Skip to main content

F for Effort: Brown v. Board of Education, a Failure at Fifty?

Bookforum, October/November 2004

Bookforum coverOn the morning of September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford set off for her first day of classes at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. When the black teenager arrived, a white mob, backed by the Arkansas National Guard, prevented her from entering. In the days that followed, photographs of eckford being cursed at and spat on by the good citizens of Little Rock were reprinted in magazines and newspapers around the world. Reactions to the photos varied: Liberals were shamed; southern racists steeled themselves for the “massive resistance” to integration they had promised after the Brown v. [the Topeka, KS] Board of Education decision three years before; America’s cold-war foes used the images as proof that the capitalist system was riddled with racism.

One of the most enigmatic responses came from the philosopher Hannah Arendt. “Reflections on Little Rock” was originally commissioned by the then-liberal Norman Podhoretz at the then-liberal Commentary magazine. While he judged the piece provocative and brilliant, the other editors were hostile to her thesis that educational integration was being mishandled, first delaying publication of the essay and then insisting on accompanying it with a scathing rebuttal by the philosopher Sidney Hook. Arendt eventually tired of Commentary’s vacillations and withdrew the article. In the year after the Little Rock confrontation, Arkansas stalled its integration efforts, and in 1958, the governor, Orville Faubus, turned the public schools over to a private corporation, which promised to maintain segregation and close down the black schools. This confirmed Arendt’s skepticism about federally enforced integration, and she offered the piece to Irving Howe, who published it in Dissent in the fall of 1959.

Written with Arendt’s characteristic “Olympian authority” (as Ralph Ellison later called it), the Dissent version of “Reflections” began on an uncharacteristically personal note. She had, as always, full confidence in her position, but the vicious prepublication gossip in the two years since she wrote “Reflections” intimated the kind of response the piece might get. “Since what I wrote may shock good people and be misused by bad ones,” she wrote, “I should like to make it clear that as a Jew I take my sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed or underprivileged peoples for granted and should appreciate it if the reader did likewise.”

They didn’t, of course, and Arendt was probably naive to hope that an apologia would assuage her critics. While clearly writing out of sympathy for, and identification with, the black children, her philosophically informed analysis was out of sync with the left-liberal, post-Brown consensus. Where civil-rights lawyers were redoubling their legal efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disappointing 1955 decision (known as “Brown II,” the decision decreed that integration proceed with “all deliberate speed”—which the South took as license to delay the process indefinitely), Arendt believed the basic terms of the conflict still needed clarification. “It is not the social custom of segregation that is unconstitutional, but its legal enforcement,” she wrote in one of the essay’s less inflammatory passages.

But while many of Arendt’s observations were off-base (as even she later admitted), the questions raised by her essay anticipated some of the most trenchant criticisms of educational integration made on the occasion of Brown’s fiftieth anniversary this past May. Given the country’s dismal failure to integrate public schools, not to mention public life, Arendt’s skepticism today seems more prescient than insensitive. Among her insights was that America’s racial problems, as well as the remedies to those problems, were inscribed within larger political questions. “The point at stake, therefore, is not the well-being of the Negro population alone,” she wrote, “but, at least in the long run, the survival of the Republic.”

Arendt’s imperious tone (“oppressed minorities were never the best judges on the order of priorities in such matters”), as well as some of the ideas in “Reflections on Little Rock,” make for uncomfortable reading. Arendt argued that the choice to integrate schools first—rather than, say, the workplace or housing—was a mistake for the burgeoning civil-rights movement. Not only did it put children on the front lines of an ugly battle (she accused black parents of using them as proxies), it politicized the educational system, which she believed should be immune to such forces. Not only would forced integration of schools undercut the larger cause, it would also embitter potential allies, scar black children, and eventually fail, she predicted.

If this wasn’t contentious enough, Arendt couched her analysis in the rhetoric of the rights of states (a favorite Dixiecrat formulation) to thwart federal intrusion. Finally she argued that—given the laws forbidding mixed-race marriages, which existed in twenty-nine states in 1957—the integrationist’s efforts were misdirected. “The Civil Rights bill did not go far enough, for it left untouched the most outrageous law of Southern states,” she wrote, “the law which makes mixed marriage a criminal offense.” According to Arendt, southern blacks ought to make the repeal of miscegenation laws, not the integration of classrooms, their first political priority.

As in all her work, Arendt’s principal concern in “Reflections” was over the autonomy of what she called “the political”—the central feature of the tripartite framework (“the political,” “the social,” and “the private”) that she articulated in The Human Condition in 1958. According to Arendt’s schema, schools sat precisely at the juncture of the three realms: the private right of parents to raise children as they want; the social right of all to keep the company they wish; and the government’s political right to prepare children for future duty as citizens. So situated, schools were the last place the movement for a just, racially integrated society (something she supported) should start. The goal of a just society, Arendt believed, was to make sure these three spheres were respected accordingly. Allowing discrimination where it didn’t belong—and, conversely, prohibiting it from where it did—was for Arendt the true outrage.

Much to her readers’ surprise, she followed her pro-forma denunciation of segregation with a detailed defense of the principle of “discrimination,” in which she explained its appropriate meaning in each sphere. While discrimination has no place in the political sphere (where, for example, all are free to vote), it is appropriate in the private (where parents have the right to raise children as they prefer) and the social (where we all have the right to keep the company we wish). “What equality is to the body politic—its innermost principle—discrimination is to society,” she wrote.

As a German Jew and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt’s primary fear for America (a country she believed prone to conformism) was that it might become a “mass society” in which social equality was legally enforced. More than her liberal, legally minded American colleagues, Arendt feared that forcing educational integration might hasten the rise of an antiblack, racist ideology of the sort that had been used to rationalize violence against Jews in Hitler’s Germany. She had seen how ideology mobilized opinion and understood the “deep structure” of society—parts of which were more susceptible to legal action than others. While in the short run classrooms would become integrated, Arendt believed that America would do itself irreparable future harm by failing to make African-American political equality its first priority.

Despite the article’s generally hostile reception, it received the 1959 Longview Foundation award for the year’s outstanding little-magazine article—an appropriate honor for a philosopher who always took the “long view” on any question. One of Arendt’s most infamous works (Eichmann in Jerusalem being the other), “Reflections on Little Rock” has found a second life in the gay-marriage movement, which has adopted her argument that a citizen has a right to marry whomever he or she wants. But the fact that she did not allow it to be reprinted during her lifetime indicates the ambiguity of its legacy.

* * *

How does one “celebrate” a failure? This was the question facing the authors of the dozen or so books published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown decision. Some consider Brown broadly and judge it more for the alleged consequences of its principles (such as the civil-rights movement) than the efficacy of its rulings. In an updated version of Richard Kluger’s 1975 Simple Justice, still the most comprehensive history of Brown, the author counts a variety of black achievements—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is a legal holiday, Confederate flags no longer fly over southern state capitols, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry receive Oscars—as part of Brown’s legacy. Danielle S. Allen, a classicist and political scientist at the University of Chicago, recasts the philosophical significance of Brown in Talking to Strangers, arguing that between 1954 and 1964, America experienced nothing less than the founding of a “new constitution,” which delineated the possibility of new forms of democracy and citizenship.

But most of the Brown commentators take a less sanguine view of racial progress over the past fifty years. The title of the Harvard Civil Rights Project’s 2004 study, “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?” lays the choice out nicely. By 1996, black students were the majority in the public schools in most large metropolitan areas. Over 90 percent of the students in public schools in Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, and Washington, DC, were minorities.

Polls show that support for race-oriented plans like affirmative action has never been lower. “We are but one generation into an integrated society, and the signs are that the majority of the population is tired with the process,” writes Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. in his memoir All Deliberate Speed. Many black people have become “integration weary,” writes Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin in The Failures of Integration. “Americans seem to have come to a tacit, unspoken understanding: State-ordered segregation has rightly been eliminated, but voluntary separation is acceptable, natural, sometimes even preferable.” The pessimism of Berkeley historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr.’s introduction to Brown v. Board: The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court, is also typical: “The post-Brown history of integration exposes the assumption of a national commitment to integration to be idealistic, perhaps overstated, and maybe even illusory, if not downright delusory.”

The poobah of Brown skeptics is veteran civil-rights activist Derrick Bell. “How could a decision that promised so much and, by its terms, accomplished so little, have gained so hallowed a place,” he wonders in Silent Covenants. The author of several best sellers on what he calls the “permanence” of racism in America and something of a celebrity for his “tell it like it is” brand of racial realism, Bell in some respects agrees with the Arendtian position that integration, wrongly pursued, has encouraged the development of a full-fledged racist ideology. Outright racism, he argues, has simply gone underground, where it is less visible but more pervasive than ever. The man who once worked tirelessly to desegregate schools throughout the South now believes integration is little more than a cruel joke played on black people.

Bell stands out as one of the only commentators on race to acknowledge the totalizing impact of America’s racial tragedy by noting the harm that segregation has caused whites as well as blacks. “Segregation perpetuates the sense of white children that their privileged status as whites is deserved rather than bestowed by law and tradition,” a delusion that “afflicts white children with a lifelong mental and emotional handicap that is as destructive to whites as the required strictures of segregation are to Negroes,” he writes, adopting Brown-era terminology. Oppression harms the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

In Silent Covenants, Bell calls the Brown decision a “long-running racial melodrama,” and it is easy to see why. From his beginnings in Pittsburgh (where he was the only black student in his law class) to Harvard Law School (where, for a time, he was its only tenured black professor), Bell has played a significant role in the movement for racial justice. After finishing law school in 1957, he met with William H. Hastie, the first black federal judge and a longtime civil-rights activist. Bell told the judge he wanted to become a civil-rights lawyer and was crestfallen when Hastie delivered the bad news: Brown redefined the constitutional rights to which blacks are entitled, so while there might be some “mopping up to do,” the field of civil-rights law had essentially shut down, he said. “Son, I am afraid that you were born fifteen years too late to have a career in civil rights.”

Undiscouraged, Bell worked for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, handling most of its southern school litigation from 1960 to 1965. It was dangerous work; that Bell thought of himself as “the briefcase-carrying counterpart of the Lone Ranger” only slightly overstates the peril he faced. At one point, he spent so much time arguing cases in Mississippi that the closely watched lawyer was made to file state income tax there. Bell taught for sixteen years at Harvard Law School before leaving to protest the school’s failure to tenure even one black woman. He is now a perpetually reappointed visiting professor of law at NYU.

Bell first rehearsed the ideas that appear in Silent Covenant in a 1976 Yale Law Journal article titled “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation.” In the essay he argued that civil-rights lawyers had become more committed to their belief in integration than they were to the educational interests of their clients. “Educational equity rather than integrated idealism was the appropriate goal. . . . While the rhetoric of integration promised much, court orders to ensure that black youngsters actually received the education they needed to progress would have achieved more,” he writes in Silent Covenant.

The problem with Brown, according to Bell, is that it created the fiction that outlawing segregation automatically cleared the path of progress for blacks. “By doing nothing more than rewiring the rhetoric of equality, the Brown Court foreclosed the possibility of recognizing racism as a broadly shared cultural condition. In short, the equality model offered reassurance and short-term gains, but contained within its structure the seeds of its destruction,” he writes. The “been there, done that” vein of color blindness advocated by critics of race-linked programs is the result of this fiction.

As he’s done to good effect in earlier books, Bell performs a thought experiment in Silent Covenants, envisaging an alternative history of the past fifty years. “Could the Court have written a decision that disappointed the hopes of most civil rights lawyers and those they represented while opening up opportunities for effective schooling capable of turning constitutional defeat into a major educational victory?” he asks. “I think the answer is yes.” Bell advocates a return to the NAACP’s initial legal strategy, which was to equalize expenditures on education in the hope that doing so would force the states either to offer truly equal facilities or to recognize that integration was the more economically feasible option. The key to Bell’s plan is that the Court would have to actually enforce the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that separate education could be equal. Bell’s proposal comes down to “desegregating the money,” with education rather than integration as a goal.

* * *

It is sometimes forgotten that very little integration took place in the decade after Brown, and only then in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which contained a provision requiring compliance with desegregation orders as a condition of receiving federal education funds. The representation of black students in southern schools with white majorities didn’t even break 0.1 percent until 1960, moving from 2.3 percent in 1964 to 13.9 percent in 1967. It is currently at around 30 percent (down from a 1988 high of 43.5 percent)—which means that we have resegregated our schools back to 1968/1970 levels.

Ogletree is part of the cadre of black students born in the early ’50s who were among the first to benefit from Brown’s effects in the early ’70s. In All Deliberate Speed, the self-described “Brown Baby” blends memoir and history in a way that gives his reflections on Brown a closely observed, narrative authenticity not found in the hagiographies of Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP colleagues. Unlike Arendt, Kluger, and even Bell, Ogletree truly lived Brown and is hence well-positioned to judge its results.

Born in 1952 to a farming family in Merced, California, Ogletree was one of sixty-eight black students (out of 1,500 freshman) who arrived at Stanford University in the fall of 1971. The sociologist St. Clair Drake had recently been lured from Chicago to run the newly created African and Afro-American Studies programs and became a mentor to Ogletree. He quickly got involved in university activism, campaigning to free Angela Davis from prison (she in turn encourages him to work on behalf of lesser-known inmates), protesting the racist pseudoscience of semiconductor inventor and erstwhile eugenicist William Shockley, and walking out on graduation speaker Daniel Patrick Moynihan to protest his view of the black family as dysfunctional. Ogletree arrived at Harvard Law School at the height of the Boston busing crisis, during which he witnessed the emotional toll of forced integration. He then worked for the Washington, DC, public defender’s office before taking a faculty position at Harvard in 1989.

Having so benefited from the movement that Brown began, Ogletree is careful about the conclusions he draws from his success. One of Anita Hill’s principal advisers during the Clarence Thomas hearings, he is critical of the false optimism of the Supreme Court justice’s worldview. (“Thomas spoke of an America that did not exist . . . [where] the problems of racism had been solved, and we black people only needed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and move forward.”) He perceives the gains and losses of integration clearly and comes to conclusions similar to, though less radical than, Bell’s. “As I reflect on these early efforts to promote the Brown mandate of integrated education, I’m struck by our failure ever to ask the hard and obvious questions about what we were doing. Why were black children being forced to go to white schools, without anyone’s raising the question of more resources for black schools?” he asks. Ogletree, whose two children attend public schools, knows firsthand that integration on its own is no panacea. “Ironically, Cambridge had voluntarily desegregated its schools after Brown,” he writes. “It had a complex system in place to balance students racially at every school. Yet, even in their integrated classroom, black, Latino, and poor students lagged behind other students.”

Like Bell, Ogletree gestures to an alternative post-Brown history, one in which integration might have been a less formulaic process. Instead, he writes, Brown left African-Americans with the worst of both worlds: “When schools were integrated, whites did not attend black schools staffed by black teachers and black principals. Instead, blacks went to the better-funded white schools. In this way, integration ended one vital aspect of the ‘equalization’ strategy pursued by the NAACP in the cases leading up to Brown I, while at the same time perpetuating the segregation of public education.”

Ogletree’s conclusion is stark. “The important goal of full equality in education following slavery and Jim Crow segregation was compromised from the beginning. . . . Fifty years after Brown there is little left to celebrate.” Beyond the inadequacies of the Brown decisions themselves, Ogletree blames the “false promise of integration,” which perceives the policy as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

As much as it pains my liberal soul to admit it, I don’t believe Bell and Ogletree are wrong to give up on educational integration (at least in the short term). Although most data indicate that black children who attend racially mixed schools perform better than those who remain in single-race, overwhelmingly black schools, even integration’s most vociferous proponents admit that it isn’t clear why this is so. Many scholars, like Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, believe that the achievement level of children in mixed schools has more to do with socioeconomic status (both theirs and their fellow students’) than racial mixing. The only consistent correlation in such studies is between student achievement and the level of a parent’s education, leading to the conclusion that well-educated kids have well-educated parents, regardless of the schools they attend.

In some respects, we have come full circle in the fifty years since Brown. Segregation in cities now approaches Brown-era levels, although largely as a “function of economic and class factors rather than of racist prejudices against Afro-American and Euro-American children going to school together,” writes Patterson in The Ordeal of Integration. To counter these trends, he advocates some very Arendtian positions, arguing that it “makes more sense in many cases to concentrate on those measures that will first integrate neighborhoods and occupations and let the integration of schools follow from them.” Perhaps living and working together, in addition to intermarriage (which Patterson advocates), may be the means to integrated schools rather than the other way around. If Brown took us down “the wrong road,” as Bell suggests, it didn’t take us in the wrong direction.