Let's celebrate `Brown,' then finish what it started

March 18, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - America's public schools, as you may have noticed, remain largely divided by race in spite of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. As the 50th anniversary of that decision approaches on May 17, it is fashionable for some civil rights reformers to declare that Brown has not lived up to its promise.

But look at the story behind the numbers and you might notice something more complex and perplexing: Racial segregation persists in public schools not so much in spite of Brown as because of it.

Today's segregation is very different from that of the early 1950s. The old segregation was a consequence of racist, white-imposed laws, which the high court outlawed. The new segregation is a consequence of family finances and choices or, for the poorest families, their lack of choices.

The Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, overturned the high court's 1896 ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities for the races was constitutional. Henceforth, the court ruled in Brown "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Brown was aimed at removing the barriers that Jim Crow laws had put in the way of students such as Linda Brown of Topeka, Kan., from whose family the historic decision gets its name. Because she was black, she had to walk past all-white schools every day in order to attend the all-black school to which Kansas law restricted her.

By the late 1960s, school desegregation became an end in itself, even for kids who lived close to their schools. Many black students were bused out of their home districts to white districts, although not very many whites were bused the other way.

School busing, urban riots and new housing antidiscrimination laws sparked white flight from urban centers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The flight amounted to one of the largest peacetime migrations of any population in human history. Integration, as the late community activist Saul D. Alinsky put it, became the brief period of time between when the first black family moved into a neighborhood and the last white family moved out.

Racial integration in schools and neighborhoods has slipped backward since the 1960s, according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Project director Gary Orfield says its recent report "Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare?" finds that public schools are becoming so segregated that "we are back to [where we were] when [Martin Luther] King was assassinated."

Yet there is a further paradox that gets far too little attention in discussions that portray integration in simple terms of black and white. As more blacks have risen into the middle- and upper-income brackets, partly as a result of the reforms that the Brown decision helped put into motion, white flight has been followed by black middle-class flight into better-off neighborhoods and away from worse-off black folks.

That's the American dream as many folks see it, but it also has left many black low-income families increasingly isolated from the socioeconomic mainstream, not only by race but also by class and opportunities. Changing times also have brought a declining interest by black parents in having their children attend desegregated schools.

That doesn't mean that Brown failed to deliver.

As a black parent who is old enough to remember what black life in the 1950s was like, I appreciate the role Brown played in removing legal barriers that stood in the way of black progress. Although it is fashionable in conservative circles to berate "activist judges" these days, I'm glad that Chief Justice Earl Warren was enough of an activist to build a unanimous vote behind the Brown decision.

I applaud heroes such as Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer who led the court arguments for Brown. Mr. Marshall had to travel daily from Baltimore to Washington to attend Howard University Law School when Maryland law schools turned away blacks. He later became America's first black Supreme Court justice. His sacrifices in pursuit of an education are the sort of heroic stories that more young people need to hear.

The Brown vs. Board decision was indispensably important, but it did not bring utopia. It did shift the law of the land from a head wind to a tail wind for black progress. It also left us with a lot of work to do over the next 50 years to help those who have been left behind.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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