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

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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 publi 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.


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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 publi 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    'Silent Covenants' begins with the all-too-acceptable scene of a graduation crowd applauding the decision Brown v. Board of Education as a, if not the, milestone in breaking down legitimized racial segregation. Unfortunately, as Bell articulately suggests, the decision may in fact be not only more symbolic than substantive but may also have rippling effects that have worsened, or at least obscured, the efforts of the civil rights activists who fought so hard for this 'victory.' A major argument pu 'Silent Covenants' begins with the all-too-acceptable scene of a graduation crowd applauding the decision Brown v. Board of Education as a, if not the, milestone in breaking down legitimized racial segregation. Unfortunately, as Bell articulately suggests, the decision may in fact be not only more symbolic than substantive but may also have rippling effects that have worsened, or at least obscured, the efforts of the civil rights activists who fought so hard for this 'victory.' A major argument put forth in 'Silent Covenants' is that the great assumptions underlying the logic of Brown were flawed from the outset. By fighting for desegregation, the lawyers, a team to which Bell himself contributed, wrongly assumed that equality would be a direct benefit of integration. However, for a number of reasons, many of which stem from the country's systematic racism, this was never the case. In fact, in mandating that separate but equal was inherently inequitable, the Court essentially leveled the playing field of race in the minds of the public. Through Brown, equality was 'granted,' but never guaranteed. By legalizing a color-blind society, Americans were free to assume that in the lack of legal barriers, any failures of minority communities would be due wholly to their own personal failures. Brown was not decided in a vacuum and Bell sets out to illustrate that the Court may have had reasons for rendering their decision other than purely racial altruism. In explaining the title of the book, Bell describes much of the civil right legislation as being the result of silent covenants, or compromises made by the ruling classes to appease the masses while maintaining political, economic and social control. The author shows that throughout the history of our Courts, decisions have been rendered in favor of minorities not when they benefit all parties involved, but when doing so can placate a growing issue while, again, maintaining and inequitable balance of power. The points raised in this book speak not only to taking a critical eye to Brown but to our society as a whole. Bell's writing compels one to question the effectiveness of law in brining about justice. If law is in the hands of the ruling classes that have forever used it to protect the property of those who 'matter most,' then how can legal victories ever truly bring justice or equality to those who have been forever subordinated by such a system? It takes enormous courage to question such widely held beliefs and even more resilience to reexamine that which one once fought so adamantly for. Outside of the book's substantive qualities, Bell's tackling of this subject is an incredible testament to his ethical ambition and the need for constant critical evaluation.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    This book gives a great overview of the seminal court cases leading up to Brown, and paints a grim picture for how far we haven't come since the ruling. Morever, Bell provides a compelling argument for the fact that the Supreme Court's decision was influenced not by an interest in civil rights for people of color, but by interest convergence and the socio-political context of the time. He walks back his integrationist stance from years prior when he worked as a lawyer in conjunction with the NAA This book gives a great overview of the seminal court cases leading up to Brown, and paints a grim picture for how far we haven't come since the ruling. Morever, Bell provides a compelling argument for the fact that the Supreme Court's decision was influenced not by an interest in civil rights for people of color, but by interest convergence and the socio-political context of the time. He walks back his integrationist stance from years prior when he worked as a lawyer in conjunction with the NAACP to enforce de-segregation, and instead wonders if maybe separate, but (truly) equal is the ideal. A thorougly enlightening, but also depressing read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dennis Fischman

    "Rule 1. The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when that interest converges with the interests of whites in policy-making positions. This convergence is far more important for gaining relief than the degree of harm suffered by blacks or the character of proof offered to prove that harm." "Rule 2. Even when interest-convergence results in an effective racial remedy, that remedy will be abrogated at the point that policymakers fear the remedial policy is thre "Rule 1. The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when that interest converges with the interests of whites in policy-making positions. This convergence is far more important for gaining relief than the degree of harm suffered by blacks or the character of proof offered to prove that harm." "Rule 2. Even when interest-convergence results in an effective racial remedy, that remedy will be abrogated at the point that policymakers fear the remedial policy is threatening the superior societal status of whites, particularly those in the middle and upper classes."

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    The Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)set the pace for educational reform as it declared public school segregation unconstitutional. Bell, a hands on participant in school segregation cases during the 60s, shatters the image of the Supreme Court ruling. Instead, he defends the theory and appropriateness of enforcing the "equal" component of the "separate but equal" standard and the effects that would have had on moving towards racial justice. An interesting approach tha The Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)set the pace for educational reform as it declared public school segregation unconstitutional. Bell, a hands on participant in school segregation cases during the 60s, shatters the image of the Supreme Court ruling. Instead, he defends the theory and appropriateness of enforcing the "equal" component of the "separate but equal" standard and the effects that would have had on moving towards racial justice. An interesting approach that definitely encourages thought as you read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jacqueline Roebuck

    A qualitative masterpiece. Bell takes his readers on a journey up through Brown and beyond providing some jewels along the way. He takes us behind the scenes when critical social justice and legal decisions were made, along with sociopolitical insights that drove those decisions.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    Overall, very good, but a few definite "issues" at the same time, which I'll note at the end. That said, I largely agree with Bell, and with other authors who have also raised some of the same points. "Equal" is about more than just physical integration, to the degree that was ever possible. It's also about equality in financial and other resources, and within integrated classrooms, equality of student treatment by teachers. None of that comes easily, and much of it hasn't come much further than p Overall, very good, but a few definite "issues" at the same time, which I'll note at the end. That said, I largely agree with Bell, and with other authors who have also raised some of the same points. "Equal" is about more than just physical integration, to the degree that was ever possible. It's also about equality in financial and other resources, and within integrated classrooms, equality of student treatment by teachers. None of that comes easily, and much of it hasn't come much further than physical integration. He (as do other authors) note that much of the problem lies with the Supreme Court's "Brown II" ruling, which imposed no timetables and led to Southern behavior dilatory at best, intransigent at worst. (It's interesting as a historical counterfactual to wonder what would have happened if Warren had junked the desire for unanimity in remedy on Brown II, and even dropped hints that 7 votes were fine and he'd accept 6. Frankfurter would have either become more truculent, or let himself be drug along into something more than "all deliberate speed," and other holdouts might have taken note.) From here, Bell looks at alternatives, such as African-American specific charter schools and even homeschooling. He notes both their promises and perils while encouraging an open mind to all alternatives. That said, I did have a few "issues" with the book, generally related to Bell's Critical Race Theory background. 1. In things like Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, he seems to almost always treat improvements in racial issues in American life, when offered by white Americans, as a zero-sum game, namely that they're always done for white self interest. Why can't something be seen as, say 85 percent white self interest but yet 15 percent true benevolence. 2. "Privilege" and related issues, which have spilled into today's "social justice warrior" world. It's a relatively useful generalization, and generalizations, as compared to stereotypes, are of real value. But, generalizations can be pushed too far, and even way too far, to the point of becoming stereotypes. Plus, when dealing with individuals as individuals, it's usually better to try to remove generalization lenses. 3. Bell at one point in the book, in discussing reparations (an issue that is "fraught" among many African-Americans as well as liberal whites) claims that American Indians have received reparations. Other than small reparations to small individual tribes that don't stick out on my radar screen, this is definitely news to me — and, I venture, to millions of American Indians.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tracy Burnett

    I am a little biased in giving this book 5 stars because I am mentioned in the acknowledgements (shout out from my professor/employer Derrick Bell). My self interest aside, I'd still highly recommend this book because of its fascinating reflections on modern civil rights and post-Brown jurisprudence from a man who once worked as a prominent civil rights attorney along side Thurgood Marshall. His conclusions may surprise many but Prof Bell has always been on the edge (which is why I love him!). I am a little biased in giving this book 5 stars because I am mentioned in the acknowledgements (shout out from my professor/employer Derrick Bell). My self interest aside, I'd still highly recommend this book because of its fascinating reflections on modern civil rights and post-Brown jurisprudence from a man who once worked as a prominent civil rights attorney along side Thurgood Marshall. His conclusions may surprise many but Prof Bell has always been on the edge (which is why I love him!).

  8. 5 out of 5

    Abby Jean

    great exploration of the failures of brown v board. would have been five stars except 1) his alternative decision in brown was uncompelling and suffered from many of the flaws he identified with the actual decisions and 2) his limited focus of white v black, rather than white v black, latino, asian, native american, etc.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Liz Maas

    This book literally changed my life and way of thinking about the legacy of education litigation in America.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joe Hall

    Dr. Bell analyzes the 1954 Brown decision and how that decision failed to solve the issue of an equal education for black children in this nation

  11. 4 out of 5

    ZENmama

    Brilliant un-white-washing of Brown v Board of Ed, important counternarrative.

  12. 4 out of 5

    jim

    Harsh critique of what was accomplished in Brown v. Board but from a voice that can not and should not be ignored.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Abby Suzanne

    Derrick Bell is one of those must read authors for me. He was a lawyer, scholar, and general expert at challenging all things we (read White liberals, but also people more broadly) think we know. He's considered in many ways to be one of the creators of Critical Race Theory, and he was one smart guy. Silent Covenants is one of those books I think should be required reading in schools across the country, particularly in education programs and teacher prep programs. Bell was a long-time critic of Derrick Bell is one of those must read authors for me. He was a lawyer, scholar, and general expert at challenging all things we (read White liberals, but also people more broadly) think we know. He's considered in many ways to be one of the creators of Critical Race Theory, and he was one smart guy. Silent Covenants is one of those books I think should be required reading in schools across the country, particularly in education programs and teacher prep programs. Bell was a long-time critic of Brown v. Board. A former civil rights lawyer, he is openly critical of the work he did to integrate schools in the south, particularly his work encouraging Black parents to move their children from rural Black schools to white public schools. In Silent Covenants, Bell challenges Brown as the landmark ruling for equality we know it to be. He actually re-writes the Brown opinion, envisioning a ruling that allowed separate BUT EQUAL via equal funding, mandating equivalent resources and restructuring school financing. He then discusses how school integration would likely have happened without Brown, and how a different kind of Brown ruling may have actually been better for the Black community. Most importantly, though, Silent Covenants argues Brown, and really all rulings/policies in favor of "racial justice" only happen when they converge with the interests of White policy makers. The Emancipation Proclamation, for example, came about because of Lincoln's desire to preserve the Union above all else. Brown, he argues, happened in large part because the U.S. was combating communism and working to preserve its international reputation as a powerful, "moral" leader. Given global condemnation surrounding racial segregation in the U.S. and the potential for integrated schooling to enhance global perception of the U.S. as an educational powerhouse, Bell argues the Brown ruling was not about racial justice for Black Americans, but was instead about preserving White interests. Obviously, I'm a major Bell fangirl, and definitely definitely suggest checking this one out.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Michael Austin

    Criticism of Critical Race Theory has become something of a cottage industry among conservatives and among some American Christians. This book was recommended to me as essential reading by someone with expertise in the field. There are thought-provoking and cogent arguments in the book, and many things I have questions about as well. I'd encourage anyone who is interested, hearing secondhand critiques and defenses of critical race theory, to check out this book. I plan to keep reading in this ar Criticism of Critical Race Theory has become something of a cottage industry among conservatives and among some American Christians. This book was recommended to me as essential reading by someone with expertise in the field. There are thought-provoking and cogent arguments in the book, and many things I have questions about as well. I'd encourage anyone who is interested, hearing secondhand critiques and defenses of critical race theory, to check out this book. I plan to keep reading in this area, but this is a good place to start.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    Read for my master's thesis on the role of the Black male educator and subsequent course on critical race theory. Bell's stance that Brown v. Board was perhaps one of the worst decisions (given context of time and world events of the time) of the U.S. Supreme Court remains one of my personally adopted beliefs. His article on the interests convergence of White Americans is foundational to acquiring a new perspective with regard to the world and how decisions are made. Read for my master's thesis on the role of the Black male educator and subsequent course on critical race theory. Bell's stance that Brown v. Board was perhaps one of the worst decisions (given context of time and world events of the time) of the U.S. Supreme Court remains one of my personally adopted beliefs. His article on the interests convergence of White Americans is foundational to acquiring a new perspective with regard to the world and how decisions are made.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sherry

    Thoughtful and informative look at the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education and whether it has lived up to its promise. Still as relevant today as it was 17 years ago, sadly.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Grace Buller

    4.5

  18. 4 out of 5

    Vincent

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tanya Barnett

  20. 5 out of 5

    Matt Dearmon

  21. 5 out of 5

    Timothy McCluskey

  22. 5 out of 5

    Naomi

  23. 4 out of 5

    Rousseariellegmail.com

  24. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  25. 4 out of 5

    Amber

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tyesha

  27. 5 out of 5

    David

  28. 4 out of 5

    David Hernandez

  29. 4 out of 5

    Becca Kaplan

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

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