Has Brown vs. Board of Education lost its allure?

May 13, 1994|By Peter Schrag

AS THE country approaches the 40th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the revisionist undercurrent, especially among some younger black Americans, is that it wasn't such a big deal after all.

"There is a growing feeling in the black community," a UCLA sociologist told the New York Times, "that integration is a tarnished goal. "That doesn't mean it's been repudiated. There's not much evidence of that. But I think the benefits are often questioned and the burdens that come with it are more prominent topics of discussion than they were in the past."

The same refrain has been running through other reflections as next Tuesday's anniversary approaches. The feeling is that ending de jure desegregation cost something in the cohesiveness and integrity of black communities that wasn't expected when a unanimous Supreme Court declared, nearly a century after the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, that the principle of segregation and the old doctrine of separate but equal were unconstitutional. Meanwhile, most inner-city schools -- and perhaps schools in general -- are almost as segregated as they were in 1954.

Nor can anyone deny the very real persistence of racism -- the slights that even the most accomplished black people encounter. For them, as Ellis Cose and others in a new generation of black writers have made clear, race-based mistreatment is (to use columnist William Raspberry's words) "constant, inescapable and ultimately enraging." Slavery and racism, as many foreign observers have reminded us for the better part of two centuries, have been the lingering curse on our democratic history.

And yet one ought not let rhetoric or even rage overwhelm perspective -- either the perspective of history or the perspective of comparisons with other nations. It is hard now for most Americans to recall what things were like before 1954 -- for blacks or for whites -- and thus to understand how much Brown liberated all of us from the fearful costs of segregation.

That change can't be fully measured in school enrollment statisticsor in the number of black lawyers or elected politicians or even in the elimination of the indignities and inefficiencies, many of them unknown to anyone under 40, that separate-but-equal imposed in almost every sector of our lives. Certainly, it we lunge back to racism past.

should not be cause to deny the injustices that remain.

But the very complaint that questions the accomplishment is inconceivable without it. The end of de jure segregation and the large civil rights achievements that followed in its wake -- voting rights in particular -- deprived the country of the clarity of purpose that the evils of the previous era provided. There can be no moral certainty about where the proper limits of affirmative action lie in the same sense that there was certainty about the evil of segregated schools, railway cars and swimming pools and of quotas in college admission.

Many of the things that the civil rights movement struggled to eliminate -- that college applicants identify themselves by race or religion, for example, or that they provide photos -- have now been restored under the assumption that identification as a member of a minority will be an asset.

And some very vocal people are no longer sure whether they like integrated classrooms, much less whether there really ought to be a single legal standard in deciding whether colleges segregated by gender or race are permissible.

But those are the uncertainties of achievement. The most conservative among us now defend the liberal standards of the 1960s. The grave danger is that, in our impatience with racism present, we lunge back to racism past and to the race-conscious policies that Jim Crow imposed. The great goal of American progress is not to make ourselves more conscious of race, but less.

That will not always help the well-dressed black man who can't flag a taxi or who's stopped by the cops on his way to a dinner party in an exclusive neighborhood. But policies reinforcing race consciousness or some latter-day illusion of separate-but-equal or some fantasy about better racial conditions somewhere else can only make almost everything worse.

The hidden fact of our current disputes about race is that even at the extremes, the disputants have a lot more in common in their American-ness than they have dividing them. A generation of Americans who've tried to live abroad as expatriates learned that in the 1940s and 1950s: In the end, there is no other place.

The country's most distinguished black writers, from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison, have always known it as well. As Shelby Steele said about Ralph Ellison: After reading him, "you realize that talk of a 'white culture' or 'black culture' is simplification." The issue is not just racism; the issue is our common culture and our common fate as Americans. That's the basis of the struggle. It's also what's so often enriched us, black and white.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy News Service.

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