Comment: Ths slow but sure progress of Brown v. Board

Segregation in education remains, as does racism, but the case is a milestone of the 20th century.

By Beau Breslin / For The Fulcrum

American history is replete with paradigm-shifting, landscape-altering, game-changing moments. Brown v. Board of Education is one of them. Little of what we knew or understood before May 17, 1954 — 70 years ago next month — resembles what came after. Good thing.

Dismantling America’s system of educational apartheid was long overdue. The stigmatization of Black children as inferior to, or lesser than, white children was more than enough to call into question the moral currency of segregation. The Supreme Court would finally call that question in the Brown case. Separating schoolchildren based on race, Chief Justice Earl Warren argued, “affects the hearts and minds [of Black children] in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” We cannot abandon an entire race, he said. State-authorized and legally sanctioned stigmatization can no longer endure.

The court’s simple and profound declaration that the Constitution “neither knows nor tolerates” racial separation was as manifest as it was magnificent. It has been reverberating ever since.

It is certainly true that desegregation was slow in coming on the heels of the Brown decision. It is equally true that de facto school segregation persists. Still, Brown managed to accomplish something essential to a free society. It gave legitimacy and force to an ideal; an Enlightenment ideal that “all men are created equal.”

America needed that. It needed a reminder that a first principle of the republic — equality — was rotting. There was no equivocation on the part of the unanimous court. In unison, all nine justices drifted to the correct corner of the moral universe. To come from the most respected of governmental branches helped; it had the feel, for progressives at least, of a commandment. The court’s unassailable voice made a difference.

Brown emphasized the benefits of classroom diversity. “We must look to the effect of segregation itself on public education,” Warren proclaimed. Segregation has a devastating effect on African-American children, he insisted, but it also robs white children of the “intangible” ability “to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views” with students from other races and dissimilar backgrounds. We can draw a direct line from Brown to the affirmative action cases, which (until Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard ) insisted that classroom diversity was a “compelling state interest.” We can draw a direct line from Brown to the noble efforts around race-integration busing. We can draw a direct line from Brown to the diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI/DEIB) initiatives at most of America’s secondary and post-secondary schools.

Brown forced a fundamental realignment of the judicial appointment process. Before Brown, presidents nominated judges for their intellect, wisdom and judiciousness. Enter Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. Afterwards, presidents saw that they could advance their partisan agendas through judicial channels. If the NAACP can bypass the traditional democratic branches and win stunning victories in the courts, it is no longer sensible to nominate the most respected legal minds.

Exit Holmes, Brandeis and Frankfurter. Now the goal is to nominate the most politically ideological thinker we can get through the system, the jurist who can best deliver on a particular political platform. Gone are the Robert Borks from the right and the Laurence Tribes from the left. But gone also are the judicial giants — men like William Brennan and Harry Blackmun — who were nominated by presidents of the opposing political party. Impartiality has been replaced by politics, neutrality by partisanship.

Brown’s economic impact is incalculable. The principle of “separate but equal” was always morally dubious, but it was also pragmatically foolish. Studies have exposed the negative economic impact of a segregated America. Prosperity, especially for people of color, is tied to America’s ongoing struggle with de facto segregation. So is mobility. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth says so explicitly: “School integration powers economic growth by boosting human capital, innovation, and productivity, while strengthening the social trust and interpersonal relationships necessary for smoothly functioning markets.”

The enormity of the court’s decision in Brown can never be overstated. Put simply, it is the most important and most consequential Supreme Court decision of the 20th century. It didn’t solve every ailment. Seven decades have passed since the landmark ruling and America still has a race problem. Even so, I suspect almost all of us would prefer to live on this temporal side of the desegregation case. It’s taken a long time; 70 years to reach consensus! But that’s something, and it is most definitely worth celebrating.

Beau Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.” The Fulcrum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our governing systems. ©2024 The Fulcrum, thefulcrum.us. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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