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Thomas Sowell: We Are Still Paying the Price for the Faulty Reasoning in Brown

Thomas Sowell, in the WSJ (May 13, 2004):

In all the celebration of the 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?