Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform / All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown V. Board of Education

By Dickerson, Debra J. | Mother Jones, May/June 2004 | Go to article overview

Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform / All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown V. Board of Education


Dickerson, Debra J., Mother Jones


books

A Dream Deferred

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

By Derrick Bell. Oxford University Press. 230 pages. $25.

All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education

By Charles J. Ogletree Jr. Norton. 365 pages. $25.95.

REVIEWED BY DEBRA J. DICKERSON

If Einstein is correct and "insanity" is doing the same experiment again and again and expecting different results, then America is truly delusional in its approach to education and racial integration. Fifty years after Brown v. Board, the landmark Supreme Court decision that invalidated the doctrine of "separate but equal," America's schools are as segregated as ever-with often abysmal educational and psychological outcomes for black children. To stop the madness, both Ogletree and Bell argue that what America must stop doing again and again is attempting to provide integrated education for its children.

The notion of retreating from integration is blasphemous, unthinkable, inherently racist. Yet, it rings true, even as one sputters in protest at the heresy. Fifty years of culture wars notwithstanding, integration is still more rhetoric than reality, and it is the ever-neglected minority children who pay the price for our continued focus on this seemingly unattainable goal. Perhaps it's time America cried "Uncle." Racism won.

Mournful books both, Bell's best captures the significance of Brown at the time of its pronouncement and of African Americans' then-unconquerable optimism about the country's ultimate goodness. Mustered out after the Korean War, Bell was in law school in 1954; Brown, he was convinced, "marked the beginning of the end of Jim Crow oppression in all its myriad forms. For black Americans long burdened by our subordinate status, there was, to paraphrase the spiritual, 'a great day a-coming.'" He describes meeting with William H. Hastie, the first black federal judge, shortly before Bell graduated in 1957. "Son," Hastie told him, "I am afraid that you were born 15 years too late to have a career in civil rights."

FORTY-SEVEN YEARS LATER, civil-rights advocates are still trying to integrate America's schools, wistfully invoking Brown like the abandoned child stationed at the window waiting for parents who are never coming back for her. But not Ogletree and Bell; two of the nation's premier civil-rights scholars and attorneys, they've surrendered the dream of integration and now demand that separate schools actually be made equal.

While Plessy-style segregation might have been psychologically harmful, even more so has been the fruitless, enervating quest to force, trick, or cajole whites into sharing their neighborhoods and classrooms. An elderly teacher from one of the Jim Crow era's highest achieving black schools-Dunbar in Washington, D.C.-remarks sadly, "Integration, with all the good it brought, was also the beginning of the end of Dunbar and Negro education as I'd known it. I wouldn't want it to go out that I'm not for integration-I am. I'm not for what it did to Dunbar and to students." One woman adds, "We got what we fought for, but we lost what we had." Even that was too optimistic; except for the rhetorical victory of Brown, blacks did not get what they fought for.

Whatever its promise, the reality of desegregation has been grim, as a peek inside America's still segregated and still substandard black classrooms quickly reveals. White students, Bell notes, attend schools that are 80 percent white. Today's residential and educational segregation rates equal that of de jure Jim Crow to within two-tenths of a percent in some neighborhoods, resulting in a "social and economic apartheid. …

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