Resegregation, reverse discrimination, busing, and white flight: What happened after Brown?
By Jay Tolson
Elizabeth Eckford would seem to be a likely champion of Brown v. Board of Education. Back in 1957, she was one of nine African-American students to enter the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Yet when asked 40 years later whether she felt good about what she had done, she replied, "Absolutely not."
For Eckford, life has not been easy since that first year at Central High, when federal troops were sent in to protect the threatened and harassed black students. And she voiced dismay that one of her own children later had to be bused 10 miles to achieve racial balance in the school district. "There was a time when I thought integration was one of the most desired things," Eckford said. "I appreciate blackness more [now] than I did then."
Eckford's disenchantment hardly reflects the dominant African-American view of the 1954 decision. Nor do most African-Americans reject the integrationist idealism of those who led the charge to dismantle Jim Crow segregation in public schools. But Eckford's disillusionment connects with an ambivalence that many African-Americans have felt about Brown. Quite simply, they wonder, have the untoward consequences of Brown, however unintended, eclipsed the decision's many benefits?
African-Americans have not been alone in pondering that question. Hispanic political activists and "angry white males," scholars and policy wonks, litigators and sitting judges--Americans of all hues and ideological stripes have weighed in. Whether white flight, reverse discrimination, or new forms of segregation truly resulted from the decision hardly matters. What people have claimed to be the results of Brown has become a big part of what Brown represents. As Jack Balkin of Yale University Law School puts it, " Brown was not created in 1954. It was created over the last 50 years."
Foresight. In some ways, the debates over Brown's consequences began well before 1954. As early as 1935, the great black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois broke with the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People over its strong emphasis on desegregation. Although a critic of legal segregation, DuBois worried that "most Negroes cannot receive proper education in white institutions." But the counterargument, that separate would never mean equal, prevailed.
In the early years after Brown, however, it was hard for many African-Americans to see that integration could lead to equality. For one thing, the second Brown decision, which implemented desegregation, included the vague phrase "all deliberate speed," all but inviting southern officials to drag their feet. Even after court rulings compelled effective desegregation plans and busing, the results were less than impressive. Hence the growing appeal of arguments for stronger black institutions--and a mounting suspicion that dwindling public support for such institutions might be one of Brown's worst legacies.
And it is not just radical separatists of the black power movement or the Nation of Islam who have these concerns. Albert Samuels, a political scientist at historically black Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and author of Is Separate Unequal? Black Colleges and the Challenge to Desegregation, makes the case that Brown scanted the importance of black culture to the education and development of African-Americans. Indeed, the overriding concern with mixing black and white students, usually in predominantly white schools, raised new hurdles for blacks.