The choice is ours: Will the Brown v. Board of Education decision become a historic relic, trotted out every 50 years for ceremonial commemorations, or will it become an actualized hallmark of a fair, just and inclusive society?
With the Brown decision in 1954, the Supreme Court and the nation finally laid to rest the ignoble history of racial segregation at all levels of public education and, by extension, all other areas of American life. Or so it appeared. The years after the Brown decision brought tremendous social upheaval as the civil rights movement gathered force and the violent reaction of many whites to these changes produced vehement acts of intolerance.
And despite its sweeping nature, the Supreme Court's vague call for desegregating public schools with all deliberate speed in essence meant no speed at all. Thus, into the current century, we continue to deal with lasting inequities flowing from the court's capitulation to Southern governments' antipathy toward the remedies called for in Brown.
While blacks made some immediate gains in education as a direct result of Brown, on closer examination many of those early educational gains have recently been lost. Indeed, some indices have fallen below levels that preceded Brown.
The Trends in College Admissions 2000 survey showed a decline in black achievement in education. For example, the percentage of all black students who were accepted for admission at a four-year state institution and who eventually enrolled in 1985 was 59 percent. In 1999, that number was only 37 percent. It is worth noting that over the same period, the average number of applications received by four-year state colleges and universities in the country from black students increased, as did those to four-year private universities.
Brown raised many expectations, but left much undone. For these reasons, we are less inclined to celebrate this 50th anniversary than to commemorate the significance of what it could still mean to the children of color who have been shortchanged.
As the ongoing Harvard Civil Rights Project documented in a report released in January, children of color, particularly blacks and Hispanics, have been attending in recent decades substantially segregated and poorly funded primary and secondary schools.
Further, as members of racial and ethnic groups, we have moved further away from each other rather than toward the integrated society predicted when Brown was decided in 1954. So we acknowledge gains in social progress and racial interaction even while we are dismayed that basic steps have not been taken to fully realize the equal educational opportunity that democracy demands.
The good intentions of Brown alone could not change the social relations of rule in American society. However, with renewed commitment, we can decide that now is the time to do so. As we look back, we must also seek the way forward and ask ourselves what kind of society we want and how we can accomplish it. It is inconceivable that equitable education can be achieved without addressing racism at all levels.
If we continue to aspire to the goals of Brown 50 years after the decision, we must finally invest more reality than rhetoric to ensure equal educational opportunity for children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
But if we prefer to live in a separate and unequal society, let us abandon any pretense to the ideals of equality and democracy.
If we choose the latter course, the moral bankruptcy of American society will be abundantly clear. If instead we choose the former, there will be no limits to the accomplishments and contributions that Americans of diverse backgrounds will make to the society and the world at large.
Linda Carty is chair of the African-American studies department at Syracuse University. Paula C. Johnson is a law professor at the Syracuse University College of Law.