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

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Overview

When the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, many civil rights advocates believed that the decision could become the Holy Grail of racial justice. Fifty years later, despite its legal irrelevance and the persistence of segregated and ineffective public schooling for most black children, Brown is still viewed by many as the perfect precedent. Derrick Bell here shatters this shining image of one of the Court's most celebrated rulings. What, Bell asks, if the Court had...
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Overview

When the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, many civil rights advocates believed that the decision could become the Holy Grail of racial justice. Fifty years later, despite its legal irrelevance and the persistence of segregated and ineffective public schooling for most black children, Brown is still viewed by many as the perfect precedent. Derrick Bell here shatters this shining image of one of the Court's most celebrated rulings. What, Bell asks, if the Court had written a very different decision? What if "separate but equal" had been retained, rather than overturned? He notes that prior to Brown and despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many black schools functioned well and racial bigotry had not rendered blacks a damaged race. And while Brown recognized racial injustice, it left racial barriers intact. Given what we now know about the pervasive nature of racism, the Court might better have determined -- for the first time -- to rigorously enforce the "equal" component of the "separate but equal" standard.

By striking it down, the Court stirred confusion and conflict into the always vexing question of race in a society that owes much of its growth, development, and success to the exploitation of both blacks and whites. Racial policy, Bell maintains, is made through silent covenants -- unspoken convergences of interest and involuntary sacrifices of rights -- which ensure that policies conform to priorities set by powerful policymakers. Blacks and whites are at varying times 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 proof of even blatant discrimination. Rather, we must devise tactics, take actions, and even adopt stances that expose and challenge these silent covenants that serve to maintain the racial status quo. In Silent Covenants, Bell condenses more than four decades of thought and action into a powerful and eye-opening book.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Bell, a former civil rights attorney, mixes provocative critical legal studies theory with personal reflections on his own journey—a descent into the harsh realities of the front lines of the school desegregation battles.—Christopher Benson
Publishers Weekly
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. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"Bell, always a self-consciously provocative writer, remains true to form in Silent Covenants. In his most creative chapter, Bell imagines an alternative Brown decision that would have upheld segregation but insisted on the equalization of resources between blacks and whites. Had that road been followed, he suggests, black children might have gotten the education they needed and deserved."--Boston Globe

"Mournful.... Captures the significance of Brown at the time of its pronouncement and of African Americans' then-unconquerable optimism about the country's ultimate goodness."--Debra J. Dickerson, Mother Jones

"Provocatively sardonic.... His pervasive melancholy may surprise readers who expect movement veterans to celebrate victories rather than rue their missteps, but to Bell the very perception of Brown as a victory is a 'mirage' that must be vanquished."--Chicago Tribune

"Bell's wide-ranging provocations effectively challenge those who still consider Brown the 'Holy Grail of racial justice.'"--Publishers Weekly

"A bold and sobering counterproposal."--The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195182477
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 355,317
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell is Visiting Professor of Law at New York University Law School. As an NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer, he handled and supervised hundreds of school desegregation cases during the 1960s. He is the author of several books, including And We Are Not Saved. He lives in New York City.

Biography

Renowned as the professor who gave up his tenured position at the Harvard Law School in protest of the university's lack of minority women faculty members, Derrick Bell is also an innovative, insightful and unorthodox scholar and writer. Bell, now a professor at New York University's School of Law, helped pioneer a new style of narrative scholarship, mixing allegory and anecdote together with analysis and fact.

Bell was born in 1930 in Pittsburgh, where he was the first member of his family to go to college. After serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea, he entered the University of Pittsburgh Law School with the goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer. He began his legal career at the Justice Department, then was recruited by Thurgood Marshall to join the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP. In 1971, Bell became the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School.

Bell published Race, Racism and American Law, now a standard law school text, in 1973. Its critique of traditional civil rights legislation helped spark the academic movement toward critical race theory, in which scholars such as Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw and Kendall Thomas sought new paradigms for understanding and addressing racial injustice. The book's fourth edition appeared in 2000.

As a writer, Bell is best known for his series of books featuring the fictional civil rights leader Geneva Crenshaw. The books, which include And We Are Not Saved, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Gospel Choirs, and Afrolantica Legacies, interweave fables and philosophical dialogues with Bell's analyses of legal history. "I suppose there would be a problem if everyone wrote about race in the Derrick Bell style," Jeremy Waldron wrote in a New York Times review of Gospel Choirs. "We need analysis and we need social science as much as dream, dialogue and narrative. But we would certainly be the poorer if no one wrote like this; for even to be disconcerted by Mr. Bell's technique is to open oneself to the challenge of his thesis and the soaring power of the music that sustains it."

At the age of 70, after a lifetime of passionate commitment to social justice, Bell wrote Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. The book draws on the lives of role models like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson, and Medgar Evers, as well as on Bell's own life, to explore what it means to live and work with integrity, dignity and compassion. "We live in a system that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained," Bell writes. His own accomplishments are an inspiration to the brave souls willing to buck that system.

Good To Know

Bell gave up his tenured position at Harvard Law School in 1992, when he refused to return from the two-year, unpaid leave of absence he took to protest the school's failure to hire and tenure minority women.

Bell had launched a similar protest before, while serving as dean of the Oregon Law School. He resigned his Oregon position in 1985 after the faculty directed that he not extend an offer to an Asian-American faculty candidate who was third on the list for a faculty position. When the top two candidates (both white males) declined the position, the law faculty decided to reopen the search rather than hire the Asian-American woman.

In 1994, the story "Space Traders" from Bell's book Faces at the Bottom of the Well was made into an HBO movie starring Robert Guillaume.

President Barack Obama was a student of Bell's at Harvard Law School.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 Plessy's Long Shadow 11
2 Brown's Half Light 14
3 Brown Reconceived: An Alternative Scenario 20
4 The Racial-Sacrifice Covenants 29
5 The Interest-Convergence Covenants 49
6 Brown as an Anticommunist Decision 59
7 The Role of Fortuity in Racial Policy-Making 69
8 Racism's Economic Foundation 77
9 School Litigation in the Nineteenth Century 87
10 The School Desegregation Era 94
11 The End of the Brown Era 114
12 Brown as Landmark: An Assessment 130
13 Affirmative Action and Racial Fortuity in Action 138
14 Searching for Effective Schools in the Post-Brown Era 160
15 Moving Beyond Racial Fortuity 180
Conclusion 194
Notes 203
Index 223
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2005

    Philosophy of Law Class Review

    I read this book as my choice for an optional reading for a college class 'Philosophy of Law'. I would highly recommend it because it leaves you thinking about the history and progression of civil rights in our country. His views are out of the norm but you have to ask yourself who's norm?He poses some leading questions about racial equality and whether we could or should do more in the effort to end discrimination and prejudice.

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