Praising Brown, Or Burying It?

Colbert King is the Deputy Editor of the Washington Post editorial page, on which his column on D.C. affairs (or usually on D.C. affairs) appears, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2003 “for his against-the-grain columns that speak to people in power with ferocity and wisdom.”

I suppose that depends on what grain you’re accustomed to. I’ve rarely been surprised by a King column, nor have I found many of his arguments that do occasionally cut against some ingrained left views — such as an emphasis on responsibility rather than victimhood — particularly original or compelling. To me, he’s a middle of the road black urban columnist — far less of a predictable drone than Bob Herbert of the New York Times, but much less interesting than his Post colleague William Raspberry.

A good example of his work is today’s column on Brown at 50: all the expected many-miles-still-to-go platitudes seasoned with a sprinkling of optimism that, because of Brown, we’ll eventually get there. In one place, however, I believe he veered sharply into marching in lockstep with conventional left wisdom.

“Segregation has found its way back,” he writes, “if, indeed, it ever left some schools.” Such statements blur the crucial distinction between legally enforced racial separation and separation that results for reasons other than law. King of course knows the difference. “To be sure,” he continues, today’s racial separation is not sanctioned by law.” But it’s the following “But” that undermines his recognition:

But in terms of racial isolation, the effect is much the same, and with the same consequences. As in the pre-Brown era, we are still trying to bring up to speed predominantly black schools — often located in poverty-stricken communities — by spending money on compensatory programs and other catch-up improvements to increase educational opportunities for minority students.

I understand what King is saying here, but I don’t believe — indeed, I don’t believe King believes — that even “racial isolation,” if it is not imposed by law, is “much the same” as racial segregation, nor does it have the “same consequences.”

Since racial isolation in a democratic, decent society is clearly bad, insisting on this point may seem like picking nits, but I don’t believe it is. In fact, it goes to the very meaning of Brown, which on one view commanded the elimination of racial discrimination and on the other commanded the presence of racial integration. The first view was based on and re-enforced the principle that bars the state from distributing burdens or benefits based on race. The second positively requires the state to engage in precisely that form of racial regulation.

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  1. Laura March 1, 2004 at 7:32 pm | | Reply

    It is kind of a nice article.

    I don’t think Brown itself created white flight so much as the way the court system interpreted it in the decades following. De facto segregation would have melted away naturally, the same way the neighborhoods desegragated, if the courts hadn’t tried to force desegregation by bussing. He’s right that lots of kids go to schools that are not integrated at all, and there’s nothing to be done about that.

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