Brown v. Board of Education, Second Round

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IF there is a sacred text in the American legal canon, it is the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. [HNN Editor: Actually, Brown has many critics. See RELATED LINKS below.] It is the court’s one undisputed triumph, and no Supreme Court nominee who expressed doubt about the decision would ever be confirmed. Who can argue, after all, with the wisdom of putting an end to state-sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools? But, as an extraordinary two-hour Supreme Court argument last week demonstrated, the meaning and legacy of Brown remain up for grabs. The court was considering whether school systems in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., could take account of students’ races to ensure racial balance. During the argument, two sets of justices managed, with equal vehemence, to invoke Brown — while understanding it to require precisely opposite things. One side relied on the logic of the case: Brown, these justices said, forbids racial classifications by the government, period, even when the goal has changed from segregation to integration. The other side relied on its music, saying that the real point of Brown was to achieve and maintain integrated public schools, whether through social progress or through government action that takes account of race. The disagreement was, in short, whether the meaning of Brown can be found in what it said or what it did.

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