wrestling with the legacy of brown
by J.C Phillips
In the landmark decision Brown v. the Board of Education, a unanimous Supreme Court condemned segregation as evil. In his opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren wrote that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That language began a revolution in America. Brown made clear that the days of state sanctioned segregation in America’s public schools were over.
What this decision failed to make clear, however, was whether the state was now empowered not only to desegregate the schools but to force integration of the schools. A more unfortunate legacy of Brown is that this correct opinion was not based solely on the terra firma of constitutional guarantees of equal protection but was instead built upon the soggy science of sociology and pop psychology. Chief Justice Warren wrote: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon colored children…and deprives them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.” There is, by the way, no mention in the court’s decision of any detriment to white children.
Let us pause a moment to consider the power of proximity to whiteness. Academically challenged students with dark skin become scholars once they are placed in a classroom with white children. Such thoughts are absurd of course, but in 1954 these were the arguments that shaped the world. And 52 years later, they are the reason angry crowds gathered outside the Supreme Court building screaming that the conservatives on the Roberts court are preparing a return to the days of Jim Crow. Also absurd.
The two cases currently before the Supreme Court concern school district programs in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky that are designed to maintain or achieve specific levels of integration in the public schools. Both cases owe their lives to the legacy of Brown, and are reminders that as we celebrate Brown, we are also haunted by its ambiguity and the odor of horse manure.
Brown was clear -- and I believe most Americans agree -- that government has a duty to dismantle policies designed to separate children based on their race. A lack of integration however, is not in and of itself evil nor should the state have authority to force integration without a compelling interest.
Did Brown really intend that white kindergarten children would be forced to ride a bus an hour and a half out of their way in furtherance of some arbitrary racial quota as is the case in Louisville? Was Brown truly intended to sanction the use of race in determining which school teenagers in Seattle may attend? Attorneys for the Louisville school district argue that there is a difference between using race to bring children together and using it to keep them apart. Different does not, however, mean better; both tacts view children as the sum total of their skin color and parse rights due them as individuals in favor of group membership. But regardless of the difference, what is the state's compelling interest in forcing racial ratios? Can you smell the stench?
The only reason to force racial quotas upon the public schools is the belief that children learn to multiply integers better when they are sitting next to children of different races. Or more accurately, that black children learn better when they are seated next to white children.
We do not argue that Howard University or Spelman College – schools with overwhelmingly large black populations -- are inherently inferior to comparable schools with predominately white populations. In fact, we would curse anyone as a racist that even hinted at such foolishness. Yet that is the unspoken belief haunting school district policies such as those currently in question before the Supreme Court.
Either we believe there is no monopoly on brain power or we don’t. To posit that the continued gap in academic achievement between black students and white students is the result, not of tangible issues, but of the racial composition of our schools is not merely to argue black academic underperformance, but black academic inferiority!
The justices on the Roberts court have an opportunity to finally rid us of the ambiguity of Brown and clear the stench of black academic deficiency by honoring the true legacy of that landmark decision. Some backbone and a little Lysol should do the trick.