The Fall and Rise of School Segregation

Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, James T. Patterson. Oxford University Press, 285 pages, $27.50.

What are we to think of Brown v. Board of Education nearly a half-century after the Supreme Court handed down the decision? On the one hand, the momentous ruling of May 17, 1954, ushered in a sweeping transformation, striking down state laws that required racially segregated public schools and helping accelerate a sea change in attitudes toward race. Consider how public opinion has shifted: In 1942 only 2 percent of southern whites (and 40 percent of northern whites) believed blacks and whites should attend the same schools. By the mid-1990s, 87 percent of Americans approved of the Brown decision. On the other hand, we have seen gradual resegregation of schools, so that 70 percent of black students today attend predominantly minority schools. One teacher in Prince George's County, Maryland, where schools have gone from being mainly white to overwhelmingly black, said recently that when she taught her students about Brown, one young boy raised his hand and asked, "When do we get to desegregate?"

Over the years, Brown University historian James T. Patterson notes in his new book, the Brown decision has meant different things to different people. The opinion itself is just 11 pages long (compared, for example, with the 157-page decision in the 1978 affirmative action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke). Its brevity may reflect, in part, a calculated decision by Chief Justice Earl Warren to defer several questions in order to keep all nine justices on board for a unanimous decision. As a result, for nearly 50 years, lawyers, educators, and policy makers have argued over Brown's precise meaning. The story of those struggles, between civil rights advocates and opponents, and between diverging factions within the black community itself, constitutes the bulk of Patterson's book.

One central battle involved the question of whether Brown is primarily a "race" case or primarily an "education" case. Was Brown just one in a line of rulings that declared racial classifications by the state unconstitutional? Or was it a decision that found in the Constitution a broad right to an equal education, of which a right to a racially desegregated school was a subset?

A related question, also left unanswered by Brown, was whether desegregation orders should apply only to de jure segregation (racial separation enshrined in law), or whether they should also apply to de facto segregation that results from private decisions, such as where people choose to live. Much of the public discussion of Brown suggested that it should address school segregation in fact as well as in law. If school integration is needed because we believe teaching tolerance is part of the mission of public education, or because we believe, as a practical matter, that blacks will never really receive equal resources when educated separately from whites and will be cut off from important economic networks, or because we believe exposure to diversity is an important part of a broader education, then it hardly matters whether segregation is mandated or is a result of happenstance.

Alternatively, perhaps Brown outlawed only purposeful and official segregation (and its vestiges) and does not require integration of schools whose racial homogeneity simply reflects neighborhood patterns, just as a public swimming pool located in a predominantly white neighborhood is hardly unconstitutional. Moreover, if the principle is one of colorblindness--the state shall not discriminate on the basis of race--Brown could actually be read to forbid voluntary attempts by school districts to overcome de facto segregation by considering the racial status of students to promote integration in pupil assignment.

For many years, Patterson notes, these questions were wide open and widely debated. Supporters of the more expansive view, that Brown established a broad right to equal education, could point to several passages in the decision. The Court wrote broadly that education "is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments... . Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." Chief Justice Warren and the other justices appeared to tap into "a central creed of Americans," says Patterson, that "schools offered the ticket to advancement in life." When Thurgood Marshall made this argument as the lead attorney for Oliver Brown and the other black parents who sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and when Warren amplified it, they were showing themselves to be, Patterson writes, "heirs of John Dewey and other educational reformers who had argued that public schools could be--indeed, should be--laboratories for the shaping of more egalitarian values."

The Brown Court emphasized that segregation was bad for education because it undermined the motivation to learn. To separate black children in elementary and high schools, the Court wrote, "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." In the celebrated footnote 11 to the decision, the Court then pointed to social science research on the negative effects of segregation, suggesting that something more complicated was at play than just a legal declaration that racial classifications are presumptively unconstitutional.

The notion that de facto segregation promotes educational inequality received a boost in 1966 when the federally sponsored Coleman Report found that having middle-class classmates was more important to student achievement than was education spending. The implication, Patterson notes, was that "low-income black pupils who were enabled to mix with motivated middle-class white students would achieve more." Thurgood Marshall, when he joined the Supreme Court in 1967 as the first black justice, also emphasized the larger social goal of school integration: "Unless our children begin to learn together, then there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."

Although the public discussion centered on these broader educational issues, a majority of the Supreme Court did not embrace this expansive view. As Patterson notes, in Green v. County School Board (1968), which is generally considered a major victory for integration because it expressed judicial impatience with the fact that implementation of Brown was not taking place with "all deliberate speed," the Court stuck to the issue of de jure segregation and "made no claims for what desegregation might mean for academic achievement or for racial attitudes among children." Likewise, in 1973, the Supreme Court's decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez held that, the language in Brown notwithstanding, there is no fundamental right to equal opportunity set forth in the U.S. Constitution, and states need not provide equality in school financing. If plaintiffs sought relief on equaleducation issues, they would have to turn to state courts, the justices said--a suggestion that progressives vigorously pursued in subsequent years, with considerable success, as they sought spending equity on a state-by-state basis.

Since 1973 the majority of Supreme Court decisions involving Brown have gone against civil rights groups. In 1974 Milliken v. Bradley effectively exempted suburbs from urban desegregation orders, providing middle-class whites an easy way to avoid desegregation. Increasingly, in places like Boston, city-centered desegregation would involve mixing poor whites with poor blacks--an approach, as the Coleman Report predicted, that did not raise black achievement because it was missing the important ingredient of economic integration.

In the first half of the 1990s, the Court issued a series of decisions making it easier for cities to be released from school desegregation orders and emphasizing that Brown was meant to be a temporary remedy to past discrimination, not a forward-looking educational program. And in the 1995 case Missouri v. Jenkins, Justice Clarence Thomas, who replaced Thurgood Marshall on the Court, put proponents of integration on the defensive, asking pointedly why they seemed to believe that "any school that is black is inferior, and that blacks cannot succeed without the company of whites." More recently, the Supreme Court declined to review a circuit court decision in Eisenberg v. Montgomery County School District, a case striking down the use of race in student assignment even for the benign purpose of reducing racial isolation. Brown was now being used to stop voluntary efforts to integrate.

Patterson's book provides an able rundown of this history. For a Bancroft Prize–winning historian, however, the prose is curiously flat and pedantic, as if he were told it should be accessible to ninth-grade students. Nor is there much evidence of historical excavation, as Patterson relies primarily on secondary sources. There is also an odd attempt to justify the book as a response to revisionist historians who have "argued that Brown did more harm than good." But this revisionist "scholarship" is so marginal it hardly needs an answer. Instead, Patterson's main contribution is to provide a competent update of earlier classics, like Richard Kluger's Simple Justice (1975), by detailing the years of retrenchment.

Today a bipartisan consensus holds that integrated schools are a good thing but we shouldn't do much of anything to promote them. Most education efforts are designed to enforce the Court's requirement of equality between essentially separate institutions, which dates from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). So is there any hope for those who care about equal educational opportunity and integration?

Patterson's book gives little reason for optimism, but he omits an important discussion of the next generation of desegregation cases being waged at the state court level. In a large number of states, supreme court judges have found an affirmative right to an "equal" or "adequate" education. These state constitutional provisions have been the basis for requiring equal financing of education. But in a few states--Connecticut, New York, and Minnesota--lawyers are also seeking, with some success, to apply equality principles to require states to address de facto segregation by race and, especially, by economic class.

This new focus on the economic status of classmates has three advantages: the educational benefit of emphasizing what the Coleman Report said was the key factor in raising achievement; the legal merit of addressing Eisenberg's objection to the use of race; and the psychological advantage of answering Thomas's searing question about the presumption that black schools are inferior. The point is not that blacks magically benefit from sitting next to whites but that poverty concentrations, whether in public schools or in public housing, have consistently been found to perpetuate failure. This new, state-by-state approach is more laborious than applying one federal standard is, but it appears to represent the best hope for realizing the broader educational promise of the Brown decision.

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