Brown v. board hasn’t solved problems

Leonard Pitts Jr.

I have not looked forward to this column. To be perfectly candid, I’m only writing it because I feel obligated.
Monday marked the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that ended the doctrine of “separate but equal” and helped shatter American apartheid. What else is a black columnist going to turn his pen to? Tax reform?
My problem is that an anniversary is usually a time for celebration. But where Brown is concerned, the record is so mixed that little about it inspires rejoicing.
After a half century, we’ve discovered that mandated change is not necessarily change at all. While segregation is not as rigid as it once was, while black and Hispanic kids are a more common sight in the hallways of predominantly white schools, the fact is that most of those kids still go to schools where nearly everybody looks like them.
What’s disheartening is that none of us — and I include myself — really seems to care overmuch about it.
Maybe caring is too much to ask after five decades of forced busing, street riots, magnet schools, court battles and white folks who would not stay still long enough to be integrated with.
Many fled the cities as one does a burning house, ran to mountains and valleys and bedroom communities past the edge of town, enduring urban sprawl, high mortgage rates and longer commutes, all to escape sending their children to school with blacks.
And at some point, if you’re black, you just get tired of chasing them, tired of begging them. At some point, you just stand on the last mountain and wave them goodbye. Fifty years after Brown, I am much more concerned about the fact that black kids read poorly, are not proficient in math and go to college less often, than I am with the fact that they don’t get to sit next to white kids in the process.
It’s a change of focus that saddens me.
Not because those other issues are not important, but because school integration is, too. It’s hard to imagine a higher expression of the American ideal of equality than the notion of public schools where children of all colors, cultures and creeds are taught together.
Nor is the importance of school desegregation solely symbolic. We are witness to the rise of a global economy and to a profound shift in the American demographic that will make the very idea of a racial majority obsolete. The person who thrives in that environment will not be the one who is “tolerant” of other cultures but conversant with them, comfortable in them, able to do business with them.
Our schools could have taught these things. In the heady days after Brown, some folks believed they would. Then a school in Nashville was blown up because a black student was enrolled. Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its schools rather than desegregate them. And a fleet of moving vans showed up to take white families away.
The moral of Brown, then, is that the law has limits. It could ensure black kids the right to attend the school nearest their homes. It could not ensure that white kids would still be there when they arrived.
In this, Brown is just another item of unfinished business on freedom’s agenda, a reminder that battles that once were waged in courtrooms are now waged in the hearts and minds of a nation that still isn’t sure it can, or even wants to, live up to its highest ideals.
At some level, we remain where we were before the ruling came down that fateful spring half a century ago — wedded to the notion that separate can somehow be equal. Or that we can be separate without undermining some essential element of our mission as a nation.
I look forward to the day it changes. I’ll be glad to write about that.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com