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Conference - Brown v. Board of Education: Did It Make Any Difference?

January 08, 2002 // 11:00pm

Summary of a meeting with James T. Patterson, Ford Foundation Professor of History, Brown University; Roger Wilkins, Robinson Professor of History, George Mason University; Douglas S. Reed, Professor of Government, Georgetown University.

Some historians have asked whether the great twentieth century changes in racial equality were attributable to Brown v. Board (1954) or whether they resulted from actions by the other branches of government, and whether the Supreme Court's tackling of the sensitive issue of segregated education rather than, e.g., public accommodations, exacerbated Southern resistance.

Professor Patterson discussed the impact of the decision on the civil rights movement and on the achievement of quality education. There actually were fewer civil rights demonstrations in the late 1950s than in the late 1940s. National politicians remained disinclined to get involved in the issue, and as of the mid-1960s Southern schools were only minimally desegregated. Today, resegregation and the continued racial gap in test scores raise the question of whether the expectation after Brown that integration and improved education would follow was naïve. But Brown did have an impact. The border states began changing laws mandating or permitting school desegregation; Northern states were encouraged to pass anti-discrimination laws. State courts utilized Brown and its progeny in their own desegregation rulings.

Prof. Wilkins spoke of the enormous impact of Brown on African-Americans. Plessy v. Ferguson was "a stake in our hearts", as it constituted an official finding of the inferiority of black Americans. Brown helped embolden the people who participated, for example, in the Montgomery bus boycott.

Yet as a member of the District of Columbia Board of Education, Wilkins never mentions the word desegregation. African-Americans once thought that racism was an individual trait and would end with integration and the resultant exposure of white Americans to black Americans. There was little recognition that racism is at the core of American culture. Today, as a practical matter, the emphasis must be on improving schools where black children live, rather than attempting integration-- although all-white or all-black schools necessarily provide an incomplete education for citizens.

Professor Reed described segregated schools as harmful to individuals because they limited the student's access to opportunity in a primarily white society, whether or not the education in a particular all-black school was excellent. Brown was transformative in ending one form of racial oppression and erasing powerful lines of social demarcation between white and blacks. For many Americans, it eliminated segregation as an idea--but it did not create a better educational system.

Reed described Brown as renewing African-Americans' faith in the legal system, but its outcome is difficult to measure. Is educational achievement assessed only by test scores or the number of students getting into graduate schools? Is the effect on citizenship or the provision of equal opportunity measurable? Brown did not end racial conflict; in fact, it generated racial conflict -- and to the extent that the ultimate result was greater racial equality, it can only be applauded.

 

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