PJ Media

Busing Redux: Misunderstanding Brown v. Board

Busing — or rather, the debate over busing — is back, and along with it, more misunderstanding of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Washington Post on January 12 published a long front-page article by reporter Stephanie McCrummen — “Republican school board in N.C. backed by tea party abolishes integration policy” — criticizing the new Republican majority on the Wake County, North Carolina, School Board for ending county-wide busing and, thus, turning its back on Brown. The next day the Post published a letter from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan criticizing the board for abandoning the “core value” of “diversity” and threatening an investigation.

Busing to achieve racial balance was initially foisted onto the nation by another North Carolina school system, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In the 1990s, some parents filed a lawsuit challenging the exclusion of their children from magnet schools because they were white; in 1999 a federal district court judge declared that the district — now 40% black — had long since remedied its segregation, ordering the board to stop “assigning children to schools or allocating educational opportunities and benefits through race-based lotteries, preferences, or other means that deny students an equal opportunity based on race.” Shortly thereafter, “the local school board adopted a new assignment plan that combined neighborhood schools with parental choice within several large assignment zones.” Wake County, however, stuck to its old, county-wide busing program. But in an attempt to avoid legal challenge, the old busing system was now justified as necessary to promote economic, not racial, diversity.

Predictably, ending county-wide busing has been attacked by civil rights groups and their friends as “turning back the clock” by re-introducing “segregation.” William Barber of the local NAACP said that allowing children to choose to attend their neighborhood schools is “morally wrong … legally wrong … economically wrong,” and McCrummen’s WaPo article quotes NAACP president Benjamin Jealous blaming the Tea Party:

So far, all the chatter we heard from tea partyers has not manifested in actually putting in place retrograde policies. But this is one place where they have literally attempted to turn back the clock.

This quote from McCrummen’s article has itself been widely quoted, and Jealous may well have said it somewhere — it’s certainly the sort of thing he would say — but it appears nowhere in the source McCrummen linked.

What is noteworthy about both the Post article and Secretary Duncan’s letter is their fundamental misunderstanding of Brown v. Board of Education, a misunderstanding that is now endemic to contemporary liberalism. Writing in the Post last fall McCrummen and Michael Birnbaum praised a new study touting the “benefits of economic integration” because

it lends fresh support to an idea as old as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954: Segregated schools — in this case, separated by economics, not law — are rarely as good as diverse ones at educating low-income students.

McCrummen makes the same point in her January 12 Post article, describing Wake County as

the center of a fierce debate over the principle first enshrined in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education: that diversity and quality education go hand in hand.

I suspect that neither McCrummen nor her editor has actually read the Brown decision, since neither that decision nor any of the briefs for the plaintiffs, nor their oral arguments, said anything about “diversity,” much less “enshrined” it as a fundamental principle.

The day after McCrummen’s article the Post printed a letter from Education Secretary Duncan manifesting the same mistaken belief that Brown enshrined “diversity.” He found it “troubling to see North Carolina’s Wake County School Board taking steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools,” promised an investigation, and called for “a conversation among educators, parents and students across America about our core values.” Duncan obviously does not believe “our core values” include what Gunnar Myrdal famously called the “American Creed,” the principle that individuals should be treated without regard to race.

How odd that Duncan so readily admits what the Wake County busing advocates make such an effort to disguise: that the busing to which they are so devoted is really all about racial balance, with “economic integration” being the camouflage they hope will allow it to sneak in undetected. You’d think the secretary of education would know that if Wake County’s prior purpose was what he says it was and still recommends — “to promote racial diversity in its schools” — it would be unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Parents Involved, which invalidated classifying students by race and using that classification in their school assignments.

Ultimately, however, what is most disturbing about the liberals’ Brown-worship is that they so fundamentally misunderstand their deity. They worship Brown; they worship “diversity;” so they are forced to conclude that Brown sanctified “diversity.” It didn’t.

As Chief Justice Roberts stated in Parents Involved, what the Court held in Brown is precisely what the plaintiffs’ attorneys asked it to hold:

the position of the plaintiffs in Brown was spelled out in their brief and could not have been clearer: “[T]he Fourteenth Amendment prevents states from according differential treatment to American children on the basis of their color or race […].” As counsel who appeared before this Court for the plaintiffs in Brown put it: “We have one fundamental contention which we will seek to develop in the course of this argument, and that contention is that no State has any authority under the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to use race as a factor in affording educational opportunities among its citizens.” There is no ambiguity in that statement. And it was that position that prevailed in this Court […].

Not only was “diversity” not “enshrined” or even mentioned in Brown, it was actually rejected as a goal by the plaintiffs. “The only thing that we ask for,” Thurgood Marshall argued,

is that the state-imposed racial segregation be taken off, and to leave the county school board, the county people, the district people, to work out their own solution of the problem to assign children on any reasonable basis [other than race] they want to assign them on. [p. 47]

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.