For Whom Does the Bell Toll: The Bell Tolls for Brown?

Fifty years after the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, black comedian and philanthropist Dr. Bill Cosby astonished guests at a gala in Washington, D.C., when he stated, “‘Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. (Black people] have got to take the neighborhood back . . . . (Lower economic Blacks] are standing on the comer and they can’t speak English.'” Cosby, one of the wealthiest men in the United States, complained about “lower economic” Blacks “not holding up their end in this deal.” He then asked the question, “‘Well, Brown versus Board of Education: Where are we today? [Civil rights lawyers and activists] paved the way, but what did we do with it?'” Cosby’s comments drew both criticism and praise from the black community, stirring a raging debate about black elitism and the unfulfilled promise of Brown and forcing a release of the frustration that many minorities feel about its failed promise. In his new book Silent Covenants, Professor Derrick Bell expounds upon this very disappointment, questioning “whether another approach than the one embraced by the Brown decision might have been more effective and less disruptive in the always-contentious racial arena” (p. 6). In so doing, Bell joins black conservatives in critiquing what he describes as civil rights lawyers’ misguided focus on achieving racial balance in schools. The focus, Bell contends, should have been on enforcing the “equal” component of the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court held that state-mandated racial segregation in railroad passenger cars did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment so long as the separate facilities were equal.