The Brown decision's considerable legacy

May 20, 1994|By Nicholas Lemann

HALF an inch beneath the surface of this week's triumphant rhetoric about the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education is a prevailing view that Brown has a mixed, even disappointing legacy -- that it engendered dreams of racial integration that have failed to come true.

That assessment is grossly unfair.

The Brown decision was meant to end legally segregated public school systems and it did so, in a way that forever changed the racial consciousness of the nation.

In 1954 there could hardly have been a more daunting task than abolishing segregation in the public schools of the South, which had successfully maintained Jim Crow laws since shortly after the end of Reconstruction.

Thurgood Marshall's NAACP Legal Defense Fund spent the better part of two decades, trying case after case under the most difficult conditions, to get the justices to hear a direct challenge to the 1890s doctrine of "separate but equal."

The court itself probably couldn't have arrived at the Brown decision if it hadn't been for the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson in 1953 and his replacement by Earl Warren, who was more sympathetic to the cause of ending segregation and had the political skill to bring the court to unanimity.

And having made the decision, the justices were so worried about its enforceability that a year later they told the South that it did not have to desegregate immediately but "with all deliberate speed."

Many lawsuits, demonstrations and armed confrontations later, the decision was finally obeyed.

The South today has the country's most integrated public schools, which stands as a miraculous accomplishment.

And it is no accident that the Martin Luther King phase of the civil rights movement began on the heels of the Brown decision, with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Once the Supreme Court had declared school segregation unconstitutional, the other forms of American apartheid -- separate accommodations, denial of voting rights -- became vulnerable in a way that they hadn't been before.

The 11 bloody years from the Brown decision to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 stand as the greatest period of racial progress in our history.

But if Americans are disappointed in the legacy of Brown, there is a reason. It lies in the way the case framed the issue of segregation.

It was by design that Marshall and his colleagues chose schools, among all the venues of segregation, as the one to attack.

The way to get the public to change its mind about racial issues is to draw attention to the contradiction between racial injustice and the core national ideals -- especially the ideal of universal opportunity.

By the 1950s, education had become closely identified with opportunity, so school segregation could be presented as denial of opportunity: a fundamental violation of the country's compact with its citizens. Marshall took pains to do this in making his case to the court, and the decision was couched in the language of equal opportunity.

Once the government had embraced that idea, the natural question was what to do about inferior all-black schools outside the South, where legal segregation wasn't the issue. This is the question that, unanswered, still haunts the country.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ordered the government to undertake an ambitious study of the issue of equalizing educational opportunity between the races.

Liberals thought the study would show that black schools were woefully underfinanced, which would lead to the federal government's sending them extra money to bring them up to par.

Despite the end of Jim Crow, the assumption was that most of these impoverished schools were in the South. With the Watts riot still to come, the nation as a whole was amazingly unaware of the problems of the North's urban ghettos.

But the study, by University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman, found that black students' performance was most strongly affected by their family background, not their schools' budgets.

If any external factor seemed to help, it was whether they went to an integrated school.

By the late '60s, everyone realized that the segregated and unequal school wasn't just a Southern problem.

Mass migration had almost overnight made blacks America's most urban ethnic group. Because most public schools serve neighborhoods and most urban neighborhoods are segregated, most blacks went to all-black public schools -- and still do.

Because public education is locally controlled and mainly financed by property taxes, white schools were not only separate but wealthier.

Between the two most obvious remedies for the low quality of black inner-city schools -- integration and more money -- the Coleman report tipped the balance in favor of integration.

Integration meant busing. And after Brown, liberals assumed that the place to go for race-relations victories was the federal courts, not Congress.

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