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4 Decades Later, Legacy of Brown vs. Topeka Is Cloudy : Civil rights: The belief in the benefits of integration is now corroded by a new generation of problems.

May 15, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — It opened the modern era of race relations, yet it now seems to belong to a bygone time, an era when right and wrong itself was as stark as black and white.

Forty years ago this week--May 17, 1954--a unanimous Supreme Court struck down racially segregated education in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. The historic decision still reverberates through American life. And yet in some respects its echo has grown faint, even discordant.

On both sides of the color line, many say, the belief in integration that the Brown case came to symbolize has weakened. Today, few leaders of any race place high priority on encouraging greater integration in housing or schools. Approximately two-thirds of African American children still attend schools that have a majority of black or Latino students, largely because patterns of racial separation in housing remain immutable.

The Brown case typified the conviction that the key to providing blacks with a better life was expanding civil rights and eliminating discrimination. Now that belief has been corroded by a new generation of problems not clearly rooted in prejudice and largely beyond the reach of legal remedies, the courts and perhaps government policy of any sort: the loss of low-skill, high-wage jobs to automation and foreign competition and the crashing waves of violence and drug abuse immersing many inner cities.

Even the decision's popular legacy of equal treatment regardless of skin color casts an ironic shadow through the years. Today, that logic is perhaps more likely to be cited by conservative critics of race-conscious affirmative-action programs.

"Brown belonged to a certain period in American history, but what we confront now is something very different," said Harvard Law School professor Randall L. Kennedy, editor of Reconstruction, a journal on race relations. "We know what we don't want-- de jure segregation, persistent discrimination. When it comes to what we want, that's where we get fuzzy and the conflict breaks out."

Brown's signal achievement was to undermine the social legitimacy of state-sanctioned inequality. Overturning the 1896 Supreme Court decision that approved "separate but equal" public facilities for blacks, the high court ruled in Brown that in education, segregated facilities were "inherently unequal."

The court followed with decisions striking down segregation in other public facilities, clearing the way for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that buried the last vestiges of Jim Crow and outlawed discrimination in employment and education.

Now, the notion that all Americans should be treated alike not only under the law but in personal relations "is not just an accepted principle, it is a valued principle," said political pollster Geoff Garin. "If you think about where the country was 40 years ago, it's striking that in every major Southern city people watch the news every night delivered by an African American anchor and never think twice about it."

But many whites have never accepted to the same degree the corollary of Brown's logic: that integration in schools and other aspects of life was a positive good for society, Garin and other opinion analysts say.

Those attitudes bounded Brown's impact. After the initial Brown decision failed to meaningfully promote desegregation, the Supreme Court in 1968 and 1971 compelled school districts to move affirmatively toward integration, with busing plans if necessary.

But in the Milliken vs. Bradley case involving Detroit, the court ruled in 1974 that federal courts could not order busing between cities and their suburbs merely to achieve racial balance in the schools; the courts had to first find that the racial separation developed from acts of official discrimination.

That decision etched the limit of Brown's reach--and accelerated the resettling of urban areas into predominantly black inner cities ringed by largely white suburbs, many experts believe.

"Once Milliken came down, it was clear that once whites could withdraw across a municipal boundary, there was no way to promote integration in schools unless you promote integration in housing, and we as a society have been unwilling to do that over the past two decades," said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who has extensively studied residential housing patterns.

Residential separation by race remains intense: Though some middle-class blacks have moved into formerly white suburbs, Massey said, the overall level of segregation in cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Cleveland and St. Louis remains as great as 40 years ago, and in such Southern cities as Birmingham, Ala., housing segregation is actually rising.

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