Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation

SILENT COVENANTS: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell (2004)

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears college liberal, I thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation meant the slow-but-sure end of racism in the USA.

I thought then that simply getting black-and-white children together in the same room day after day would make them recognize their common humanity and bring an end to racial prejudice.

In hindsight, I see how naive that was.  But I wasn’t alone.  The late Derrick Bell, who later became one of the founders of critical race studies, thought the same thing at the time.

His book, Silent Covenants, is about why he changed his mind.  I read it as part of a personal project to understand critical race theory from the viewpoint of its proponents.

As a lawyer for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he pursued many lawsuits based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional.  

But later, after he joined the Harvard Law School faculty, he came to believe he was pursuing a false goal.

He said the desegregation decision was based on a false choice between, on the one hand, sending black children to schools that were separate and inferior and, on the other, on the other, sending them to schools where they were unwanted and in the minority.

Desegregation, when it was implemented, was typically carried out by closing black schools, some of which provided excellent educations and were greatly beloved by students and graduates. 

Desegregation resulted in job losses by black teachers and principals, many of them outstanding educators.

Some 50 years later, Bell wrote, American public schools are still segregated, in practice if not by law, and the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites is as great as it ever was. 

The great mistake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision decision, he wrote, was to pretend that the Constitution is color-blind.

Racism is baked into the structure of American society and the consciousness of white Americans, he wrote; this will never change.

Any apparent progress made by black Americans is the result of a temporary convergence of their needs and the agenda of some group of white people. 

According to Derrick Bell, slavery was abolished in Northern states because white workers there did not want to complete with slave labor.  Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union.  The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were intended to foster Republican political dominance of the South.

When limited civil rights for black people ceased to serve the interests of powerful white people, those rights were wiped off the backboard, Bell wrote.

Judges in the 19th and early 20th centuries held that racism was a fact, which was not created by law and could not be abolished by law, but which the law had to accommodate.

Why, then, did the Supreme Court in 1954 suddenly decide that the Constitution was colorblind?

The reason for the change was not a new sympathy for the problems of African-Americans, Bell wrote; it was the Cold War.

The USA and USSR were engaged in a contest for hearts and minds of black and brown people in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Racial segregation gave Communists a talking point that couldn’t be easily answered.

With Brown v. Board of Education, that talking point was taken away.  The court had decreed that all American citizens, black or white, were equal in the eyes of the law, and were to be treated the same.  For propaganda purposes, this was enough.

But in the follow-up as to how to implement that decision, the court simply ordered local school boards to develop their own plans and proceed with “all deliberate speed.”

This presented endless opportunities for delays and stalling, and very little desegregation took place. 

Overt defiance of the court, as in Little Rock in 1957 and the University of Mississippi in 1962, brought federal intervention.  But in general, federal courts were open to excuses for delays.

It was only during the Johnson administration, when federal school aid was withheld from segregated schools, that real racial integration took place.

Well-to-do white people fled the cities, leaving poor and working-class blacks and whites behind.  Neighborhood schools were overwhelmingly one race or another.

When mandatory school busing was ordered to take black students outside their neighborhoods, the only white schools available to integrate them into were in roughneck white neighborhoods where blacks were emphatically not wanted.

Even when racial integration took place, black children found that education in the same building was not necessarily equal education.

Large schools had fast tracks and slow tracks for students, based on their perceived ability.  The fast tracks were made up mostly of white and Asian-American children, and the slow tracks of black and Hispanic children.

In the 1990s, civil rights activists shifted from trying to desegregate classrooms to trying to desegregate money. 

Public schools in the USA are paid for through local property taxes. which means that schools in rich suburban districts get a lot more money than schools in poor inner city or backwoods districts.

Civil rights activists filed lawsuits challenging this inequality based on the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution or provisions in state constitutions mandating a good public education to all.

They often won these lawsuits, but these victories didn’t necessarily result on state legislatures revamping school financing systems to provide more funding for poor schools.

These decisions almost never took race into consideration, Black wrote, and they never provided for increased funding for the schools.  So little changed.

It’s not that nothing at all was accomplished during the civil rights era that began with Brown v. Board of Education, Bell wrote.  It was that the accomplishments fell way too short of what was hoped for and what was needed.


Derrick Bell

The sad story told by Derrick Bell shows the difficulty of achieving equal treatment for black people at a time when the USA as a whole is becoming more unequal.

Conditions are uncertain (although not equally uncertain) for Americans of all races and social classes.  Increasingly an American’s opportunities depend on what kind of a diploma he or she has.

The only thing most people care more about than their material self-interest is locking in advantages for their children.

So long as there are big and growing differences in wealth and power, there will be big and growing differences in educational opportunity.

The only way this will change is for Americans of all races to unite to set limits on the wealth and power of the ultra-rich and to defend the interests of the majority.

Derrick Bell would say this is utopian.  He believed that (1) there is an unbridgeable division between white and black Americans, (2) people will always act in their perceived self-interest and (3) the self-interest of white people as a collective group is in conflict with black people as a collective group.

He advocated a legal strategy based on a demand for equality for African Americans as a group as compensation for past injustices enforced by law.  But he had little hope that it would succeed.

Black people may progress in small ways when their interests temporarily coincide with those of powerful white people, he believed, but this progress will always be limited, temporary and uncertain.

So what would Derrick Bell do?

Derrick Bell quoted W.E.B. DuBois as saying that what black children need is neither segregated schools not mixed schools, what black children need is education.

You might say, education by any means necessary.

In one chapter, he reported on how black parents were trying anything and everything that  gives their children better education.

One was the independent school movement  At the time of writing, there were close to 400 independent schools, including 70 in New York City, serving black students.  They emphasized community values, the African-American heritage and high expectations.  They resembled independent Jewish schools, that emphasized Jewish culture and heritage and the Israeli homeland.

Some of the independent schools were all male or all female.  Single-sex education was thought to be needed especially for teenage African-American boys, to give them positive ideals of masculinity and keep them from the gang culture of the streets.

Other ideas, new in 2004, were publicly-funded charter schools and tuition vouchers that allowed public money to be spent on private schools.  Many black and Hispanic families enrolled their students in Catholic schools.

Some specialized public high schools were doing a great job, he wrote.  One example was Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, considered one of the top high schools in the nation.

Bell drew no conclusions as to which of these approaches was best, only that they all were worth exploring.  This leads to my two main takeaways from the book:

 *  Never let your principles prevent you from doing what is best.

* If you take it upon yourself to help victims of injustice, ask them how they want to be helped.


Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interest in School Desegregation Litigation by Derrick Bell for the Yale Law Journal (1976)

Racial Realism by Derrick Bell for the Connecticut Law Review (1992)

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2 Responses to “Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation”

  1. Walter Uhrman Says:


    I strongly disagree with what you and/or Daniel bell wrote about Brown v. Board of Ed. At this point, I do not have the time to write a complete rebuttal; still, I will mention two key points.
    First, Kenneth Clark, a noted psychologist, in arguing the case before the court presented the Harlem psychological studies, mid-1940’s I believe, known as the “Doll Tests” demonstrating destructive results of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation on children of color. The court’s final decision is something that a nation can be proud of. At the time, 1954, there were basically nine conservative men, in the old positive conservative sense, who factored in the new variable of psychology to their decision — a variable the framers of the constitution would be at loss to understand. Despite the current madness of our day, we move forward making the original document relevant — women’s rights, direct election of senators, the 14th amendment and others amendments
    I do not understand the description of the fourteenth amendment as mentioned in your review. Let’s try for a degree of accuracy. The 14th amendment to the constitution, in a manner of speaking, rewrote the entire constitution in that finally a clear an unambiguous statement that all individuals born in United States will be citizens. Prior to the passage of this amendment, 1868, the original constitution left the entire issue of civil rights and slavery, outlined in Article 4 of the Constitution, to the states resulting in disaster.
    Indeed, there can be anger at decisions the court has made over the years, not these.

    Walter Uhrman


  2. philebersole Says:

    I read this book as part of a project to learn about “critical race theory” in the words of its advocates. My book note on Critical Race Theory: An Introduction was mainly criticism. This book note is mainly an exposition of Derrick Bell’s thinking, which I have to admit has a lot of truth in it..

    The “original intent” of the 14th Amendment was to guarantee the equal rights of the newly-freed black people in the South. Within a few decades, they had been stripped of their rights and the 14th Amendment was interpreted as protecting corporations and businesses from government regulation. We today can see the courts rolling back protections that the civil rights laws of the 1960s were intended to protect. The Constitution and the laws are not self-enforcing.

    Has Brown v. Board of Education increased the self-esteem of little black children? It has, as Bell pointed out, resulted in very little actual desegregation. Would their self-esteem be hurt by going to one of the all-black or majority-black schools Bell mentioned in which they are affirmed for what they are.

    The core idea of critical race theory, as I’m coming to understand it, is that black Americans are an oppressed people who are denied self-determination, like the Irish under British rule or the Poles under Russian rule. If that is true, what they need to fight for is not their individual rights, but their self-determination as a people.

    I do not advocate critical race theory. But my opinion is neither here nor there, because I am not part of Derrick Bell’s intended readership. I hope that African-Americans continue to think of themselves primarily as Americans, but I have no standing to tell them how they should think of themselves.

    Of course it is good that slavery was abolished. Of course it is good that Jim Crow was abolished.


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