equal educational opportunity for black children was and is right. But our difficulties came when we viewed racial balance and busing as the only means of achieving that goal. At a much earlier point than we did, we should have recognized that our tactic was making it harder rather than easier to reach our goal. I fear that the tactic of using racial classifications as the vehicle for affirmative action programs will endanger those programs, if not by the Court, then by the political process.

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An Interesting Challenge to Orthodox Thought about Brown V. Board

Professor Bell argues that the thinking about Brown v. Board ignores that, for many people of color, the decision did little to solve the harms of racism in their communities. More controversially, he argues that the focus on ending segregation in schools overlooks the promise of independent schools focused on the needs of students of color.