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Busing Redux: Misunderstanding Brown v. Board

What about “de facto segregation,” now often referred to — as Secretary Duncan just did in his letter — as “racial isolation”? Again, Marshall couldn’t have been more specific about what the Brown plaintiffs sought (and received). “My emphasis,” he insisted,

is that all we are asking for is to take off this state-imposed segregation. It is the state-imposed part of it that affects the individual children. [p. 49]

Marshall was pressed hard on this point by Justice Frankfurter:

Justice Frankfurter: You mean, if we reverse, it will not entitle every mother to have her child go to a nonsegregated school in Clarendon County?

Mr. Marshall: No, sir.

Justice Frankfurter: What will it do? Would you mind spelling this out? What would happen?

Mr. Marshall: Yes, sir. The school board, I assume, would find some other [non-racial] method of distributing the children.... I think whatever district lines they draw, if it can be shown that those lines are drawn on the basis of race or color, then I think they would violate the injunction. If the lines are drawn on a natural basis, without regard to race or color, then I think that nobody would have any complaint. [47–48]

It is worth recalling what The Washington Post, Secretary Duncan, et al. seem conveniently to forget whenever they discuss parents opposed to busing: the complaint of Linda Brown, Ethel Louise Belton, and the other black children on whose behalf Brown was brought is that they were barred from attending their neighborhood schools because of their race. Even Vera and Darius Swann in Charlotte filed the complaint that ultimately led to Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education because their 6-year old son James was refused permission to attend an integrated school that was close to their home.

Finally, it is true that the Brown record is filled with arguments that the Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to and does not prohibit reasonable classification based on race, and that courts, even the Supreme Court, have no business telling states or local school boards how to assign their students.  “Your Honors do not sit,” as one attorney put it, “and cannot sit as a glorified Board of Education....” [p. 216]

Those arguments, however, were all made by attorneys defending the racial assignment policies that the plaintiffs attacked. They lost. The Washington Post and Secretary Duncan to the contrary notwithstanding, the principle and the core value that Brown “enshrined” is that students (and by extension, others) may not be burdened by the state because of their race -- not the conflicting principle that cities may -- or, according to some, must -- impose burdens based on race to promote integration.