More (Or Less) On The Meaning Of Brown

In pontificating about “the meaning of Brown” I commented to the effect recently (either here or here; don’t feel like checking now) that all of us engaged in the struggle over racial preferences are communicants in the Church of Brown v. Board of Education, but we are engaged in sectarian civil war over the meaning of, and hence the commands to us in, the sacred text.

These struggles have spilled out into public view, again, because of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the racial school assignment cases coming from Seattle and Louisville. In those cases both plaintiffs and defendants — and the armies of amici supporting their principals, and the even larger supporting armies of commentators and bloggers — all claim to be the true descendants of Brown.

I, of course, have been an active combatant in these religious wars, and I expect to continue. But what I would like to do now is to put down, momentarily, the proud banner of the “without regard” principle, among whose troops I am proud to serve, and to give the Holy Text a rest — again, at least for a moment — from the hermeneutic tug of war to which it is a constant hostage. Instead, I would like simply to remind everyone of a couple of actual, undisputed facts (you remember those, from when you last encountered them — probably in grade school) in the Brown record. This reminder will be no news to those well versed in all the verses of the Brown hymnal, but it may be news to others, and so as a public service I pause to present them.

Brown took its name from the case filed in Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of the Reverend Oliver Brown, whose daughter Linda, a third grader at the time,

had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was only seven blocks from her house.

Linda Brown’s complaint was that she was barred from attending her neighborhood school because of her race.

In that regard her complaint was typical of the cases that were consolidated into Brown. To pick one more example, one of the other cases was brought on behalf of Ethel Louise Belton, a teenager from Delaware.

The plaintiff, Ethel Louise Belton, was at the time of trial fifteen years of age, and was attending Howard High School in the tenth grade, the lowest grade of the senior high school. She and all the other plaintiffs are residents of the Claymont Special School District in New Castle County, in which a public school with grades 1 to 12 (both elementary and secondary grades) is maintained for white pupils by the school authorities of the State and of the special school district. Howard High School is a public school with grades 7 to 12 (junior and senior high schools only), maintained for Negro pupils by the Board of Education of the City of Wilmington, with some supervision by the State Board of Education and substantial financial support from the State. It is the only public school in New Castle County offering a complete high school course to Negroes. The Claymont School is distant from plaintiff Belton’s home about a mile and a half; the Howard School in Wilmington, about nine miles. The State provides no transportation from Claymont to Wilmington.


As above stated, plaintiff Ethel Louise Belton is required to travel to Wilmington every morning on a public bus, and then, on two afternoons of the week, to walk nine blocks to the Carver building, which she leaves at five-thirty o’clock. She is within walking distance of the Claymont School, and it appears that the courses she takes at Carver are given at Claymont during the regular school day and before three o’clock in the afternoon.

Ethel Louise Belton’s complaint, like Linda Brown’s, was that she was barred from attending a school close to her home because of her race.

Let me give one more simple fact from the record of an important case, and it may be more surprising to you than the above information about Linda Brown and Ethel Louise Belton. As many of you know, the case that gave us busing for racial balance is Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), which held that busing was an appropriate remedy for the problem of racial imbalance even when that imbalance was not caused by discrimination on the part of the school board. Much less well known is the fact that this suit began when

Vera and Darius Swann sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for not allowing their son, James, to attend the school closest to their home, which was a primarily all white school.

Now consider present-day Seattle. Better yet, let George Will consider it for you:

SEATTLE — This city’s school district decided in 2000 that because the son of Jill Kurfirst and the daughter of Winnie Bachwitz are white, they should be assigned to an inferior and distant high school. If they had not left the Seattle school system, this would have required them to rise at 5 a.m. to leave home by 5:30 a.m., alone and in the dark, to take the first of three buses, returning home between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., with almost no time left for homework, family activities and adequate sleep

Sometimes, facts speak louder than theories or interpretations or even principles (especially school principals).


Guest-blogging on Volokh this week, Joanne Jacobs kicked up a ruckus by commenting, in a very good post about the racial school assignment cases, that

I thought Brown was about assigning black kids to their all-white neighborhood school instead of sending them across town because of their race. Silly me.

Read the comments.

UPDATE [18 Feb. 2007]

I have just discovered, by accident, that this important letter was in fact published by Legal Times on Dec. 18, 2006.

Say What? (6)

  1. Chauncey December 11, 2006 at 6:02 am | | Reply

    you said: “Linda Brown’s complaint was that she was barred from attending her neighborhood school because of her race.”

    you’re right. but this is actually an argument for the race-preferentialists in the recent supreme court case. at issue here is segregation. in brown, it was de jure segregation. here, we have de facto segregation because of uncontrollable economic forces. poor kids are still being forced to attend worse schools than rich kids. that’s what it really comes down to.

  2. John Rosenberg December 11, 2006 at 6:54 am | | Reply

    Has “de facto” segregation ever been held to be unconstitutional? Are “gated communities” with all white rich people unconstitutional? Are cities like Detroit, which as I recall is over 80% black, “de facto” unconstitutional?

    The right that Linda Brown vindicated was not the right to go to an integrated school. It was the right not to be deprived of something by the state because of her race. That is the same right the students in Louisville and Seattle are seeking to re-vindicate.

  3. Chauncey December 11, 2006 at 10:46 pm | | Reply

    gated white communities are fine. i don’t think anyone has ever argued against their constiutionality, john. and i’m sure you think black ghettos are perfectly “constitutional” and therefore should be left alone. i mean, we’d better not tinker with black ghettos (i.e., improve them) if it means “discriminating” against whites. that, obviously, would be unconstitutional.

    anyway, you’re always crying about how affirmative action at the college level is evil and bad and “too little, too late,” and that improving elementary and high schools in black ghettos is the better solution. seems to me like this seattle plan does just that. yet, perhaps not surprisingly, as with college-level affirmative action, you think seattle’s plan, which deals with elementary and high schools (i believe), is bad and evil. (i don’t doubt that you could find some way to argue that it too is “too little, too late,” although i don’t see how you could.)

  4. John Rosenberg December 11, 2006 at 11:34 pm | | Reply

    My problem with the Seattle plan (which deals only with high schools), other than the fact that it gives some students what they want and denies others what they wan based on their race, is that shuffling students around to get the right racial mix (whatever that is) does absolutely nothing for the quality of education the students receive. The choice in Seattle, recall, is not between segregation and integration; it is all about the mix, and a very oddly defined mix at that (Hispanics, Asians, etc., are regarded as “white” for the purpose of this plan). Thus a Hispanic student could be denied her choice of school because it already has enough whites.

  5. Chauncey December 11, 2006 at 11:58 pm | | Reply

    interesting. if the racial re-balancing does nothing for the quality of education, then it’s pretty pointless. i thought improving education was what this was all about. why the heck are they shuffling kids around, then?

    i’ve got another question: are you saying that if seattle’s plan actually did improve the quality of education (generally), you’d support it?

  6. John Rosenberg December 12, 2006 at 7:10 am | | Reply

    No. And for the same reason that I wouldn’ approve of segregating schools even if evidence were to show that it improved the test scores of blacks and whites, or just of whites, or just of blacks. Racial discrimination is wrong even if it “works.”

Say What?