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.
Those housing patterns, combined with demographic trends like the powerful influx of Latino students, have hollowed Brown's promise in most urban school districts: According to a National School Boards Assn. survey conducted late last year, more than two-thirds of all black students attend schools that are primarily made up of minority pupils--the highest figure since 1968. In the Northeast, where separation is most intense, half of the black students attend schools where at least nine out of every 10 students are members of minority groups.
"You basically had no serious sustained effort to desegregate outside the South," said Gary Orfield, a Harvard University education professor. "You never had a national Administration committed to enforcing it seriously."
Integration appears to be receding as a priority for blacks too. In a recent Gallup survey for USA Today, roughly 2-to-1 majorities of blacks said they would rather strengthen neighborhood schools than increase efforts at integration.
A recent Russell Sage Foundation survey of African Americans found that three out of five support the creation of all-black male academies within public school systems. On college campuses, minority students now often seek affirmative segregation in separate dorms, student organizations and ethnically based academic departments.
"When you look at the way these kids have latched onto some of the black nationalists, you get the sense that the rejection of integration by major forces in society makes them feel they have to go it alone," said Ronald Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington.
If faith in integration has waned since 1954, so too has the belief that ensuring civil rights is the key to narrowing the divides between blacks and whites.
Today, there's much less consensus that the most troubling trends in the black community are grounded in discrimination--and thus capable of being reversed by the kind of legal action Brown symbolized. Though affirmative action and other legal strategies have enlarged the black middle class, such programs offer less practical help to African Americans trapped in poor neighborhoods where family structure and social order have substantially broken down and industrial restructuring has decimated high-wage manufacturing jobs.
Even some sympathetic analysts view the continuing legal battles over discrimination as far less important than combatting problems such as the explosion in gang-related violence.
"What's wrong with black America has nothing to do with rights," said historian David J. Garrow, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "It is largely internally generated and will require a kind of fundamental cultural change that is going to come very slowly."
Massey dissents, arguing that those negative cultural trends derive from the continued isolation of most blacks into segregated neighborhoods--and that such isolation is itself rooted in continued housing and lending discrimination.
"If you segregate and isolate people . . . you build in these self-perpetuating cycles of violence and social pathology," he said.
Massey's concerns are the same that inspired the lawsuits that led to the Brown decision: overt discrimination denying minorities equal treatment under the law. But since Brown, much of the civil rights debate has shifted to different terrain: whether, to overcome past discrimination or encourage diversity, it is appropriate to grant minorities preferences in hiring and college-admissions decisions.
In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court carefully avoided ruling that the Constitution prohibits government from making any distinctions on the basis of race. But the decision was received as bearing precisely the message that all Americans, regardless of race, should be treated equally under the law.
That standard shaped the Civil Rights Act. But starting with President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 commencement address at Howard University, liberals have argued that government has to grant racial preferences in employment and education to produce "equality as a result" not "just legal equity."
With that historic switch, Brown's legacy became confused and contested. In one of its briefs in the case, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People suggested it was unconstitutional when government "confers or denies benefits on the basis of color or race." Now conservatives routinely cite that argument against affirmative-action plans the civil rights movement promotes.
"There has been this incredible flip-flop," said Linda Chavez, executive director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under President Ronald Reagan. "The whole point of Brown and the civil rights movement was to make race irrelevant. Now we have come full circle and there is an attempt to elevate race and ethnicity to a category of ultimate importance."
As candidate and as President, Bill Clinton's instinct has been to leave undisturbed the liberal consensus behind affirmative action--seeking neither its expansion nor retrenchment. But in other respects, he is moving back toward the idea of common opportunities and standards that some see as Brown's essence.
Clinton's agenda combines programs aimed at increasing opportunity without regard to race--such as job training and expanded tax credits for the working poor--with tougher enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in housing and credit. It also calls for moral renewal and personal responsibility.
As with Brown itself, many question whether those programs and exhortations are sufficient to bridge the chasm between white and black Americans. Indeed, there is precious little optimism that any group along the ideological spectrum holds the key to that lock.
That mist of despair marks the most stark contrast from 40 years ago. For an earlier generation, the Supreme Court's majestic Brown decision illuminated a path to equality through the dismantling of segregation. Today, Brown's beacon has dimmed, and in the gloom lurks the fear that no one knows which road now leads to racial reconciliation.
A Progress Report
In the four decades since the Supreme Court struck down state-sanctioned segregation in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., African Americans have made great progress relative to whites in some arenas but suffered reversals in others.
WHITES BLACKS 4 YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL OR MORE 1950 34.3% 12.9% 1990 77.6% 66.2% MEDIAN YEARS OF EDUCATION 1950 9.3 6.8 1990 12.7 12.4 LIFE EXPECTANCY 1950 (years) 69.1 60.8* 1991 76.3 69.3 MEDIAN FAMILY INCOME 1956 $23,433 $13,189* 1992 $38,909 $21,161 OUT-OF-WEDLOCK BIRTHS As a percentage of all births: 1950 2% 18%* 1990 20% 65%
* Includes other non-white races
FAMILY COMPARISON FOR 1992
The percentages of whites and blacks living in a particular type of family unit, with dollar figure showing the unit's average income:
WHITES BLACKS Income Income Married Couples 82% $42,738 47.5% $34,196 Female householder (no male) 14.6% $20,130 46.7% $11,956 Male householder (no female) 4.2% $29,671 6% $20,678
Sources: National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau
Researched by D'JAMILA SALEM / Los Angeles Times