Posts Tagged ‘Silent Covenants’

Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation

August 26, 2021

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. 

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?

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Derrick Bell and one little black girl

August 26, 2021

Derrick Bell Jr., a civil rights lawyer and one of the seminal thinkers in critical race theory, wrote a book, Silent Covenants, about the  U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and why it failed to achieve its purpose.

In 1961, he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filing lawsuits calling for desegregation

He was called upon for help by two sisters, Winson and Dovie Hudson, pillars of the community in the all-black town of Harmony, Mississippi. 

Their town’s school, built by the residents themselves in the 1920s with help from Northern philanthropists, had been closed in retaliation for their civil rights activism.

He told them that he would not file a lawsuit to reopen a segregated school, but he would represent them if they were willing to sue to desegregate the county school district.

They agreed.  Several families signed onto the suit.

A bitter struggle followed.  Night-riders fired guns into private homes.  Many of those who signed on to the lawsuit lost their jobs or credit.

But they won.  A federal judge ordered desegregation of Harmony’s schools, starting with the first grade in the fall of 1964.

Just one couple, A.J. Lewis and his wife, Minnie, sent their little daughter, Debra, to the all-white school.  She was accompanied by federal marshals armed with shotguns, who escorted her through a large, hostile crowd.

The next day Mr. Lewis was fired from his job and whites tried to burn down his house.

But the American Friends Service Committee provided some financial aid.  Debra eventually graduated from the local high school, left the area and “held several interesting positions.”  When she died of pneumonia in 2001, the Harmony community erected a memorial in her honor.

Was it worth it?  All this struggle and suffering for just one person?

Years later, Bell met with the Hudson sisters, and said he wondered if he shouldn’t have helped them reopen their school instead of what he did.

“Well, Derrick, I also wondered if that was the best way to go about it,” Winson replied.  “It’s done now.  We made it and we are still moving.”

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