The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

This month we “celebrate” the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.  As most are aware, this ruling swept aside racial segregation in public education which persisted in many states.  When it was decided in 1954, the 11 southern states, DC plus six other states had segregated schools and it was optional in another four states.  Some estimates state that 40% of all school children attended segregated schools in 1954.  The case was originally heard in the previous term, but the Court re-argued the case the following term focusing on questions involving the 14th Amendment.  The final decision was unanimous at 9-0.

The initial reaction was one of “so what?” within the population at large.  Polling at that time indicated that school desegregation and civil rights in general ranked low on the list of priorities.  However,the decision was much celebrated among blacks at the time.  The following year, in Brown II, the Court ruled that desegregation must proceed with “all due deliberate speed.”  As the case’s main advocate, Thurgood Marshall, later noted, that meant “S-L-O-W.”   In fact, soon after the decision the Greensboro, NC school board voted to desegregate its public schools only to renege on that vote and actually became the last major southern school district to desegregate.

Perhaps the two greatest legacies of the decision was its effect on the civil rights movement in general and, more importantly, its effect on education and black students in particular.  As to the former belief, as stated earlier, civil rights were not a major issue to the population at-large in 1954.  Whether Brown ushered in the civil rights movement or spurred it along is a matter of debate.  But, we do know certain facts. Large scale integration of schools did not occur until much,much later- the end of the 1970s, some 26 years after the decision.  Perhaps the biggest event in the wake of the decision was Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to enforce an integration order in the Little Rock, Arkansas public high school.  For his part, Eisenhower disagreed with the Brown decision but felt it necessary to restore order in Arkansas as Commander-in-Chief.  In the 1960 campaign between Kennedy and Nixon, civil rights was a peripheral issue when discussed at all. Instead, the biggest issue was the execution of the Cold War and stopping the spread of Communism.  Even after Kennedy’s election, there is nary a mention of civil rights in Kennedy’s infamous inaugural speech and it was only after the violence that accompanied the Freedom Riders, the violence in Montgomery and Birmingham and other high-profile events that the Kennedy Administration became more involved in civil rights.  In fact, Kennedy, not wanting to alienate the South, voted against a Republican-led civil rights law in 1957 while a Senator.

Secondly, where it may have had an effect was in the border states like Kansas which had de jure segregation.  It was in these states that integration efforts were the greatest.  But, in the South there was stiff resistance and foot-dragging.  Some have argued that in the absence of this decision, it is possible that segregation may have fallen of its own weight eventually.  This writer is not so sure.  The outright violation in most states towards integration long after the decision is evidence that it would take the courts to eventually force the recalcitrant states to comply.  We can, however, debate the efficacy of that strategy.

Perhaps the more interesting legacy is the effect on educational outcomes.  There could not be two more politically disparate black voices than Derrick Bell and Clarence Thomas.  However, both have taken exception not only to the use of sociological evidence used to overrule Plessy vs. Ferguson‘s “separate but equal” doctrine, but also with the conclusions of that evidence.  Specifically, the infamous footnote 11 suggests the inherent inferiority of blacks,not because of the obvious and admitted inferiority of their schools, but born of a belief that a black child will simply learn more and learn better if they are seated next to a white child in a classroom.   From the practical standpoint, many of the plaintiffs in these cases have now expressed reservations about these integration efforts.

Some of the facts speak for themselves.  Leaving aside the sideshow over the alleged racism of testing, clearly black students as a whole do not perform as well as white students.  The Left’s solution is to double down on spending on these low performing schools.  For example, in my home state of New Jersey we have so-called Abbott school districts which receive the bulk of state financial aid.  Per-pupil spending in these predominantly minority school districts is somewhere near $20,000 annually.  They also have some of the worst graduation rates and worst standardized test scores in the state.  Meanwhile, another district which is not predominantly minority can spend $12,000 per pupil and put out a better product.  The point is that if this sociological evidence upon which Brown was based was valid, then integration coupled with the increase in education spending should have paid dividends 60 years later.

Interestingly, as both Thomas and Bell argue, they are not against integration on a voluntary basis.  And the best way to achieve voluntary integration is through true educational reform based on parental choice.  However, the fact remains that there exists today- whether by choice or the denial of choice- what amounts to de facto demographic segregation.  While the whites have largely fled urban areas for the suburbs, left behind in the failing school districts are the minorities.  Because students are required to attend school in their home districts, the minority is forced into a failing school district.  New Jersey now allows cross-district registration based on classroom availability in the receiving district.  This was a commonsense, low cost solution to low enrollment figures in affluent, better performing suburban districts while granting opportunity for those seemingly trapped in a poor performing school.  Also, charter schools show promise in certain instances and under certain circumstances.

The beliefs of Derrick Bell and Clarence Thomas, although seemingly identical, come at the “solution” from different angles.  For example, Bell’s beliefs are predicated upon the fact that black youths are better served by black schools with black administrators and black teachers because only in that environment can the black student truly be understood and excel. For this, like the Brown decision, he sometimes relies on sociological studies.  In fact, some such schools certainly do turn out fine students.   Of course, Bell’s beliefs in this area meld quite nicely with his Critical Race Theory, but that is another story altogether.   The reality of the disparity between schools in 1954 was quite stark.   In the science class of one petitioner in the Brown cases was a single Bunsen burner, a fish bowl and one goldfish.  Bell asserts that as long as things were equal then being separate was fine or even better.

Thomas,on the other hand, argues that being separate is not inherently wrong assuming everything is equal, but even in the cases of equality, then a black student or even a white student’s parents should have the choice of schools and that such a choice should be enrollment in an all-white school, an integrated school, or an all-black school.  Regardless of the solution and how to get there, we do know that involuntary actions- like busing- achieved very little in the way of validating the findings in Footnote 11.

To this writer, the biggest legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education is that using sociological or other non-legal sources to justify a decision or a desired outcome is no way to decide a case.  From a purely constitutional analysis standpoint, its opposite- Plessy vs. Ferguson– is probably more justified.  That is not to say that segregated lunch counters, motels and hotels, schools, buses, trains, and water fountains were morally fine, just that from a legal standpoint, Plessy was a more rationally decided decision from a constitutional standpoint.  The post-Civil War amendments and laws enacted under them were never designed to force integration upon the country.  Of course, integrated schools may have an advantage over segregated schools, but it is ironic that leading African-American and Hispanic voices are now touting the virtues of segregated schools assuming they are treated equally in all respects.  The sociological assertion that segregation instills a sense of inferiority among minorities and that integration undoes that inferiority has possibly made the situation worse as evidenced by the lagging test scores and graduation rates of minority students.  And isn’t that the ultimate goal- improving the educational outcomes of minority students?