"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Chain Reaction
By Jay Tolson
Posted 3/14/04
Elizabeth Eckford would seem to be a likely champion of Brown v. Board of Education. Back in 1957, she was one of nine African-American students to enter the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Yet when asked 40 years later whether she felt good about what she had done, she replied, "Absolutely not."

For Eckford, life has not been easy since that first year at Central High, when federal troops were sent in to protect the threatened and harassed black students. And she voiced dismay that one of her own children later had to be bused 10 miles to achieve racial balance in the school district. "There was a time when I thought integration was one of the most desired things," Eckford said. "I appreciate blackness more [now] than I did then."

Eckford's disenchantment hardly reflects the dominant African-American view of the 1954 decision. Nor do most African-Americans reject the integrationist idealism of those who led the charge to dismantle Jim Crow segregation in public schools. But Eckford's disillusionment connects with an ambivalence that many African-Americans have felt about Brown. Quite simply, they wonder, have the untoward consequences of Brown, however unintended, eclipsed the decision's many benefits?

African-Americans have not been alone in pondering that question. Hispanic political activists and "angry white males," scholars and policy wonks, litigators and sitting judges--Americans of all hues and ideological stripes have weighed in. Whether white flight, reverse discrimination, or new forms of segregation truly resulted from the decision hardly matters. What people have claimed to be the results of Brown has become a big part of what Brown represents. As Jack Balkin of Yale University Law School puts it, " Brown was not created in 1954. It was created over the last 50 years."

Foresight. In some ways, the debates over Brown's consequences began well before 1954. As early as 1935, the great black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois broke with the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People over its strong emphasis on desegregation. Although a critic of legal segregation, DuBois worried that "most Negroes cannot receive proper education in white institutions." But the counterargument, that separate would never mean equal, prevailed.

In the early years after Brown, however, it was hard for many African-Americans to see that integration could lead to equality. For one thing, the second Brown decision, which implemented desegregation, included the vague phrase "all deliberate speed," all but inviting southern officials to drag their feet. Even after court rulings compelled effective desegregation plans and busing, the results were less than impressive. Hence the growing appeal of arguments for stronger black institutions--and a mounting suspicion that dwindling public support for such institutions might be one of Brown's worst legacies.

And it is not just radical separatists of the black power movement or the Nation of Islam who have these concerns. Albert Samuels, a political scientist at historically black Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and author of Is Separate Unequal? Black Colleges and the Challenge to Desegregation, makes the case that Brown scanted the importance of black culture to the education and development of African-Americans. Indeed, the overriding concern with mixing black and white students, usually in predominantly white schools, raised new hurdles for blacks.

After all, Samuels notes, other ethnic groups that came to America developed their own sustaining networks of clubs, unions, and neighborhood schools in which individuals could find a footing before diving into the American "melting pot." Slavery had long denied black Americans such institutions; liberal integrationists, however unintentionally, undercut them just as they were emerging. And today, Samuels says, with the future of funding for public black universities uncertain, it still appears that too few people recognize that "separation and integration are not ultimately mutually exclusive."

Awareness. White resistance and backlash were not wholly unanticipated. Yet the determined, even violent, opposition to integration had the most ironic of unintended consequences--or so argues University of Virginia legal scholar Michael Klarman in his book, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights. The spectacle of violent confrontation transformed many Americans' views about race. And a new heightened awareness of racial injustice, Klarman believes, is what ultimately drove the adoption of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

But did Brown and subsequent desegregation decisions drive white flight, hasten urban decline, turn working whites against liberalism, and give rise to new forms of school segregation? The answers are anything but simple. Brown and busing did become important symbols in the debate over the causes of urban decline. Yet the underlying causes of that decline date from before 1954, as Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania historian, demonstrates in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Seismic shifts were underway in the 1940s, as blacks came north for factory jobs, and black neighborhoods began to swell and press upon the borders of traditionally white neighborhoods. Losing confidence in the ability of urban, and mainly Democratic, political machines to "protect" them--and already bothered by the presence of blacks in the workplace--whites began their flight to the suburbs. Doing so, they were aided by federal loan programs that, Sugrue says, "effectively mandated racial separation by saying mixed neighborhoods were actuarial risks." As urban factories began to downsize, the white exodus accelerated.

"It's important to note," Sugrue says, "that the rate of flight is the same out of cities that didn't have busing or court-imposed desegregation plans"--for example, Philadelphia--"as those that did." Indisputable, too, is the result of white flight: In 1998, of the 83 districts in and around Detroit, 80 percent of blacks attended schools in only three of them.

All the same, working-class whites, in cities and elsewhere, were right in thinking that American elites--particularly those in the Democratic Party--had fingered them to bear the brunt of desegregation. Little wonder blue-collar whites grew disillusioned with liberalism, says Kenneth Durr, author of Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore. As he explains, Brown, civil rights legislation, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs (including affirmative action) convinced many working-class people that the Democratic Party they associated with the New Deal--a broad coalition based largely on shared economic interests--was letting them down. Americans' unwillingness to talk about class meant, Durr argues, "that race got laid on top of class" in a way that left the economic plight of most blacks, much less that of many whites, unaddressed. "By deciding to address inequality interest group by interest group, we spawned identity politics," he says. And that, in turn, "led to the fragmentation of American society along identity lines."

Republican strategists and politicians seized the opportunity, proclaiming themselves the new populists and denouncing busing and other forms of liberal social engineering as hurtful to "the working man." In response, "angry white males" began to abandon their old party loyalties and shift toward the GOP.

But the great tragedy of Brown, many commentators agree, is that its original emphasis on racial integration as a means toward equal education somehow shifted toward an emphasis on integration as the end itself. Lost in the shuffle of subsequent rulings and interpretations was the other desired result: educational equality. Things could have been otherwise, argues Yale legal scholar Balkin. After all, in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that education was "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." And in Bolling v. Sharpe, which desegregated Washington, D.C., schools concurrently with the Brown decision, he almost stipulated that education itself was a fundamental constitutional right. "It would have changed the way people talked about Brown, " Balkin says. "If you can say what is really at stake is equality of education, you can talk about whether you are creating equal opportunity."

Without such clarity, subsequent decisions reached by courts more conservative than Warren's produced much narrower interpretations of Brown. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez (1973), the majority concluded that the state had no obligation to equalize funding for an urban school district whose tax base was considerably lower than that of nearby suburban districts. The 14th Amendment "does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages," the majority argued, adding that education was "not a fundamental interest" under the Constitution.

Similarly, Milliken v. Bradley (1974) overturned a federal district court ruling that found integration in greater metropolitan Detroit could be achieved by busing children from the city school district to suburban ones. Noting that the suburban districts had not themselves practiced discrimination, the Supreme Court determined that the remedy was inappropriate. Foes of affirmative action, sometimes resorting to similar logic, have also used Brown's implicit embrace of colorblindness to argue against racial preferences in admission policies.

After 50 years of Brown, might the original goals of integration and equal educational opportunity be pursued in new ways? John Brittain, a professor of law at Texas Southern University, thinks so. In 1996, he won a major Connecticut case using the state Constitution's explicit guarantee of the right to education to argue that the school districts in and around Hartford were responsible for segregation. But remedies have been slow in coming since the decision, and Brittain has turned his focus from integrating schools to integrating neighborhoods. He says he has not forsaken the goals of Brown, however: "We may have to lower our sights on the prize and take more incremental approaches, in the hope that in the long run the results will be more permanent."

This story appears in the March 22, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.


posted by R J Noriega at 1:32 PM | Permalink |


free hit counters
Best Buy Coupon