What Happened to ‘Brown’?

When the justices of the United States Supreme Court travel abroad, their counterparts in other lands marvel at one thing above all else: their ability to have their decrees obeyed. In many nations, this is not a power taken for granted. Few images capture this point about the American constitutional system more powerfully than the stark news photographs of African-American students entering previously all-white public schools under National Guard escort after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision holding segregated public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. Walking with quiet dignity past jeering, taunting white crowds, those students’ brave passage symbolized the supremacy of law over mob rule, and helped to cement the Court’s reputation as a powerful institution standing against the majority.

Now, fifty years later, Brown has had a mixed commemoration. To be sure, the decision has been widely celebrated this year at academic conferences, public ceremonies, and American Bar Association events. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer journeyed to Topeka, Kansas, to pay the Court’s respects to the residents of the school district in which the case originated. And participants in the nation’s first gay marriages in Massachusetts this past May 17 cheered the coincidence of their own first day of judicially decreed equality with the precise fiftieth anniversary of the decision in Brown.

But elsewhere the celebration has been muted, and in some quarters, the occasion has been marked by outright lament. While Brown condemned segregated public schools as “inherently unequal,” public schools today persist in remaining racially unbalanced in many large metropolitan areas. White students make up two thirds of the American school-age population, but on average they attend schools that are 80 percent white. Fewer than 10 percent of black students attend schools whose students are mostly white, and only 10 percent of white students attend schools in which minority students predominate. The students in some school systems, like the Mott Haven elementary schools in the Bronx, are over 99 percent black or from other minorities, making them statistically indistinguishable from students in the pre-1954 public schools whose racial segregation was enforced by Jim Crow laws. And while many African-Americans have moved into the middle class since Brown, on average blacks continue to lag behind whites in nearly every socioeconomic index.

To the authors of three books published for Brown’s fiftieth anniversary, these ongoing racial inequalities show Brown’s disappointing outcome, or even its catastrophic failure. In the postscript to the new edition of his superb and fascinating 1976 history of the Brown litigation, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Richard Kluger describes a “widely prevalent mood of disappointment” among black Americans that Brown “gave rise to so much hope and yet left so many heightened expectations well short of fulfillment.”

Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor born the same year as Brown into the segregated society of Merced, California, recounts movingly how much Brown helped make possible his own education at Stanford and Harvard and his subsequent successful career, but concludes that “far too many African-Americans…have been…

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