Michael Klarman: Doubts Court ruling on schools will have much effect--says not even Brown did

Historians in the News

The conventional wisdom about Brown holds that it was more responsible than anything else for the integration of schools. “Brown really did transform society by stopping de jure segregation, and without Brown, schools would look very different,” says David J. Armor, a conservative scholar at George Mason University.

But some liberal scholars have challenged that heroic assessment. In “From Jim Crow to Civil Rights,” Michael J. Klarman argues that it was a political commitment to integration in the 1960s, not the Brown decision in the 1950s, that led to meaningful integration.

“Brown didn’t transform society very much, and to the extent that it did it was indirect,” says Mr. Klarman, who is a law professor at the University of Virginia. “Brown brought out the worst in White Supremacy, and Northerners were appalled by the police dogs they saw on television, and that advanced the civil rights movement.” He argues that meaningful desegregation didn’t occur until the Johnson administration’s Justice Department became committed to enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare threatened to cut off financing to school districts that refused to integrate.

Professor Klarman said he believed that just as the court couldn’t bring about integration on its own in 1954, so it won’t be able to mandate colorblindness on its own today. “Just as Brown produced massive resistance in the South and therefore had little impact on desegregation for a decade, this decision is going to be similarly inconsequential,” he says. “This affects only the tiny percentage of school districts that use race to assign students, and even in those districts, like Louisville and Seattle, it won’t be consequential because there are so many opportunities for committed school boards to circumvent it.”

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Mary Dudziak - 7/3/2007

The argument about whether school desegregation cases had an impact on American society in the work relied on in this article works with a problematic distinction between the categories of "law" and "society." Many (most?) legal historians see law and society as mutually constitutive, and not as separate categories, one acting upon the other. Cases like Brown v. Board of Ed. become part of the cultural and political context, affecting the way individuals thought about their futures -- including in matters unrelated to school desegregation. For links to critiques of Klarman and other, more nuanced, work on the impact of courts, there's a post with links on the Legal History Blog at http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2007/07/does-court-matter.html