Each landmark anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education invites us to answer two questions. The first involves a retrospective focus on Brown in the context of the decisions that came before it and the social changes that it engendered. This question seeks to find out how important Brown really was. The second question requires taking stock of where we are now and how far we have come since 1954 in our pursuit of racial justice. This week marked the 55th anniversary of the first Brown decision. Coming as it does in a year that witnessed the inauguration of the first African-American president, those questions seem even more important. At the same time, the answers become more complicated and nuanced.
Brown was decided at a time when most American schools were segregated as a result of explicit legal requirements, or by a series of policies and practices — including rampant housing segregation — that imposed a virtual system of apartheid upon American society. Segregation in education was just one manifestation of that system. Restrictions based on race, color and ethnicity created barriers to housing, patronizing restaurants and other public accommodations, voting and even marriage. By confronting and rejecting the dishonesty and hypocrisy in the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the area of public education, the decision became a keystone in the civil rights movement of the succeeding decades, which saw court decisions and legislation aimed at addressing discrimination in its many forms. Brown was instrumental in initiating many of the civil rights advances that occurred in its wake. It is also true that but for it and measures like the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the scores of cases interpreting the 14th Amendment, the conditions that lead to the election of an African-American president could not have occurred.
But what, exactly, does Barack Obama’s election say about how much we’ve progressed since Brown? Having an African-American in the nation’s highest office suggests we have travelled an enormous distance. A careful look at the state of race in the United States, however, suggests we still have a long way to go to achieve the level of equality envisioned by Brown. Sadly, many of the concerns raised during previous Brown anniversaries — about injustices like racial profiling and the absence of equal access to quality education, employment and housing — are still too much with us.
The passage of additional time only underscores the frustration. Despite the fact that hundreds of Brown-era cases are still on the dockets of courts throughout the country, the level of segregation has been steadily increasing to levels approaching pre-Brown levels. Nor is this the only way in which things have worsened. The sad fact is that people of color today represent a greater percentage of incarcerated Americans then they did during the Jim Crow era. And during a time of economic upheaval, as the nation fearfully watches national unemployment figures approach 10 percent of the work force, the reality is that the unemployment rate among African-Americans has hovered close to that level since 2007, when 8.6 percent of African-Americans were unemployed compared to 4.8 percent of the general population. Absent significant, race-conscious recovery efforts, the Kirwan Institute argues, the African-American unemployment rate will climb to 18.2 percent by 2010.
One aspect of the Brown decision has proven to be remarkably prescient: by holding that segregation harmed black children by stigmatizing them in a way unlikely ever to be undone, the Court made a powerful and poignant statement about the extent of the injury caused by segregation and discrimination, and the difficulty of erasing that effect. Of course, the Court was speaking about inequality’s effects on a particular generation of school children. But our experiences since 1954 show that their words apply as fittingly to the long-lasting effects of discrimination and inequality on our society as a whole. In many ways, parts of that stigma have been addressed. And so while it might be overly pessimistic to believe that the stigmatization of race is unlikely ever to be undone completely, it is clear that the struggle will indeed be a long one. We owe it to our nation and to the people who fought for the ideals of Brown to regard this 55th anniversary not as a day to remember what happened in the long past, but rather as an occasion to renew our vows to work for justice and equality.