Newsweek: Why Brown Seems a Bust

Roundup: Talking About History

Ellis Cose, in Newsweek (May 17, 2004):

Sometimes history serves as a magnifying mirror—making momentous what actually was not. But Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, is the real thing: a Supreme Court decision that fundamentally and forever changed America. It jump-started the modern civil-rights movement and excised a cancer eating a hole in the heart of the Constitution.

So why is the celebration of its 50th anniversary so bittersweet? Why, as we raise our glasses, are there tears in our eyes? The answer is simple: Brown, for all its glory, is something of a bust.

Clearly Brown altered forever the political and social landscape of an in-sufficiently conscience-stricken nation. "Brown led to the sit-ins, the freedom marches ... the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ... If you look at Brown as ... the icebreaker that broke up ... that frozen sea, then you will see it was an unequivocal success," declared Jack Greenberg, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. and one of the lawyers who litigated Brown. Still, measured purely by its effects on the poor schoolchildren of color at its center, Brown is a disappointment—in many respects a failure. So this commemoration is muted by the realization that Brown was not nearly enough.

While most white and Hispanic Americans (59 percent for each group) think their community schools are doing a good or excellent job, only 45 percent of blacks feel that way, according to an exclusive NEWSWEEK Poll. That is up considerably from the 31 percent who thought their schools were performing well in 1998, but it means a lot of people are still unhappy with the deck of skills being dealt to black kids.

Only 38 percent of blacks think those schools have the resources necessary to provide a quality education, according to the poll. And African-Americans are not alone in feeling that funding should increase. A majority of the members of all ethnic groups support the notion that schools attended by impoverished minority children ought to have equivalent resources to those attended by affluent whites. Indeed, most Americans go even further. They say schools should be funded at "whatever level it takes to raise minority-student achievement to an acceptable national standard." Sixty-one percent of whites, 81 percent of Hispanics and a whopping 93 percent of blacks agree with that statement—which is to say they agree with the proposition of funding schools at a level never seriously countenanced by the political establishment: a total transformation of public education in the United States....

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