“I am convinced that America offers something real for black people. It is not though, the romantic love of integration—though, like romance, we may seek and sometimes experience it.”—Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants (2004)
My wife and I recently attended an open house in Newark, New Jersey hosted by Keller Williams, a realty company in a suburb of Newark. During the open house, the realtor boasted that the home was situated on an “excellent, safe and quiet block.”
After a long discussion and some reflection, we called the realtor later that evening, explaining that we were prepared to make an offer on the home and asking to meet him at the property to discuss the sale. After a very long pause, the realtor reminded me that it was well after dark—it was almost 7:00 p.m., after all—and that because he was without the protection of his “bodyguard,” he refused to come to Newark. Instead, the realtor suggested that we meet him at a nearby McDonald’s. I replied that we were not, in fact, attempting to purchase a McDonald’s franchise, and that his refusal to meet us in Newark was deeply problematic, particularly because he deliberately misrepresented as “excellent” a neighborhood that he was unwilling to drive into after dark.
The realtor forcefully reiterated his refusal to meet us in Newark, and said that we could either meet him at McDonald’s or at his office in suburban Bergen County.
Unfortunately, the realtor’s behavior is not just an isolated act, but is reflective of the type of behavior that many whites have effectively and consistently utilized to undermine attempts to end racial segregation in this country.
Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a case that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine, and one that is often cited as the milestone in America’s march towards racial equality, America’s neighborhoods—and, by extension, its schools—are nearly as segregated as they were in 1954.
The unspoken subtext of Brown
ommenting on the Supreme Court’s decision to require desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” Robert L. Carter, former NAACP General Counsel and one of the lawyers who argued Brown, asserted that it was “clear that what the [“all deliberate speed”] formula required was movement toward compliance on terms that the white South would accept.” Carter explained that the Supreme Court failed to fully appreciate the enormity of the segregation problem, and in showing compassion to the white South by regulating desegregation at a pace palatable to them, the Court both failed to develop a willingness to comply with, and, in fact, encouraged white defiance of the order to integrate.
And defy integration is precisely what many whites did. To resist the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in Brown, whites closed public primary and secondary schools, and, in some cases, literally blocked entrances to schools that remained open for Blacks.
Not surprisingly, integration moved, to the extent it moved at all, at a glacier-like pace in the years following Brown. Indeed, by 1963, the 11 states of the old Confederacy had less than 2 percent of their Black students attending school with white students.
Today, residential and educational segregation rates equal those of the Jim Crow era to within two-tenths of a percent in some neighborhoods, resulting in what Professor Derrick Bell calls “social and economic apartheid.”
If Albert Einstein was correct, and “insanity” is defined as conducting the same experiment repeatedly and somehow expecting it to yield a different result, then America may be insane as to its approach to addressing racial segregation.
To stop the insanity, Professor Derrick Bell, a civil rights lawyer who once believed that the Brown decision was the equivalent of the “Holy Grail of racial justice,” argues that we must not only rethink, but must ultimately abandon, our approach to social equality through integration.
The suggestion that we abandon our integration efforts is deeply offensive to some, and in fact, unthinkable for others. But fifty years after the Supreme Court overruled Plessy’s “separate but equal doctrine,” integration has been unattainable. Even more disheartening has been the unsuccessful endeavor to compel white folks to share their neighborhoods and classrooms.
Professor Bell notes that, despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many Black schools and neighborhoods functioned well during segregation. Indeed, many in the Black community who were at the center of the battle for equal rights would have supported less than full integration.
Reflecting on his childhood in segregated Richmond, Virginia in the 1950s, Randall Robinson in Defending the Spirit explained that on his block “segregation compelled what would otherwise have been a very unlikely black unity.”
Around the corner from the Robinsons lived the Petersons, “one of Richmond’s most prominent black families.” Mr. Peterson was a high school principal and his wife was a primary school teacher. Directly across the street from the Robinsons lived Margaret and Grace, who worked at home, as prostitutes. Next to Grace and Margaret lived Mr. Owens, owner of “the Esso service station,” who put his “Christmas tree up on his front porch in November and took it down in March.” From Mr. Owens’ porch,” Robinson continues, “you could smell the industrial strength fumes emanating from the nearby open windows of one of our community’s most viable businesses, Shirley’s Beauty Parlor.”
Separated from white Richmond, Robinson remembers that “we made a world of our own with black service providers—teachers, doctors, lawyers, preachers, hoteliers. Adjusted for segregation’s psychic cost and our persistent poverty, our community was quite viable and my childhood essentially happy.”
Given what is now known about the permanent nature of racism in this country, and using the last fifty years of unsuccessful integration attempts as our guide, perhaps what is now needed, and what Bell argues the Supreme Court in Brown should have done, is to enforce the “equal” component of the “separate but equal” standard.
Bell urges that it is time to accept the obvious, as did Booker T. Washington in 1895.
Booker T. Washington was praised by whites and despised by Blacks for his accommodationist philosophy on race, reflected in his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech, which encouraged Blacks to concede segregation and to surrender basic citizenship rights in hopes that hostile whites would respond with better schooling and employment for Blacks. Although Washington’s speech no doubt deserved the condemnation it received from the Black leaders of his day, he nevertheless articulated a story that has significance for Blacks today.
Washington told the story of a ship that was lost at sea for many days before finally seeing a rescue boat. The lost ship’s hysterical crew signaled their desperate need for water, as they were dying of thirst. In its response, the rescue boat told the lost ship several times to “cast your buckets where you are.” The crew complied and brought up buckets filled with fresh water from the Amazon River into which they had inadvertently sailed.
About this parable, Bell notes that “whatever the wisdom of Washington’s advice to a people whose dire physical plight was the result, not of storms abroad, but of overwhelming racial hostility at home, the admonition ‘cast your buckets where you are’ can be a solution if not the salvation for those working to reform and revitalize the debilitating effects of racism.”
To benefit from the resources among us, Bell urges that Blacks must, among other things, supplement the continuing struggle for racial equality with creative forms of personal and collective self-image, group organization, collection and distribution of our shared resources, and strategic planning.
As crazy as it sounds, maybe accepting the separate nature of our status in this country, and working towards the “equal” component of the “separate but equal” calculus, is where we should be headed. Blacks have attempted to meet white folks at the McDonald’s of their choosing for long enough.
Ryan Paul Haygood is an attorney.