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Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Brown Decision: ‘A Shining Moment’

By Abigail Thernstrom — May 19, 2004 8 min read
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Brown at 50

From segregation to “resegregation": what a depressing picture. It’s become the conventional wisdom, in the media and elsewhere, on what has happened to the country since the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was handed down 50 years ago this week. But it is not correct. Some, like Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas, may say that “we’re still wrestling with the same issues” as we did in 1954. Nonsense. Brown remains a shining moment in American history, and the changes that came in its wake can never be undone.

Brown at 50
Marking a Milestone: Commentaries

  • ‘A Shining Moment’

How quickly we forget. Fifty years ago, when Brown was decided, there was no interracial contact in the schools of the South, the region where most African-American children lived. Even 10 years later, in the 11 ex-Confederate states as a whole, a mere 1.2 percent of black public school children went to schools that any white pupils attended.

State-imposed pupil assignments that separated the races were what Brown v. Board was all about. The U.S. Supreme Court did not condemn—and never has—racially imbalanced schools per se. It spoke of the “detrimental effect” that officially sanctioned separation of the races had—"denoting the inferiority of the Negro group,” generating “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community. ...” The message was pertinent to the entire Jim Crow system, not just the rules governing education. The whole point of state-sanctioned segregation, from water fountains to hospitals, was to convey a permanent sense of racial inferiority. That purpose drove the rules governing seats on a bus, as well as those dictating school assignments. Hence the domino effect—the rapid extension of the ruling in Brown to other spheres of southern public life. The logic of the court’s decision could not be confined to schools.

Southern apartheid crumbled—too slowly, for sure, but down a long, hard road it did fall apart. Today, the typical black child attends a school in which just over half the students are African-American, nearly a third are white, and there are sizable numbers of Latinos and Asians as well. Moreover, close to a third of blacks and a quarter of Latinos are in schools with white majorities. Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, and others who argue “resegregation” are simply counting the number of whites in a school system, and finding that number inadequate across much of the urban landscape.

That definition has an odd result. A school in Louisiana that reflects the state’s population (half white, half black) is labeled as more “integrated” than one in San Francisco, where public school enrollment is currently 11 percent white, 16 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, 0.6 percent American Indian, and 51 percent Asian. Yet surely the logic of calling a majority-Asian school with few whites “segregated"—with the implication that learning is likely to be compromised—makes no sense given the record of Asian academic accomplishment. In addition, such diversity, such a rainbow of colors, is a civil rights dream come true, one might think.

Simply counting whites also ignores the demographic landscape. The standard measure of racial separation (which Gary Orfield rejects) asks quite a different question: the degree to which schools are “imbalanced” relative to the actual racial mix in the district. The Imbalance Index—as it’s called— takes the number of white students in a district as a fact, and focuses on the distribution of children, given the existing demographic constraints. By that measure, there has been much improvement over the past three decades.

A Boston school, by the measure of “imbalance,” is not “segregated” when it is roughly 13 percent white because whites are only 13 percent of the city’s school population. The charge of “segregation” would seem to suggest a problem that has a remedy. But no amount of goodwill can change the fact that in central cities, especially, the number of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians has grown substantially in recent decades, and thus the proportion of white students has gone down. School districts cannot change their racial makeup, and the sorry history of busing (with no gains in student achievement) suggests schools should concentrate on good education for the children who appear on their doorstep, however racially “imbalanced” that group of pupils might be.

The end of de jure segregation in the South did not level the educational playing field. The Supreme Court in 1954 only raised such hopes implicitly, however. The decision was almost a blank slate, more notable for what it omitted than for what it actually said. The wait from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown had been so long that inevitably Americans who were committed to civil rights read their hopes of true racial equality into the sparse opinion. But the ’54 decision was only a minimal response to morally and constitutionally egregious wrongs.

That minimal response contained no reference to a colorblind Constitution. In 1896, Justice John Marshall Harlan, dissenting in Plessy, had argued that “our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” But that wonderful dissent was the radical vision of a man who has remained a voice in the constitutional wilderness. Brown contained no singing phrases, no majestic moral rhetoric. Its conclusion was clear enough, but the substance was not. And thus the decision was left vulnerable to a process of revision that, over time, legitimized race-conscious strategies in an effort to achieve racially balanced schools— strategies that the attorneys for the plaintiffs in Brown had explicitly rejected. In fact, a few years after the ’54 decision, one of Thurgood Marshall’s chief legal aides, Jack Greenberg, declared that if there were “complete freedom of choice, or geographical zoning, or any other nonracial standard, and all the Negroes still ended up in separate schools, there would seem to be no constitutional objection.”

Race-conscious strategies like busing were driven by the desire for better schooling. Integration was essential to learning, busing advocates insisted. But, while the Detroit school district is almost entirely black, that is no excuse for the failure to impart the skills and knowledge that those students need to do well in American society. Equal educational outcomes for the typical child in every racial and ethnic group should be the first aim of American educators today. Racial equality depends on it. The focus on “resegregation” is a distraction from that task. An African-American child does not need to sit next to a white student to become a good reader—any more than a white youngster needs to sit next to an Asian to learn math.

The average black or Hispanic student today leaves high school with an 8th grade education. On the nation’s most reliable tests—the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the typical non-Asian minority student at age 17 is scoring less well than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. In fact, in five of the seven subjects tested by NAEP, a majority of black students perform in the lowest category—"below basic.” These students do not have even a “partial” mastery of the “fundamental” knowledge and skills expected of students in the 12th grade. Hispanics are doing only a tad better. Moreover, the news is no happier when we switch our gaze to the top of the scale. In math, for instance, only 0.2 percent of black students fall into NAEP’s “advanced” category; the figure for whites is 11 times higher and for Asians 37 times higher. Again, Hispanic students are only slightly ahead of blacks.

This is the problem that Brown could not fix—although of course it was much worse a half-century ago. But for more than a decade, scores have been stagnant, and a further closing of the racial gap in learning will likely take profound educational change.

Almost everyone agrees on what great schools for academically disadvantaged kids look like. They set high academic and behavioral standards, providing greatly extended instructional time with more hours in the day, longer weeks, and longer years. They have terrific principals who have the authority and autonomy to manage their budgets, set salaries, staff the school with fabulous teachers, and get rid of those who don’t work out. These schools focus relentlessly on the core academic subjects, insisting that their students learn the times tables, basic historical facts, spelling, punctuation, the rules of grammar, and the meaning of often unfamiliar words. They provide safe, orderly environments in which to teach and learn. And they aim to transform the habits and values of their students, as those habits and values affect academic achievement. Thus, students must arrive at school regularly and on time, dress neatly, address classmates and teachers with respect and civility, and work as hard as they can, completing their homework every day.

Figuring out what constitutes good schooling—the sort that would really make for equal educational opportunity—is not hard. But no one has a good answer to the question of how to put such education in place across the nation, wherever kids are failing to get the skills and knowledge they desperately need to do well in today’s America. Ensuring skills and knowledge—not somehow finding more white classmates for minority students—is the unfinished business of Brown. It could not be more urgent.

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Abigail Thernstrom is the co-author (with Stephan Thernstrom) of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. She is also a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a member of the Massachusetts state board of education, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as The Brown Decision: ‘A Shining Moment’

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