Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Mixed Verdict on Brown: A Survey of Recent Articles

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

A Mixed Verdict on Brown: A Survey of Recent Articles

Article excerpt

When the Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education 50 years ago this past May, liberals enthusiastically hailed the decision and conservatives deplored what they regarded as the Court's reckless judicial activism. A half-century later, there's been a remarkable reversal: Many liberals now disparage Brown's significance, and many conservatives applaud the Court's action.

In unanimously finding state-sponsored school segregation unconstitutional, the justices in 1954 had to substitute their own moral convictions for the guidance they would normally have found in the text of the Constitution and subsequent Court interpretations of it. Their ruling had the unfortunate effect of encouraging the "abandonment of constitutional reasoning," writes conservative commentator George Will in The Washington Post (May 16, 2004). But it also had the salutary effect of accelerating "the process of bringing this creedal nation into closer conformity to its creed."

Gerald Rosenberg, of the University of Chicago Law School, writing in the American Political Science Association's PS (April 2004), insists that Brown actually accomplished "not very much." The "all deliberate speed" with which desegregation was ordered to take place proved not very' speedy at all. A decade later, "virtually nothing had changed" for southern black students: Their schools were still segregated. Change did come eventually--two decades after Brown, 46.3 percent of black students in the South were attending white-majority schools--but only after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other actions by Congress and the executive branch. It wasn't action by the courts that led to desegregation, Rosenberg maintains.

Attempts to end de facto segregation elsewhere in the nation "were less successful," and they came to a halt in the mid-1970s, when, among other developments, resistance to forced busing "reached a fever pitch" says Leo Casey, a former inner-city high school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, writing in Dissent (Winter 2004). More recently, "there has been a trend toward resegregation." In the nation as a whole, about 33 percent of black students were in "intensely segregated" schools (i.e., those whose student population was at least 90 percent non-Anglo) in 1988; that figure has since risen to 37 percent. In the South, the 44 percent of black students in white-majority schools in 1988 has fallen to 31 percent. "To a degree that few would have predicted a half-century ago, courts, communities, and civil rights advocates have all largely accommodated to racially segregated schooling," Christopher H. …

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