Looking Back at 'Brown.' (School desegregation)(Class Notes) (Column)
Reed, Adolph, Jr., The Progressive
On May 16, 1954, 1 made my First Communion at a church in downtown Washington, D.C. It seemed like a very big event at the time. The next day, a few blocks away, the Supreme Court announced its ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case, overturning the "separate but equal" mystification that had codified racial segregation since 1896. These two events - one that filled my life with solemnity and anxiety for months, and the other which I only dimly understood - somehow merged in my child's perspective.
I had successfully mastered the fine distinctions of catechistic instruction and the choreography of filing, genuflecting, kneeling, sitting, and rising in unison - all with only a couple of unexpected raps to the knuckles and the back of the head from Sister Anna Maria's feared clicker. Sacramental dry runs and dress rehearsals finally culminated in the actual First Penance and Holy Eucharist. And then my parents and I could walk comfortably into Washington theaters and restaurants that before had been inhospitable.
Of course, the Brown decision did not outlaw petty apartheid in the District of Columbia or anywhere else - but it created enough of a stir in the adult environment, apparently, to prompt the lifting of some forms of de-facto segregation, and to penetrate the consciousness of a very preoccupied seven-year-old.
Brown's immediate impact was mainly symbolic. It signified a victory in and of principle, and it fueled a sense of possibility. The decision energized and emboldened black Americans, conferring on them a sense of equal membership in the polity.
The ruling's fortieth anniversary this year has momentarily focused public attention on Brown again and on its significance in American life. Now, just as dangerous forces are gathering from across the ideological spectrum to support resegregation, it seems a good time to consider the meaning of the Brown decision and its effects on the larger social order.
Perhaps most significantly, Brown boosted (though it certainly also was influenced by) a rising tide of post-World War II black activism challenging segregation. A year and a half after Brown, the Montgomery bus boycott signaled a sweeping wave of aggressive political action that continued through the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights legislation.
On the other hand, the Brown decision served to obscure the true nature of racial segregation in America. In the popular view, Brown emphasized the harmful psychological effects on black children of separate schools, and defined segregation mainly in terms of attitudes and individual prejudice and discrimination. But racial segregation was a social system, codified and impersonalized by law. Outside the South, it was an ensemble of local ordinances and rules whose purpose was to cordon off and dislocate black Americans not just from physical contact with whites, but also from equal access to the fruits of citizenship. Separate schools, publicly enforced ghettoization, and racially gerrymandered electoral districts not only rested on notions of black inferiority; they were devices for denying blacks an equal claim on public resources and a means of redress.
The South, Jim Crow's natural home, was a regime of white supremacy. After Reconstruction, alliances of Redeemers and New South progressives rewrote one Southern state constitution after another to establish public life on an explicitly white-supremacist basis, and to define race as the elemental foundation of citizenship and social status.
Virtually every Southern state passed laws specifying the fractions of "black blood" that marked the boundaries of whiteness. (Louisiana - where much of the white population's claim to that exalted status could not bear careful scrutiny - was the exception, until 1970 when it adopted the same retrograde standard used in the Old South.)
Nor was this simply a naive or irrational fixation on racial classification. …