Rethinking `Brown'?

May 20, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Frustration has been a remarkably persistent theme in recent observances of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

It is frustrating for those who thought that Brown would end all school segregation to see a half-century later that, lo and behold, racial separation in schools persists.

Of course, this time it's different. Economically segregated neighborhoods lead to economically -- and often racially -- segregated schools.

This development, among others, has led many deep thinkers on both ends of the political seesaw to wonder whether the Law of Unintended Consequences has reared its ugly little head again in the legacy of Brown.

On the left we have Derrick Bell's new book Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. Instead of rejecting the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that racially "separate but equal" facilities were constitutionally acceptable, Mr. Bell suggests we might have been better off today if the Supreme Court had called for Plessy's strict literal application. That would have forced those states that wanted to maintain segregation to spend as much dollar-for-dollar on their all-black schools as they spent on all-white schools.

Think of the possibilities, Mr. Bell invites us: Black schools, most of which were grossly underfunded shacks compared with white schools, would have been vastly strengthened. Black teachers, principals and custodians, who were laid off or fired after Brown, would have kept their jobs, and the noteworthy record of many of them would have been maintained despite daunting conditions for graduating leading members of what later became a new black middle class.

Plus, faced with the mounting costs of maintaining dual facilities, Mr. Bell suggests, white leaders and taxpayers eventually would have ended segregation on their own.

That's a pleasant thought, although I don't buy it for a minute. White segregationists defied, circumvented and simply ignored Brown's desegregation orders. There's little reason to believe they would have been any more sanguine toward an invigorated version of Plessy.

America's apartheid, "Jim Crow" segregation was vast, complex and deeply embraced by many whites, largely out of ignorance and fear. Had it been left to dry up on its own, nonwhites might still be subjected to the daily humiliations of "whites only" jobs, housing, schools, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, amusement parks, swimming pools, fishing holes, picnic spots, water fountains, public restrooms and even cemeteries.

On the other side of the political fence, conservative Thomas Sowell criticized Brown in a May 13 Wall Street Journal critique not so much for what Chief Justice Earl Warren's Supreme Court did as for the way it did it.

The Warren court relied on that era's notably thin scientific evidence to insist that segregation was "inherently" unequal and potentially damaging psychologically to black kids.

Instead, Mr. Sowell offers, the Supreme Court should simply have declared the "separate but equal" doctrine to be a violation of the 14th Amendment's protections against unequal application of state laws. The reasoning would have been far more supportable than the highly questionable notion that an all-black classroom is inherently damaging to blacks, even when all other factors are equal.

Mr. Sowell makes a valid point. But he also concedes that arguing against Plessy without coming up with some new evidence to offer, as the Warren court did, "would undoubtedly have stiffened the resistance to the Brown decision, which was stiff enough as it was in those states where racial segregation existed."

Indeed, it was. Prince Edward County, Va., to name one dramatic instance of defiance, shut down all of its public schools rather than desegregate them. Five years passed before federal action forced them open again. In the meantime, white families sent their children to new state-subsidized whites-only academies. Black students were left out in the cold.

In his zeal to skewer liberal court activism, Mr. Sowell cavalierly dismisses the advantages that Brown brought for black kids as "meager." Maybe for him they were. But as a fellow Brown-generation baby, I appreciate the social and political progress that Brown accelerated.

Brown didn't solve all of our racial problems, but it put us on the right track.

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

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.