Derrick Bell, a New York University law professor, offers readers an engaging, harsh critique of how the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision failed blacks.Bell, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the 1960s, later came to believe the abstract principle of school integration is much less important than guaranteeing good schools for all black children.Seeing racism as a permanent fixture in U.S. society, Bell believes excessive devotion to integrationist principles actually hurts black children.Bell also recognizes it is difficult to criticize the Brown decision today, because it “has become a legal landmark, an American icon embraced as a symbol of the nation’s ability to condemn racial segregation and put the unhappy past behind us.”
In 1954, Brown overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding the right of the East Louisiana Railway to maintain “separate” cars for whites and non-whites if those cars provided “equal” service. The decision specifically denied the right of Homer Plessy, a New Orleans civil rights activist who testified he was one-eighth black, to enter a railroad car for “whites only.”The 1954 Brown ruling would have accomplished more, Bell argues, if it upheld the Plessy decision’s “separate but equal” principle and insisted the “equal” component be enforced.In Silent Covenants, Bell offers dozens of examples of how Brown v. Board failed to bring about equal education. But the book never really explains how upholding and modifying the 1896 decision could have worked to accomplish that equality.The 1954 ruling affirmed what Justice John Harlan wrote in his lone dissent to Plessy in 1896:“In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. ... The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.”Resistance to segregation increased after the end of World War II with the return of black soldiers from battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. But it was also an era that saw the end to segregation in some institutions, notably professional baseball when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The Brown decision was one part of that reform process — marked by protests, marches and sit-ins across the nation — that led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965.Writing about Brown in the May 3 issue of The New Yorker, Cass R. Sunstein comments Bell offers “a bold and sobering counterproposal. But it would have done nothing about the injury produced by segregation, and it would have put federal courts in an impossible position.”Today, 50 years later, as Bell points out, it is undeniable black children still receive poorer educations that white children.Bell criticizes lawyers who continue to fight for integration on principle. He argues they are more committed to an abstract idea than the “educational interest of their clients. ... Racial balance might not be the relief actually desired by the victims of segregated schools.”Yet Silent Covenants never explains how leaders of what Bell calls a racist society could be forced to provide enough money to make segregated schools truly equal.
Bell notes that racism “fractures” poor people from each other.“The ideology of whiteness continues to oppress whites as well as blacks” and “hinders the formation of political alliances between poor and working class whites ... and poor and working class minorities.”But Bell overlooks historical examples of cooperation between blacks and whites, especially in union struggles.Bell describes the U.S. as “a culture from whose inception racial discrimination has been a regulative force for maintaining stability and growth.”He argues that when leaders make commitments to curb racism, they do so primarily because they believe “the country could derive benefits that were at least as important as those blacks would receive.”Bell writes that the Supreme Court made the Brown ruling “because it agreed with the State Department that invalidating segregation in the public schools would benefit the nation’s foreign policy” in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Bell repeatedly mentions problems created by the ways Brown was implemented, or not implemented.The decision closed many longtime black schools. Black teachers lost jobs. Black principals were demoted. Black students were exposed to virulent racism in previously all-white schools.But “Silent Covenants” systematically overlooks white leaders who opposed racism on principle, including 19th century abolitionists and 20th century civil rights activists.And despite its inability to single-handedly reform American education and society, Brown v. Board remains a beacon of fairness and decency a half century later.To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.
By Derrick A. Bell.New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 230 pages. Hardback, $25.