Today the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of what was perhaps the most momentous decision ever handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education, the case that ended racially “separate but equal” public schools in America. No other case in modern history has had such a positive effect on our society. And while discrimination still exists and race relations are hardly perfect, no one can honestly claim that American society has not been transformed or that the educational opportunities for African Americans have not improved dramatically over the regime of segregation in 1954.
Yet, tragically and irresponsibly, many pundits and civil-rights activists are doing just that. They see an America that has made little progress and is filled with people–mostly conservative judges, apparently–who want, in the words of one columnist, to “slam shut the door of opportunity and lock it once again.”
Are they right? Is America about to turn back the clock on Brown? No, of course not, and the rhetoric about judges is just an effort to change the president appointing them. Here are the facts.
The issue in Brown was whether public schools could prohibit white children and black children from attending the same schools because of their color. There is no school system in the United States–not a single one–that has such a policy today, and there is no danger–absolutely none–of that guarantee in Brown being challenged by the federal judiciary or political conservatives.
It is true that many public schools have not achieved the level of integration that many in the civil-rights movement might have hoped for, but the reasons for that are not that we are a hopelessly racist country, or that we have bigots on the bench. Rather, residential living patterns and parental reluctance to send children to failing schools–issues that cannot be resolved by judicial decree–are the cause.
What the glass-is-nearly-empty crowd really wants is not an end to government-mandated segregation—which no longer exists–but the implementation of government-mandated racial balancing in our public schools, accomplished through forced busing, gerrymandered school-attendance zones, and other racially motivated student assignments that have more in common with Plessy v. Ferguson than with Brown.
According to Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their recently published No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, it is simply not true that minority students are becoming more racially isolated. Today white students typically attend schools that are much more racially and ethnically diverse than 30 years ago, and the slight statistical decline in the exposure of black and Hispanic children to whites is simply a product of the declining share of white children in the school-age population. The hysterical claims that a new de facto system of “hyper-segregation” has descended over our nation’s schools are false.
But even if it were true that schools are becoming too racially isolated, it would not follow that the solution is to assign students to schools on the basis of their skin color. Forcing children of any race to go to public schools that are far away, dangerous, or fail to provide a decent education is unfair, unwise, and will simply drive those students out of the public-school system altogether.
Every family, regardless of race and ethnicity, prefers to raise its children in safe, secure neighborhoods and to send them to competitive, high-achieving schools. Blacks and Hispanics, along with whites, have been heading to the suburbs in record numbers in search of this way of life during the past decades. Conversely, whites will gladly send their children to sit side-by-side with minority classmates in inner-city, high-achieving magnet schools like Boston Latin or Houston Vanguard because of the quality of instruction there.
We doubt that the African Americans who put their lives on the line in the civil-rights era would have done so if all they got for their trouble was the right for their children to sit next to white kids in a school that would fail to educate any of them. Likewise, those today who want to fulfill the promise of Brown should support improved public-school education–and that means increasing the schools’ accountability and providing parents of all colors with more choices. Bullying parents into sending their children to dangerous, distant, dumbed-down schools won’t work; it’s not fair; and it is flatly at odds with the principle in Brown that students ought not to be assigned to schools on the basis of skin color.