Brown v. Board of Education was a good thing—wasn’t it?


Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr.’s All Deliberate Speed is a meditation on how the much lauded Brown v. Board of Education decision became a great American hedge. Though Brown is frequently seen as a milestone in American race relations, Ogletree joins a growing chorus of scholars who point out its failings. Chief among them was that problematic clause “with all deliberate speed,” tacked onto Brown in regard to desegregation; from Ogletree’s perspective, this deft phrase came to mean “extremely slowly.” Fifty years after Brown, any cursory examination of public schools would back up Ogletree’s claim that desegregation has moved only slightly faster than continental drift.

Ogletree concedes the good: “Much of the significance of Brown flows . . . from an appreciation of what it hoped to eliminate . . . an alternative system of subjugation that treated [African Americans] as second-class citizens.” But he’s troubled by some of the effort’s unintended consequences. For instance, he wonders, “What message were we sending to our children, having them leave their neighborhood schools and sending them to white, presumably better, schools?” Speed loses some when Ogletree slips into memoir and derails into a discussion of the merits of reparations. But when the author sticks to Brown and its manifold results, the book is a nuanced attempt to parse the history of the case from its myth.