Court's School Race Decision Recalls Brown Case

Justices on both sides of the Supreme Court decision cited the landmark 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. But they came to very different conclusions. The history and legacy of the Brown case is discussed.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Justices on both sides of yesterday's decision cited the landmark 1954 school desegregation case - Brown versus Board of Education. They came to very different conclusions, obviously.

And here to help us understand the history and legacy of that decision is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Juan wrote a biography of Thurgood Marshall, who was the lead lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the Brown case.

And good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So how did the opposite sides each square their opinions with the Brown decision?

WILLIAMS: Renee, you have to recall that Brown really was the end of the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that said separate but equal was permissible under the Constitution. Brown said that, in fact, separating children on the basis of their skin color, their race, was unconstitutional - a violation of their 14th Amendment rights to equal treatment.

So yesterday, what you had was the majority saying that according to the Brown decision, you shouldn't judge children on the basis of their race and you shouldn't assign them to schools on the basis of their race.

The minority said, wait a second. Brown was intended to remedy the damage done by legal segregation in this country, and you're now turning it on its head by suggesting that you can't take those steps because of the need to have a colorblind Constitution.

In essence, they said that was self-defeating and hypocritical. So what you have here is now a real decision, I think, that suggests that even looking back at Brown, a time when, you know, 1954, Renee, 17 states had laws requiring segregation, and just the culture allowed it in many other school districts. Now you have Chief Justice Roberts saying that, really, the principle that should guide all decisions here is colorblindness, and saying essentially that Brown was about integration. And while they aren't opposed to integration, they are opposed to anything that would have children judged simply on the basis of skin color.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about how we got to this point.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's really interesting. I mean, it's a matter of historical timeline. You have Brown in '54. In '55, the court then said that the school district should go to the federal courts and take time - all deliberate speed was the phrase that's used in the Brown two decision. And then, of course, this year, 2007, it's 50 years after President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas to defend the rights of nine black children to attend Central High School.

You know, the reality is, though, that for the first 10 years after Brown in '54, about 90 plus percent of black students remained in thoroughly segregated schools. It wasn't until the 1970s that you really start to see massive integration of students in America, and that's largely because the federal government threatened to cut school aid to any segregated school.

But then, in the mid '70s, you had a key decision - Milliken v. Bradley - that said the suburban areas, in this case outside Detroit, had no obligation to work with big city schools to achieve school integration. Of course, most of the white children were out in the suburbs. Even today, big cities, the larger school districts in the country, are often dominated by minority children.

And then you come into a series of decisions in the '90s in Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Kansas City, where federal judges said, you know, these residential segregation patterns are too much, and why are we putting the onus on public schools to achieve integration, when, in fact, the adults aren't doing the job?

MONTAGNE: Given that the two desegregation plans in question are similar to many others around the country, what do you think will be the practical effects of the court's latest ruling?

WILLIAMS: That's a fascinating question, Renee, because, you know, the reality is that today, most white children in American schools go to schools that are about 80 percent white - most black children are in schools that are about two-thirds black. The most segregated group of students in America are Latino students, especially in the Southwestern part of the country.

So what you see in terms of what can be done at this point is efforts to look at - for example, magnet schools, look at the school choice programs, voucher programs, charter schools, and even in some school districts to look at programs that would be based on income, so that you have income integration.

And the way they do that, Renee, is they look at who gets school lunch vouchers, you know, the right to these free school lunches and say we don't want too large a concentration of poor students in any one place.

MONTAGNE: So those are the tools that they'll be looking at?

WILLIAMS: Yes, and that's the hope, that those plans would be approved by this court, even as it has gone about saying that colorblindness has to be the principle, your Fourteenth Amendment rights.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams.

And here's an update on another story we're following today. Police in London have disabled what they say was a powerful car bomb. It was found in a silver Mercedes parked in the heart of the city's busy theater district. Police say the car was packed with explosives, gas canisters and nails, and that the bomb could have caused significant injury or loss of life. Officials say it's too early to speculate who might have been responsible. An investigation is under way. NPR will continue to bring you news of this story as we learn more.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: