As reviewed in the New York Times, "American Apartheid: A historian examines the effects of a famous Supreme Court decision, by Laura Kalman, on 25 February 2001 -- Open almost any American history textbook and you will find a triumphal narrative of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In this absorbing book, James T. Patterson, the Ford Foundation professor of history at Brown University, observes that at the time many African-Americans considered the decision their greatest victory since Emancipation.
Yet Brown, which found school segregation laws unconstitutional, and Brown II (1955), demanding only that desegregation proceed with ''all deliberate speed,'' have always been controversial. Recently, detractors have emerged in droves. Some African-Americans find Brown racist. Its suggestion that ''black students suffer an unspecified psychological harm from segregation,'' Justice Clarence Thomas says, reflects ''an assumption of black inferiority.'' Skeptical about the value of racial mixing, the critical race theorist Derrick A. Bell laments Brown's irrelevance. Elizabeth Eckford, who braved white mobs to desegregate Little Rock's Central High, declares that she now appreciates ''blackness.''
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, By James T. Patterson.
Some white scholars criticize Brown's fuzziness. ''What is school segregation?'' asks Lucas A. Powe Jr. If it is legal separation of races, removing the law from the books suffices; if one-race schools, integration is required. Brown ''never addressed the issue.'' Nor did it indicate, Morton J. Horwitz adds, whether school segregation should always have been considered unconstitutional or whether a ''living Constitution'' adaptable to changing social needs made it unconstitutional.
Others question the government's motivation. Civil rights reform was cold war policy, Mary L. Dudziak maintains. Many politicians worried that racism undermined America's anti-Communist crusade and democratic pretensions.
Still others complain about Brown's immediate consequences. Michael Klarman contends the decision halted the mellowing of race relations in the South and hardened white resistance. Gerald N. Rosenberg leads the chorus of disillusioned liberals who grieve that Brown spawned the ''hollow hope'' that the Supreme Court could remedy injustice. And on the left, critical legal scholars charge that Brown underscored the peril of the larger rights-consciousness it made possible: in vindicating a constitutional right, whose exercise it then deferred, the court gave rights-bearers a false sense of security.
Surely Chief Justice Earl Warren is spinning in his grave.
Still, for all their criticisms, legal scholars and judges consider his handiwork sacred. No theory of constitutional interpretation labeling Brown incorrectly decided passes academic muster. Conservatives critical of an activist court's ''social engineering'' carefully insulate Brown from their imprecations. Confirmation hearings feature Supreme Court nominees ritualistically swearing fealty to Brown.
With admirable balance, Patterson synthesizes much of the debate in ''Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy.'' In this season of overwrought doubts about the court's legitimacy, his streamlined rendition reminds us that justices have always considered the social, political and legal consequences of their decisions.
On all those counts, Patterson believes Brown was right. Drawing on Richard Kluger's pathbreaking history, ''Simple Justice,'' he suggests that Brown provided ''considerable, though incalculable, symbolic value'' for white liberals and many African-Americans by permitting ''a 'reconsecration of ideals' -- ideals of justice and equality.'' Having searched in vain for ''evidence of significant change in Southern racial practices'' before the 1960's, Patterson doubts that Brown or Brown II set back race relations. He seems sure that the coolness of white Northerners and Congress, along with Eisenhower's ''morally obtuse'' failure to champion civil rights, made Brown II's modest formula of ''all deliberate speed'' the most that was possible. The Warren court realized that ''courts by themselves could not greatly change American society.''
By Patterson's account, the glory days came between 1964 and 1973, when ''all three branches of government broke with the gradualist guidelines of Brown II and moved with . . . sometimes passionately cooperative determination'' to desegregate schools. Brown's 20th anniversary in 1974 witnessed ''stunning accomplishments'' -- the end of Jim Crow, the desegregation of most Southern schools. Patterson dismisses ''separatist nostalgia about the blessings of all-black institutions during the Jim Crow era'' as ''fatuous.'' Its purveyors forget the ''crowded, often leaky tarpaper buildings,'' the ''awful facilities.''
But Brown, Patterson points out, changed little outside the South. It did not challenge Northern de facto segregation though it was often as popular with local majorities as segregation laws. And soon the Supreme Court, its mood altered by four Nixon appointees and the country's rightward shift, turned indifferent. Taking what Justice Thurgood Marshall called a ''giant step backwards,'' the court refused to penalize white flight by equalizing per-pupil expenditures between school districts or merging urban and suburban school districts outside the South. In one of his last dissents before Thomas replaced him, Marshall rebuked his colleagues for permitting a Southern city that had complied with court-ordered desegregation but resegregated because of ''private choices'' to end busing.
Nationally, racial mixing in schools was declining by century's end. The relationship between academic achievement and desegregation remained unclear; the gaps in standardized test scores between white and black children was, in Patterson's words, ''mystifyingly intractable.'' Congress, the Clinton administration and white Americans were doing little to fight segregation. ''So it is,'' Patterson concludes, ''that many African-Americans, resenting these attitudes, understandably blame whites for the persistence of racially segregated and unequal schools.''
Would race relations in this country have been better and African-Americans better off if the Supreme Court had not handed down Brown? Despite Patterson's level-headed defense of the decision, this controversy will probably outlive us all. (source: New York Times)
James Patterson: America at the End of the 20th Century, Part 2 from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.