Can a Law Change a Society?

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SINCE 1954, liberal and conservative justices have disagreed about the central meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. Was the purpose of Brown to achieve a colorblind society or an integrated one? Last week, in its 5-to-4 decision declaring that public schools in Louisville and Seattle can’t take explicit account of race to achieve integration, the Supreme Court came down firmly on the side of colorblindness. Despite some important qualifications by Justice Anthony Kennedy, at least four conservative justices made clear that they believe that nearly all racial classifications are unconstitutional.

The lawyers who won the Supreme Court case predicted that it would have as dramatic an effect on American society as the original Brown case did. “These are the most important decisions on the use of race since Brown v. Board of Education,” Sharon Browne, the principal lawyer for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, declared in a press release. “With these decisions, an estimated 1,000 school districts around the country that are sending the wrong message about race to kids will have to stop.”

But some legal scholars on both sides of the political spectrum, and of the affirmative action debate, question this assessment. They doubt that this case will transform society as dramatically as Brown did. And some of them question whether even Brown was as singularly influential in transforming society as many have claimed during the last half-century.
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