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Deconstructing the Brown Myth

By Diana F. Hess

This perspective is based on the opinion that the Court did the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons. The fact that Brown dealt with schools, which are powerful sites of cultural formation, clearly enhances its importance. A decision stating—in a clear and forceful manner—that what historian James Patterson calls "the very heart of constitutionally sanctioned Jim Crow" was legally and morally wrong sent a powerful democratic message that American apartheid had to end. If schools could not be segregated, then it was obvious that the other institutional supports of an immoral system would be felled as well.

Brown as Liberation Referent

Much of the glowing language used to describe Brown focuses not so much on what changes it caused at the time, but how it has become a symbol for other rights movements. For example, the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas that struck down state laws banning homosexual sodomy has been hailed by some as the Brown v. Board of Education for gay Americans.

Brown as Unfulfilled Promise

If the goal of Brown was to create equal educational opportunities for students of color through desegregation, even a cursory analysis of the current educational landscape in the United States provides evidence that the goal remains unmet. Legal scholar Jamin Raskin argues that the refusal of the Burger and Rehnquist courts to stay the course that began in Brown has resulted in the ironic and pernicious reality that "in many parts of America, there are 100 percent white suburban schools and 100 percent black or minority schools, and they are all perfectly lawful because the segregation is not commanded by the state." In 1980, 63 percent of African-American students attended predominantly minority schools. By 1998, the figure was 70 percent. As Raskin aptly elaborates, whether the government has segregated by law or allowed it to happen in practice is a distinction that "surely escapes most elementary children."

Brown as Well-Intentioned Error

Frustration with the difference between the progress many civil rights advocates hoped Brown would spark and the persistence of race-based unequal educational opportunities and outcomes has caused some to question the fundamental premises of Brown. Legal scholar Derrick Bell believes that instead of ordering the desegregation of schools, a better path for improving the educational opportunities for African-American students would have been to equalize the resources going into segregated schools. It is important to note that this solution might have prevented what is widely considered a particularly harmful consequence of the Brown decision—the loss of teaching positions (30,000 by one estimate) and school administrative positions for African-American educators.

Brown as Irrelevant

Some legal scholars believe Brown simply did not matter very much—that the desegregation of schools occurred largely because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gerald N. Rosenberg, a political scientist, advances this position by questioning whether litigation was the right mechanism for furthering civil rights goals. In doing so, he explicitly challenges the conventional wisdom about the power of courts in the United States, especially of the Supreme Court. According to Rosenberg, Brown failed to cause significant change because there was too little political pressure to enforce the decision—and quite a bit of pressure to resist it. Thus, it is misguided to expect the courts to act as the great engine of reform. To claim that Brown is an example of the judiciary at its majestic best is a "naïve and romantic belief in the triumph of rights over politics."

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