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Jewish World Review May 24, 2004 / 4 Sivan, 5764

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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What we learned from the Brown decision was not what we expected

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The career of Jim Crow has been passing strange. He was just a crude caricature in 19th-century minstrel shows until the 1890s, when the southern states passed a plethora of Jim Crow laws segregating the races. In 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that the railway police had been simply observing the law of Louisiana in evicting Homer Plessy from a carriage reserved for whites because the railcar for blacks, though separate, was equal. Therefore, they said, it met the requirements of the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing all citizens equality before the law.


The ruling condemned the majority of black Americans not simply to separate railway cars but to separate (and decidedly unequal) everything. There were "whites only" drinking fountains, streetcars, workbenches, taxicabs, restaurants, schools, libraries, cemeteries, hotels, and even Jim Crow Bibles in courtrooms until the Supreme Court--50 years ago last week--struck down those laws in Brown v. Board of Education. The unanimous judgment of the court was as simple as it was powerful: "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."


That decision initiated a remarkable and relatively peaceful revolution in race relations that dismantled state-sponsored white supremacy and racial segregation. It extended far beyond public education and laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, finally restoring the long-lost vote to black Americans. Today, segregation, in the minds of most Americans, is simply unthinkable.


What worked. Jim Crow has gone, but his shadow persists in our public education system. There have, to be sure, been many gains. A typical black youngster today attends schools that are about half black; 88 percent graduate from high school, four times as high as in 1954; six times as many emerge with a college degree. But the facts on the ground since Brown have changed. More than 7 million mostly middle-class blacks moved from cities to suburbs; millions more came to northern and western cities from the rural South, intensifying the concentration of race and poverty in urban school districts.

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In many urban areas, the percentage of whites in the school-age population declined dramatically, rendering it virtually impossible to fill a school with a majority of white kids. Since schools reflect local patterns of residency, minority children now make up over 40 percent of public-school attendance nationwide, though it's about 65 percent in California and much higher in many cities.


These demographic and socioeconomic concentrations have had a significant effect on school outcomes. Blacks graduating from high school today are generally estimated to be about four years behind their white counterparts in reading and math, according to standardized testing results. If anything, the achievement gap between whites and minority students has been widening.


Today, many leaders of the black community think that the quality of education is determined not by how many white students there are in attendance but by how good the educational system is, and they don't believe that separate necessarily means unequal. When they look at cities and schools with high minority populations, their concern is to enhance the skills and knowledge the students can gain from that school system.


Many black parents today not only aren't pushing integration, they're questioning it, for they feel it has failed to solve the issues of inequality in America. The irony is that the combatants have switched sides. Many school districts, including some that once resisted integration, now argue that diversity benefits everyone. Yet many of them are facing legal challenges from the very minority families whom integration was intended to benefit.


The issue today is thus not one of forcing more integration but rather one of equalizing education and improving its quality. Part of this may be achieved through equalizing funding and through legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, which has the objective of accelerating proficiency in math and reading.


Are we better off today than we were 50 years ago, even if some of the promise of the Brown decision has been eroded? Yes, obviously. Millions of black children from middle-class families have benefited from the opportunity to attend better schools. The country is the better for having the Supreme Court inform the nation that racial segregation is wrong and that a nation of laws cannot tolerate that wrong.


The Brown decision, in some ways, can be compared to the Ten Commandments: extraordinarily useful as standards, even if not everyone lives up to their full promise.

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JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2004, Mortimer Zuckerman