Monday, May 17, 2004


Here’s an excellent “thumb-sucker” from one of the greatest writers on education of our time, who happens to be black, on the lasting impact of Brown v. Board of Education, which marks its half-century anniversary today.

A Nebraska thinker and friend, Allen O’Donnell of Wayne, says this court decision “was the death knell for local control over schools.” He ties the decline in public-school quality to this ruling.

All I know is, I just want kids of all colors to get a great education and have an equal chance. If our system isn’t doing that, and obviously it is not, then it’s time to change that system.

I call on philanthropists and people who are public-service minded to make it possible for as many inner-city and minority schoolchildren in Nebraska as possible to get into private schools . . . STAT.


When Rhetoric Beats Reasoning
The baneful consequences of Brown v. Board of Education.
Sunday, May 16, 2004 12:01 a.m.
In all the celebration of tomorrow's 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, there has been remarkably little critical examination of the reasoning used in that decision. Indeed, much of what has been said about that decision over the past half-century has treated the result as paramount and the reasoning as incidental. But today, with 50 years of experience behind us, it is painfully clear that the educational results of Brown have been meager for black children. Meanwhile, the kind of reasoning used in Brown has had serious negative repercussions on our whole legal system, extending far beyond issues of race or education.

While Brown in effect overruled the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that racially "separate but equal" facilities were constitutionally acceptable, it avoided saying that Plessy was simply a wrong interpretation of the Constitution--that is, wrong in 1896 as well as wrong in 1954. Instead it relied on "modern" psychological knowledge, not available to the court in 1896, to show how separate could no longer be considered equal.

This approach finessed the whole question of why the Warren court's reading of the Constitution was superior to that of the 1896 Supreme Court, rather than simply reflecting a different social preference. Such a question would undoubtedly have stiffened the resistance to the Brown decision, which was stiff enough as it was in those states where racial segregation existed.

Chief Justice Earl Warren said that racially separate schools "are inherently unequal," even when they were provided with the same tangible resources. To separate black children "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Inspiring as such rhetoric may seem, it establishes no fact, nor even a probability. I happen to have been one of those black children who went to a segregated school in the South. The fact that there were no white kids in our school was something that no one I knew ever expressed any concern over, or even noticed. There were no white kids in our neighborhood or anywhere we went. Why would we be struck by the fact that there were no white kids in our schools--much less be so preoccupied with that fact as to interfere with our learning the three R's?

Our school was in fact inferior, but it was inferior to the all-black school I later attended in Harlem. It was certainly inferior to an all-black school in Washington that had produced outstanding education for more than half a century--a school within walking distance of the Supreme Court, which virtually declared its existence impossible. It was not being racially separate, or all black, that made schools inferior--and decades of social disruption and racial polarization from court-ordered busing did little or nothing to reduce the racial gap in educational achievement. While Brown did not prescribe busing for racial balance, the logic of its argument led inescapably to that conclusion, even if no one thought of it in 1954. Reasoning matters and logic can exact a high price for having been ignored.

What the Warren court presented as legal reasoning was in fact political spin. The success of that political spin, in a case where most of the country found racial segregation repellent, emboldened the Supreme Court--and other courts across the land--to use emotional rhetoric to impose other policies from the bench in a wide range of cases extending far beyond issues of race or education.

Although "Impeach Earl Warren" signs appeared across the South, the public at large saw this as simply a defense of racial segregation and discrimination, and those who called for impeachment became laughing stocks. Judicial activism was for all practical purposes now the accepted law of the land in everything from anti-trust cases to the arrest of criminals.

New "rights" for criminals appeared magically out of thin air and violent crime rates skyrocketed. Other rights were found in the "penumbra" of the Constitution and abortion issues that had once been dealt with in various ways by the states were now settled at the Supreme Court level--and the country unsettled with decades of strife that followed.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbade racial differences in treatment on the job was "interpreted" by the Supreme Court to mean that racial quotas were all right. A dissenter called this blatant evasion of the plain words of the act something that was reminiscent of the great escapes of Houdini. The magic word "diversity" now trumped both the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.

Brown v. Board of Education was the crucial case establishing a pattern in which rhetoric beats reasoning--and we are still paying the price today. The painful irony is that black schoolchildren, the supposed beneficiaries of all this, have gained little or nothing in their education.

Mr. Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of "Affirmative Action Around the World" (Yale, 2004).

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