Desegregation, Then and Now

R. Shep Melnick:

The central, unstated assumption of Hannah-Jones and other defenders of court-ordered busing is that the meaning of the crucial term “desegregation” remained constant from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to busing in Boston two decades later. To oppose busing in Detroit, Dayton, or Delaware (as Biden did), so the story goes, is to reject the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century. Moreover, if “desegregation” has a coherent, constant meaning, we should focus on the benefits of the entire project, from desegregation of the border states in the 1950s to the “reconstruction of Southern education” in the 1960s and 1970s, to the effort to create racially balanced schools outside the South during the 1970s and 1980s. There is no need to distinguish among the diverse projects lumped under the heading “desegregation.”

This story is just plain wrong, as anyone who has studied the history of desegregation well knows. The starting point for any serious evaluation of desegregation must be acknowledging how much the meaning of that key term changed over time. We can argue over the merits of this transformation, but not over the nature and extent of the change.

In his opinion for a unanimous court in Brown v. Board, Chief Justice Earl Warren presented arguments he hoped would not only convince legal skeptics, but appeal to the better angels of citizens in the North and South. He never explained what school districts must do to achieve desegregation. For that omission the Court has been justly criticized, since its silence allowed the South to evade its constitutional responsibilities for a decade and a half. Nor did Warren provide an adequate explanation for why state-sponsored segregation is wrong. His reliance on dubious social-science evidence needlessly left him open to attack by segregationists.

Although the Court never cited the famous words of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson — ”Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens” — that understanding lay at the heart of the NAACP’s legal argument and formed the foundation of the Court’s discussion of remedies. In oral argument, the NAACP’s Robert Carter explained that the “one fundamental contention which we will seek to develop” is that “no state has any authority under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to use race as a factor in affording educational opportunity among its citizens.” Thurgood Marshall assured the Court that “the only thing that we are asking for is that the state-imposed racial segregation be taken off, and to leave the county school board, the county people, the district people, to work out their solutions of the problem to assign children on any reasonable basis they want to assign them on.”

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

In addition, Madison recently expanded its least diverse schools.