Brown at 50: Keeping Promises

Brown at 50: Keeping Promises

Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m skeptical when everyone celebrates — especially if we applaud civil rights advances that have been hard-fought and may not yet be fully secured. As virtually without exception we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, I wonder whether we are doing justice to the historic decision. The unanimous opinion overruling racial segregation is perhaps the most important legal case in our nation’s history, but it deserves to be given real meaning rather than mere praise. As difficult as it was to form a consensus against racial discrimination, it has proven even more challenging to take affirmative action against racial disparities.
The story of Brown is compelling. Blacks and Whites alike understood that the Jim Crow system of “separate but equal” was a convenient fiction. There was no actual effort to ensure that Whites and Blacks were provided the same services. Invariably, the White schools had higher funding, better buildings, newer supplies and so on. Indeed, in many instances there was simply no Black counterpart offered, and Southern states actually paid to send talented African Americans to school elsewhere.
Before he was appointed to the bench, Thurgood Marshall led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a lengthy struggle to undo “separate but equal.” With a network of volunteers who were literally risking their lives, he traveled to often hostile courtrooms where they were successful as no other team of lawyers had been before or has been since.
They won their greatest victory in Brown. They assumed for the sake of argument that “separate” could be “equal” in material terms — the same funding, buildings and supplies. They insisted that even such a hypothetical situation would violate the Constitution. They were able to persuade the justices to rule unanimously that separate was inherently unequal, because it reduced individuals to their racial identity while conveying the message that some groups were better than other groups.
We prefer to forget the controversy that ensued then. Government officials, from high-school principals and local education boards, to governors and United States senators, began an open campaign of “massive resistance.” White leaders called for expelling all Blacks in colonization schemes. They warned that integration would mean rape. Ordinary White citizens formed mobs to prevent Black children from attending class. The North was no better than the South.
Today, we still face the American dilemma of nice principles and mean practices. We wish racial integration would appear automatically or naturally. Residential segregation has been increasing, not decreasing; educational outcomes continue to show disparities.
We alternate between apathy and blaming the victim, as we look at the so-called “test gap” between Whites and Blacks. There is backlash against even modest efforts to address the particular situation of African Americans.
Last year, I taught at the University of Michigan. In a pair of cases attacking affirmative action on its campuses, the current Supreme Court upheld the importance of racial diversity though reiterating that it is not permissible to use racial formulas. I had testified at the trial on the side of the programs. One of my White students asked me whether I thought it was intellectually honest to say, as posters around campus did, that the cause of Brown was the same as the cause of affirmative action.
Although he was earnest, perhaps his question is better answered by reversing it. Is it morally right to say we embrace Brown v. Board without also making genuine efforts to implement its goals?
Let us insist that the promise be kept. 
—  Frank H. Wu, a professor of law at Howard University, is assuming the deanship of Wayne State University Law School in his hometown of Detroit.



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