In Brown V. Board of Education, its 1954 ruling against school segregation, the US Supreme Court made it the Constitutional business of the nation to care about the motivations of African American children. Segregation, the court argued, was unfair to African American children, because the practice of separating blacks by law conveyed a sense that they were inferior to whites. And the sense of inferiority tended to damage a black child's motivation to learn. On the basis of these particular considerations, the Court found that segregation was inherently unequal.
The wisdom of that ruling lies in its twin findings, that white superiority has effects worth fighting, and that a nation should be busy building institutions that encourage black children. Because the larger effects of white superiority were deemed harmful to black children, de-segregation and integration were prescribed by the Court as an antidote.
Fifty years later, we have to ask the broader questions. What have we done to counter the effects of white superiority and how have we re-organized our schools to serve the motivations of our African American children? Has the black child today been liberated from the social effects of white superiority? Has the nation transformed its schools to uplift the black child's motivational needs? I imagine several national responses to these questions, but I think that an honest report card would not place America's efforts on the honor roll.
I suspect the true reasoning behind Brown will come as a surprise to many people. You mean the Supreme Court was actually ruling against white superiority, in deference to a black child's motivational needs? Not to all children, mind you, but to black children in particular, the Court was quite literally kneeling with sacred respect.
We should have built a bronze statue to honor the moment. The Supreme Court Justice, in flowing robes kneeling to care, calling to black children, overtly, not embarrassed to be so publicly particular about the object of his sacred concern? Today, we have a mob of media images, chattering away about how any special attention paid to the needs of black children is simply a way of robbing whites and catering to the black childs inferiority. Reverse discrimination, special preferences, catering to minorities. These are the terms of chatter that would hum around our bronze monument today.
And where, for the past 50 years, have been the politicians who were brave enough to stand up and say, if elected I will focus on abolishing white superiority and meeting the needs of black children?
I dont want to leave the impression that we have failed completely. National polls continue to show majority support for affirmative action for blacks, so long as the question is fairly put, without the loaded language of preferences, special consideration, or "quotas." That is a fairly remarkable achievement for American public opinion given the money and mouth that has been put to work against affirmative action ever since it was first invented.
Pew Research verifies that carefully asked questions about countering the effects of discrimination yield majority support for affirmative action, even among whites. But it surprised me to see that such questions drew more positive responses from lower education levels. Hostility to affirmative action among whites tends to grow with college education. In this respect, college education is mis-education for most whites.
Contrary to stereotypes about prejudice and poor whites, more hostility can be found among whites who have some college, who are upper income, and who are male. Half of whites with a high school education or below believe not only that affirmative action is good, but that it is also fair. In sum, the more elite the white person, apparently the more hostile he usually is to the principles of Brown. The data suggests what kind of leadership we are likely to get from white elites.
Of course, there is no one more elite than a US Supreme Court Justice. Which makes it all the more marvelous to recall how in 1954 the most privileged powers on earth opened a door that we have not yet dared to fully enter.
To revisit the text of the Brown decision after 50 years is to read a record of unusually wise principles shamefully ignored or strategically misconstrued. There is nothing to prevent us today from returning to that broader wisdom of 1955 that bravely announced the need to publicly stand up against white privilige and racial discrimination and proclaimed our collective responsibility to Americas black chidren.
Greg Moses is site editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His writings on contemporary affairs have been published at the Texas Observer and Counterpunch.