DUTIFULLY, each year on May 17, we observe the anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the historic ruling declaring that racial segregation in public schools violates the federal Constitution. This year, the 30th anniversary, seems an apt time to stop and ask, what are we doing?
What motivates this annual ritual in which the civil rights community, with cooperation from the media, seek to rekindle the spirit of optimism that led so many to believe that through its stirring words, the country's highest court could somehow move us beyond the racial fixations that have marked and marred all of US history?
Certainly the Brown decision is recognized correctly as one of the great landmarks in US jurisprudence. After almost a century of legally sanctioned atrophy, the court revived the principles of equal protection and due process embedded in the post-Civil War amendments that had been intended for, but had not been much applied to, the protection of the rights of black people.
The Supreme Court in Brown established a legal precedent that led to the end of state-sponsored racial apartheid. Jim Crow signs over public facilities were taken down. The law no longer sanctioned exclusion of blacks from jobs, homes, schools, and all other privileges and prerogatives that whites wanted for themselves.
Encouraged by the court's stirring words, blacks threw off the stifling veil of racial humiliation and began a national freedom self-help effort that continues to the present time.
The Brown decision, though, was not the final destination of the black freedom movement. It was rather a way station enroute to the goal of equal opportunity and access to parity in the country's political and economic power. To the extent that the civil rights decisions and laws spawned by Brown enabled some of us to more fully utilize our skills and abilities, it was worthwhile.
But in acclaiming a now three-decade-old legal precedent, we must not forget that desegregation has resulted in separation of blacks who have entered the middle class from the multitudes of their poverty-ridden brethren whose plight is worse now than it was during the depths of the 1930 Great Depression.
The Brown precedent provided relief against overt racial discrimination, but subsequent court decisions have had only small impact on economic discrimination , the societal fallout of generations of vicious racial bias. Economic disadvantage now constitutes a greater barrier to equal opportunity for a greater number of blacks than segregated facilities ever did.
The fact is that for a growing black underclass, chances for a decent life are not better than they were for their great-grandparents in the post-Reconstruction period. Those lives will not be changed by the ides of May banquets in good hotels where again beautifully dressed and well-integrated diners applaud those who contributed to the litigation that brought us the Brown decision.
The predictable speeches calling for integration of all public schools urge a status already attained or attainable for every middle-class black parent. But racially balanced schools for poor blacks living in the huge, mainly black areas of our large cities, are an unattainable and mostly unwanted irrelevance.
Poor blacks know what we liberals dislike to concede: that the educational efficacy of busing their children to mainly white, middle-class schools is generally small given all the effort and expense involved. We do so to ''keep the faith'' with those who gave us Brown, but the unhappy fact is that dire schooling needs of most poor black children are as likely to go unmet in integrated upper-class schools as they are in the all-black schools a very high percentage of them still attend.
But this is no time to resurrect the debate between the advocates of integrated education and those of us who favor educationally effective black schools. We who are in positions to influence civil rights policy have no more right than did pre-Brown school officials to determine where poor black parents, without affluence-aided options, should send their children to school.
Unless the right to a job at a meaningful salary gains the same entitlement to constitutional protection as our most hallowed rights, like those of suffrage and speech, then for ever-growing millions, many black and an increasing number of whites, the rest of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution will be worthless.
Rote-move ritual, in commemoration of past civil rights achievements, will not move us toward, and could deflect us from, the next plateau in the struggle for racial equality: economic opportunity. And this phase of the equal rights battle cannot be properly joined, much less won, without recognition that the victims of pocketbook segregation come in all races, colors, and creeds.