May 17 is the fifty-third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the iconic case we celebrate for having ended the notion that racially separate education could be considered “equal.” Yet the meaning of that case has always been the subject of dispute. I grew up in a household where we learned that segregation was bad because it was premised on the stigma of inferiority. Segregation licensed the isolation of African-Americans from the benefits of citizenship; it limited access to a full range of public spaces, not just schools. I took it for granted that such provincialism ultimately hobbled both whites and blacks as well as the anxious “in between” groups, such as recent immigrants and Asian-Americans. We cannot be full participants in a democracy if we have built impermeable walls around our various identity groups.

From the beginning, of course, there was an alternative narrative, voiced mostly by apologists for Jim Crow: that freedom of association should allow us to live in ghettos if we choose. The most interesting exposition of this view–interesting because it’s from a refugee from Hitler’s Germany–is probably Hannah Arendt’s controversial 1959 essay “Reflections on Little Rock.” “It has been said,” she asserts, “that enforced integration is no better than enforced segregation, and this is perfectly true.”

In reviewing her essay recently, I was struck by how much that language is echoed in attacks on recent efforts to integrate schools. Today, with as many if not more schools segregated along a black-white divide than in the late 1960s, we await the Supreme Court’s ruling in a pair of cases that will decide the future of the integration movement, after a decade of rulings constricting the remedies made available by Brown. In Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Court will rule on whether the voluntary efforts of local school boards to consider racial balance as one of many factors in configuring student bodies is constitutionally permissible.

This past December, when the cases were presented to the Court, some of the Justices made troubling analogies. In questioning attorneys for the Seattle and Louisville school districts, Justice Scalia argued, “It seems to me you’re saying you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs…. I mean, if we have a lot of crime out there, and the only way to get rid of it is to use warrantless searches, you know, fudge on some of the protections of the Bill of Rights….” It was disturbing–his notion that voluntary school integration is comparable to a warrantless search, an actual violation of the Bill of Rights. On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! radio show, the Heritage Foundation’s Todd Gaziano claimed that the plans “set these very hard quota bans,” powerful buzzwords that invoke histories of discrimination against Jews and Asians. But the policies at stake in these cases could better be described as “soft voluntary integrationism.” As Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has expressed it: “What is being challenged is the right of parents, communities and local school districts to determine whether that seat must be segregated or can represent our country’s vibrant diversity.”

One of the reasons I find Arendt’s essay such intriguing reading at this time is that she self-consciously positions herself as an outsider in offering her opinions. She admits that she has never lived in the South; she admits what she does not know. Yet it is precisely what she did not know that undermines her conclusions; and as I listen to those in today’s debate who argue that efforts to integrate are exactly the same as segregation, I am similarly struck by what is not being considered.

Let me quote Arendt at some length, from the section of her essay “A Reply to Critics”: “The most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools…. I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously, was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be.”

What’s missing from Arendt’s view is any sense of background. Brown was by no means the first attempt to integrate schools; it was at least the eleventh attempt in the twentieth century. It was hardly the first attempt to integrate public facilities, such as buses, trains, parks and bathrooms–Plessy v. Ferguson being the most obvious example of a prior failed attempt. The very active role of the NAACP was invisible to her, as was the degree to which its involvement was necessarily underplayed or even disguised. And Arendt lacked the essential social understanding of why a white friend rather than a black father would have been necessary to accompany a black child trying to integrate a school in the Deep South of that era–the risk of death being at the top of the list. “If I were a Negro mother in the South,” she appeals, “I would feel that the Supreme Court ruling, unwillingly but unavoidably, has put my child into a more humiliating position than it had been in before.” If this last statement seems particularly uninformed, it is well to remember that she was writing at a moment when much of white America was also either uninformed or in serious denial about the violence that circumscribed the lives of blacks in the Jim Crow South. It took the Emmett Till case to begin some national introspection about how viciously the boundaries of social comportment were patrolled in those days.

When I look back on all this, while at the same time looking forward to the next phase of our attempt to build a more perfect union, I wonder at the complex blinders that could misinform such a powerful and sympathetic intellect as Arendt’s. Arendt was not only an “outsider”; she also purchased the heroic script that most Americans tell themselves, ourselves. I wonder, too, what is invisible in today’s world that allows so many in our polity, few of whom are declared segregationists, to think that an all-white classroom is exactly the same as an all-black classroom is exactly the same as an all-Asian or all-Hispanic classroom; and that the attempt to cross-pollinate them amounts to nothing less than a new segregation. What narratives are we inventing to justify the gross racial divisions, the callous disproportions, the cruel imbalances, not merely at all levels of education but in our neighborhoods, our prisons, our healthcare, our jobs, our spheres of esteem, our circles of love–in the equality of citizenship that begins with the image of that eager, lonely child on her first day of school, for whom all things might be possible, if we only willed it so?