In August 1979, eight black parents sued the Topeka, Kan., school board for maintaining racial segregation. One of those parents was Linda Brown Smith. When she was 7 years old, her father had sued the same school board for the same reason. That suit was decided in 1954 by the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education.
In his own contribution to this troubling, provocative collection of essays, editor Derrick Bell -- a former civil rights attorney and Harvard law professor and now dean of the University of Oregon Law School -- states that the "resurrected Brown litigation speaks much for the persistence of those who believe even now that racial balance remedies are the answer [and] also reveals, unfortunately, their rigidity and their unwillingness to face facts long plain to all who will see." The facts seen by Bell and most of his collaborators in "Shades of Brown" lead them to conclude that efforts to improve the quality of education in all-black urban schools are more important and more feasible than the pursuit of court-ordered racial integration.
Bell supports this conclusion with the argument -- implicit in many of these essays and drawn, in Bell's case, from the current experience of his own children in "mainly white" schools -- that only all-black schools can give "spiritual uplift and self-assurance" to black children by freeing them from the "subtle but real harassment . . . manifested by a low academic expectation from at least some teachers, and a general sense of minority subordination to white interests . . . even in the most conscientiously run white schools."
The key to success for black children, write educators Sara Lawrence Lightfoot and Ronald R. Edmonds, lies in well-designed and administered academic programs, which can dramatically increase the skills of poor children in all-black schools. This argument runs contrary to expert testimony offered in the original Brown case, which sought to show that the skills of blacks would improve when they were placed in the classrooms with higher-achieving white students.
In 1954, with the Brown decision, there was hope among blacks for change. Lightfoot was 10 when the case was decided, and "jubilation, optimism and hope filled my home. . . . I could see a veil of oppression lift from my parents' shoulders." Today, she observes, "there is no jubilation. . . . There is cynicism, withdrawal, and pessimism among whites and blacks."
In one of his essays, Bell develops a general theme about all civil rights litigation -- that courts were prepared to vindicate black claims regarding racial oppression only when the interests of whites converged with those claims. Around 1954, that convergence appeared on several points, he argues. America's leaders wanted to polish the country's image abroad, defuse growing dissatisfaction among blacks at home, and finally, remove segregation as a barrier to industrialization in the South. That was 30 years ago. That convergence has ended, and Bell argues that the now-divergent white interests will be preferred by courts and other political institutions in dealing with civil rights issues. Bell's diagnosis may be accurate, but he fails to acknowledge that conflicting interests among social groups can present genuine dilemmas of principle.
The dilemma today is especially intractable. In ideological terms, traditional notions of equality do not comfortably justify race-based preferences to remedy past injustices in schools, factories or voting districts. In practical terms, these remedies impinge most directly on blue-collar whites who see their aspirations for themselves and their children increasingly blocked by general economic scarcity as well as by black claims for justice through preferential treatment.
Another essayist, Alan David Freeman, pointedly suggests that oppressive policies toward blacks were historically designed to convince lower-class whites of their comparative advantages and thus delude them into accepting their own oppression. Serious efforts to remedy injustices to blacks "threatened to expose and delegitimize the relative situation of lower-class whites." This is why, he argues, courts and other institutions have held back from aggressively seeking to wipe out racial discrimination, the apparent initial promise of Brown notwithstanding. Freeman goes on to say that "efforts to denounce the worth of busing [and to] extol segregated schools . . . [are], however sincerely offered, a structural part of the same process."
Fifteen years passed between the Emancipation Proclamation and the formal end of Reconstruction. A generation after Brown launched the "Second Reconstruction," it is now clear that the Supreme Court's unanimous conclusion regarding the injustice of racial segregation is no longer an adequate impetus or guide for social action. Perhaps, as former NAACP General Counsel Judge Robert L. Carter states, "Brown did effect a radical social transformation . . . altering the style, spirit and stance of race relations"; but the "veil of oppression" remains heavy as ever for many blacks; and it may be, as Alan Freeman argues, that many of the policies espoused in this book would make this oppression worse.
"Shades of Brown" would have been considerably strengthened if these essayists had more fully acknowledged and developed the critically important differences between them. Nevertheless, the book is a useful start toward reexamining Brown to find the best ways to work for its just goals in this different, dispiriting and more ominously divided time.