A profound victory for humanity

May 16, 2004|By Juan Williams

FIFTY YEARS later, the landscape of American race relations looks so radically different that it is hard to remember what the nation looked like before the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

But in 2004, an increasing number of people are openly asking whether Brown failed, because public schools remain so highly segregated 50 years later.

This is a dangerous argument. The Brown case was never only about schools. It was the leading edge of a fight against racial segregation in all of American life.

In 1989 and 1990, I had more than six months of interviews with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The child of Baltimore's segregated school system, Justice Marshall was not afraid to argue the value of Brown in terms of ending the damage done by supposedly separate but equal schools. He knew the schools for black children had the hand-me-down books, the overcrowded buildings and teachers, including his mother, who were paid less than any white teacher.

But Mr. Marshall also knew that the legacy of the Brown decision that outlawed racially separate public schools was being questioned. In fact, the man who later succeeded Justice Marshall on the high court made the most compelling argument against Brown.

Writing in 1987 when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Clarence Thomas argued that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund should have made the case for quality schools for all Americans, regardless of race, when it argued the Brown case. It should not matter, he said, if a black child sits next to a white child. The key, he said, is that every child gets a quality education that allows him or her to succeed in a competitive society.

Americans should be released from "petty squabbles over quotas, affirmative action and race-conscious remedies for social ills." Mr. Thomas proposed that Americans focus on improving schools for all children without regard to their race - along the lines of liberty, brotherhood and equality, as described in the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Thomas made a good argument.

When I mentioned it to Justice Marshall, he made the case that he had never been interested in creating classrooms with a rainbow of skin colors. The heart of Brown, he contended, was that it ensured equal access to all public schools for all children. He assumed that the white majority wanted to give its children the best schools. And having seen the inferior schools provided by white school boards to black children, he wanted to make sure that those education officials had motivation to provide black children with good schools. The motivation was simple: The black children had the right to go to the schools for white children.

Justice Marshall's theory remains valid to this day. But in the 50 years since Brown, it is also true that the theory has been distorted. First it was assaulted by "massive resistance" from segregationists who vowed never to allow school integration. That is the "squabbling" over racial issues that Mr. Thomas mentioned in his argument.

The Supreme Court did not help when it allowed school districts to delay integration and proceed with "all deliberate speed." That prompted stalling tactics and led to conflict and fear around implementation of school integration.

Most areas of the nation did not begin to see school integration until the late 1960s. And in 1974, 20 years after Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that suburban school districts had no obligation to mix students with urban school districts to achieve school integration. That gave families with enough money to move to the suburbs an easy way out of dealing with the controversy over school integration caused by segregationists.

Today, America's public schools are more segregated than they were in 1970. The top 27 metropolitan areas in the country, including Baltimore, have public school populations that are overwhelmingly nonwhite. And racial segregation is only part of the story. The schools with heavy black and Hispanic populations also serve a disproportionately poor population. And by most measures, they offer an inferior education: high dropout rates, fewer experienced teachers and fewer students who score well on standardized tests and advance to top colleges.

But the problems of school integration are not the heart and soul of the legacy of Justice Marshall's work in Brown. They never have been.

It may be hard to believe, but before Brown, the federal government enforced the laws of segregation in all American life based on the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that certified separate but equal as the law of the land in all areas of American life. In one dramatic ruling - Brown - the power of the federal government literally changed sides on racial integration.

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