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, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Monday, May 20

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Snohomish County Councilmembers Nate Nehring, left, and Jared Mead, speaking, take turns moderating a panel including Tulip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell during the Building Bridges Summit on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, at Western Washington University Everett in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Candidates, voters have campaign promises to make

Two county officials’ efforts to improve political discourse skills are expanding to youths and adults.

Charles Blow: Trump remains at war with the U.S. Constitution

His threats of deportation and violence against peaceful protesters, though vague, can’t be ignored.

Choice in November is between democracy, autocracy

The country belongs to the people and in November they can choose… Continue reading

Opposing Israel’s Netanyahu isn’t antisemitic

I support the demonstrations against Israel’s Benjamin Netayahu. Counter to what the… Continue reading

Trump is being pursued in court because he can win

It is so obvious that President Biden, the Democrats and much of… Continue reading

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, May 19

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks to a reporter as his 2024 gubernatorial campaign launch event gets underway in Seattle, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. ( Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)
Editorial: Recruiting two Bob Fergusons isn’t election integrity

A GOP activist paid the filing fee for two gubernatorial candidates who share the attorney general’s name.

Foster parent abstract concept vector illustration. Foster care, father in adoption, happy interracial family, having fun, together at home, childless couple, adopted child abstract metaphor.
Editorial: State must return foster youths’ federal benefits

States, including Washington, have used those benefits, rather than hold them until adulthood.

Making adjustments to keep Social Security solvent represents only one of the issues confronting Congress. It could also correct outdated aspects of a program that serves nearly 90 percent of Americans over 65. (Stephen Savage/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED SCI SOCIAL SECURITY BY PAULA SPAN FOR NOV. 26, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED.
Editorial: Social Security’s good news? Bad news delayed a bit

Congress has a little additional time to make sure Social Security is solvent. It shouldn’t waste it.

Eco-nomics: What it takes to take carbon out of energy

The transition to clean energy demands investment in R&D and the grid and streamlining processes.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.