Beyond Black, White and Brown
Thanks to the civil rights revolution, de jure segregation is dead. But vast social, economic and educational inequalities continue to plague American society. Moreover, while the black-white paradigm has never fully described American race relations, we are far more aware today than in the past of the multiracial nature of our society. With this in mind, we asked a range of scholars, writers and activists to reflect on the legacy of Brown and the prospects for future change. Should education be the primary focus of social activism? What strategies will most effectively promote educational betterment in black and other communities? Can we expect the courts to play a role at the forefront of change, as they did for much of the 1950s and '60s, and if not, what other institutions are positioned to adopt that role? Is the goal of educational desegregation irrelevant today? Their responses follow. --The Editors
Adolph Reed Jr.
It's almost difficult for me to take in that the Brown decision was handed down fifty years ago this May. It's so vivid a part of the swirl of dramatic events that punctuated and shaped my childhood: the Montgomery bus boycott, the lynching of Emmett Till, Little Rock--all of which occurred within three years of Brown.
The United States has changed radically during the half-century since that momentous ruling, and it's good to recall that it has. It's important especially to recognize how striking political and social change has been in the South. Those who can't remember the old Jim Crow regime can be too easily seduced by a rhetoric that stresses the magnitude and injustice of contemporary inequalities by minimizing the significance of the victory against segregation. Those who lived under the old regime know better.
The segregationist regime in the South encompassed far more than the "separate but equal" doctrine that Brown overturned in public education, far more than the petty apartheid reflected in Whites Only or Colored Only signs. It was a codified social order, a system of state-sponsored and state-enforced racial domination. It wasn't about prejudice and bigotry. Though it certainly fed on and legitimized both, it was fundamentally about who could claim the rights and protections of citizenship and who couldn't. And it was always at least as much about imposing and stabilizing a pattern of social relations rooted in the political economy's class and power dynamics as it was about formal commitment to an ideology of white supremacy.
It was also finite. It was the expression of reactionary elites' victory in the nearly thirty-year struggle over the terms on which a post-slavery Southern social order would be built. The Jim Crow regime sanctified in the infamous Plessy doctrine was only fully consolidated between 1890 and 1910. Its institutional back was broken by 1965. That is, all four of my grandparents were at least adolescents by the time the system was solidly entrenched; its legal foundations were destroyed before I was old enough to vote.
In 1954, or even 1955 or '57, few imagined that the system wouldn't last another generation. Even activists weren't prepared for the prairie fire of insurgency that opposition to Jim Crow ignited between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. Brown was both illustration of and impetus for that change. It was also a culmination of decades of careful strategizing and organizing, of protracted legal struggle, against one facet of the segregationist order--a point where its separate-but-equal sophistry was most vulnerable--led by the NAACP and its allies.
Scholars and ideologues of one sort or another continue to debate the precise role that Brown played, how important it was, in bringing down Jim Crow. These debates can be more or less useful or interesting analytically. They can help to sharpen perspective on different facets and nuances of the movement and its time. But they are ultimately irresolvable. All we can say is that Brown was a current in a stream of activism that swelled into an irrepressible torrent of opposition over the ensuing decade.
This is where the greatest lessons of Brown lie for our time. First, actions by and pressure on government can help change fundamental social relations and the nature of the terrain for political action. Second, political movements ferment slowly and grow in relation to their efforts to change actual policies. Third--and perhaps most important to keep in mind for a younger generation that has known only Reaganism or the Democrats' "Me Too, But Not So Much" response--moments of sharp social change can condense abruptly, when least expected.
Adolph Reed Jr. is professor of political science at New School University.