We Need a New Vision for the Brown Decision

Straight Up: Nearly 60 years after the landmark case, school segregation and the achievement gap still haunt us.

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James Nabrit Jr., Thurgood Marshall and George E.C. Hayes after their victory in the Brown v. Board of Education case (YouTube)

(The Root) -- One year from now, we will mark the diamond jubilee, or 60th anniversary, of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. I fear the celebration will be a muted, if not deeply ambivalent, moment.  

Brown enshrines some transcendently important principles. But at the same time, with almost 60 years of hindsight, we can see plainly that it has a stunted legacy. That legacy is worthy of serious reflection and national soul-searching.

Sixty, of course, is one of the big ones. Even as life expectancy grows and our sense of what constitutes "middle age" expands, the big 6-0 signals a point for a special level of stock-taking and assessment. This is true for individuals and, I would suggest, for major cultural and legal landmarks like Brown v. Board.

There are those who think we should speak of Brown only in the most reverential and respectful tones. I understand why Brown occupies a deeply privileged and revered space in the African-American -- indeed, American -- cultural canon. The unanimous Earl Warren-led court declared that state-enforced racial segregation was unconstitutional. The practice was morally wrong and ran against the deepest American legal and political traditions of equality before the law and the fundamental dignity of the individual. As such, the decision repudiated a core feature of the Jim Crow system of racial oppression, still well-entrenched in 1954. 

Brown meant a good deal more than the dethroning of the "separate but equal" doctrine. With nearly 60 years of social evolution behind us, I think we can say that Brown played a key role in altering our national culture. It cast open bigotry and racism into profound disrepute. This is actually no small accomplishment. It means that for most Americans, including the great majority of white Americans, not being racist is a meaningful aspect of self-understanding and identity.

The Brown decision also validated the agency, the will and the political vision of black America, especially that of the black middle class. The work of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP, and leaders such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley and progressive white allies like Jack Greenberg, transformed not just the law but also the character of a nation and its culture. For all of these reasons, when the time comes, Brown's jubilee should be celebratory.

But the legacy of Brown is complex and murky when examined in full. On May 17, 1954, Marshall stood on the Supreme Court steps and confidently predicted that within five years there would be no more segregated schools in America. Yet we cannot today say that race has no bearing on which schools our children attend or on the quality of education that they are likely to receive. No. Some 59 years after the decision and following the distant waning of "massive resistance" and the rise and disappearance of the White Citizens' Council, America's public schools (pdf) are about as segregated now as they were in 1980.  

A degree of ongoing segregation might be more tolerable if we could say that the black-white achievement gap had closed. To be sure, the disparity is not as great as it was at the time of the original ruling. However, a large and worrisome gap in what black and white children get from schooling remains, particularly for those from low-income and poor communities.

So, if one regarded the realization of genuinely equal educational opportunity as the promise of Brown, then this part of its legacy remains unfulfilled. And, I would submit, troublingly so.

Let's cut one layer deeper: In many respects Brown was, at least initially, read as the death knell for racism in America. After all, it had taken away what many regarded as the central tenet of Jim Crow: legal, state-imposed segregation and discrimination. In so doing, the decision revealed the complexities of law, politics and, most of all, of racism.