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In 1976, two decades after Brown v. Board outlawed segregated schools, the critical race theorist Derrick Bell published an influential critique of the decision. Bell, a former civil rights attorney, did not object to the ruling in principle but rather to how courts were construing it: In the name of equal opportunity, schools had been ordered to achieve a racial balance that reflected the demographics of their surrounding district—even when doing so hurt black students.

“Low academic performance and large numbers of disciplinary and expulsion cases are only two of the predictable outcomes in integrated schools,” Bell wrote.

His cynicism would grow as the years wore on. By 1980, he had become convinced that Brown was never really intended to help blacks but instead was aimed at managing global perceptions of the United States, where segregation was damaging the country’s reputation as it fought the Cold War. It was also damaging the Southern economy, where industrialization had lagged since Reconstruction. For a brief moment, Bell wrote in the Harvard Law Review, the interests of blacks and whites converged. When that moment passed, racial progress predictably stalled.

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