When the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, many civil rights advocates believed that the decision, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional, would become the Holy Grail of racial justice. Fifty years later, despite its legal irrelevance and the racially separate and educationally ineffective state of public schooling for most black children, Brown is still viewed by many as the perfect precedent.
Here, Derrick Bell shatters the shining image of this celebrated ruling. He notes that, despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many black schools functioned well and racial bigotry had not rendered blacks a damaged race. He maintains that, given what we now know about the pervasive nature of racism, the Court should have determined instead to rigorously enforce the "equal" component of the "separate but equal" standard. Racial policy, Bell maintains, is made through silent covenants--unspoken convergences of interest and involuntary sacrifices of rights--that ensure that policies conform to priorities set by policy-makers. Blacks and whites are the fortuitous winners or losers in these unspoken agreements. The experience with Brown, Bell urges, should teach us that meaningful progress in the quest for racial justice requires more than the assertion of harms. Strategies must recognize and utilize the interest-convergence factors that strongly influence racial policy decisions.
In Silent Covenants, Bell condenses more than four decades of thought and action into a powerful and eye-opening book.
Eminent law professor Bell (And We Are Not Saved, etc.), who helped litigate school desegregation cases after the momentous 1954 Brown decision, initially believed that racial justice would ensue, but he has long had second thoughts. Brown, he contends, is a "magnificent mirage," the Supreme Court's order of "all deliberate speed" a willingness to sacrifice black rights to white resistance, not to mention its decades-later unwillingness to acknowledge metropolitan housing patterns and extend desegregation to the suburbs. Noting, among other things, the importance of Brown as a gesture to the decolonizing world, Bell considers it akin to the Emancipation Proclamation, another decision in which blacks obtained relief only when it served the best interests of the country. He posits an alternative Brown decision, one that acknowledges that segregation afflicts whites as well as blacks and that orders immediate equity of resources and representation; this enforcement of the Supreme Court's infamous "separate but equal" doctrine, Bell believes, would have inevitably eroded separation. He acknowledges that desegregation has increased the achievement of black students, but economic and housing barriers have increasingly limited such opportunities. Similarly, the controversy over affirmative action obscures economic issues-such as budget cuts-that pose even greater barriers to minorities seeking higher education. Given the endurance of racism, Bell suggests multiple, pragmatic tactics to resist oppression, rather than the "romantic love of integration" or even the "long-sought goal of equality under law." Bell's wide-ranging provocations effectively challenge those who still consider Brown the "Holy Grail of racial justice." Author tour.