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.
With respect to the law, we learned that the language and logic of the ruling, especially as interpreted over the years, is increasingly taken to mean that the government cannot and should not pay any attention whatever to race, even if its purpose is to achieve integration and greater equality. At least this is the tenor of interpretations flowing from Warren Burger to William Rehnquist and, now especially, to the John Roberts court.
In politics, we learned that even authoritative Supreme Court rulings can neither ignore nor expect to be implemented in a straightforward fashion, given resistant white public opinion. We live in a time when desegregation orders are being lifted; when the Supreme Court, in the Parents Involved case, substantially invalidated voluntary plans to maintain integrated schools; and rates of racial isolation in schools in too many places point in the wrong direction.
Perhaps most all, we learned that racism was something far more complex, deeply rooted and malleable than was suggested by separate schools and “Whites Only” signs over drinking fountains and sections of restaurants. Racism involves a thickly interconnected set of economic and political arrangements, as well as cultural understandings and outlooks, that can only be transformed by a positive project of social change.
It is that positive project that concerns me now as we begin to think about how to mark the coming 60th anniversary of Brown. The critical question for the black middle class and black leadership is: Are we content to continue watching the slow, ineluctable, steady dimming of the great spark of light the decision brought into the world? And I am not talking about a renewed push for school integration, though that is a very worthy project.
We should take this coming anniversary, and the year of planning that we have before us, as an occasion to talk, meet, think hard and organize on behalf of a renewed vision and renewed coalition building to deliver on the full promise of Brown. Our traditional civil rights organizations, as well as our churches, colleges and universities and progressive allies across the racial rainbow, need to focus on the unfilled legacy of Brown.
It was not wrong to have hoped, in 1954, that a thorough defeat of racial inequality and injustice was within our grasp. We know now that the reach of that legal victory was less than we had imagined and that our understanding of all that was needed to undo racial injustice was not nearly as robust as we thought. I don’t know about you, but when that anniversary comes, I don’t want symbolic gestures and hollow speeches. I want to celebrate Brown as part of an active plan to finish the work that Thurgood Marshall started.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.