Segregation's Sanctions

IN a decision whose 12 short pages are almost as full of footnotes as they are of argument, the issue is decided in a simple declarative sentence: ``We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of `separate but equal' has no place.''

In its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education 40 years ago today, the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren set the nation on a course that has forced it to confront the injustice of segregation.

Although the court has been criticized for basing its ruling on sociological studies rather than strictly constitutional principles, it was correct to weigh segregation's impact on an individual's sense of self-worth and identity, particularly when segregation has ``the sanction of law.'' ``Separate but equal'' education is an oxymoron when minority parents and teachers try to instill a sense of self-worth in children while the majority-society's laws suggest otherwise.

Since the 1954 decision and a ruling a year later that required public school desegregation to proceed ``with all deliberate speed,'' the country has struggled to meet the court's challenge. The most obvious remedy, busing, has proved to be the most contentious and, particularly when restricted to schools within a city, the least beneficial. Other attempts, such as magnet schools, also have fallen short. Urban schools are resegregating, not by design, but by default as families of all ethnic groups reach the middle class and continue to migrate to the suburbs. The cry is growing from within minority communities to focus less on moving pupils from school to school and more on the quality of education for those remaining in urban schools.

Dealing with segregation that carried ``the sanction of law'' was the first and easiest task, despite the difficulties in implementation. Stripped of the imprimatur of law, however, segregation today too often carries more-subtle ``sanctions'' of economics and even of the heart. Some manifestations: the relatively low level of real estate or business loans to people in urban minority neighborhoods; the concentration of poverty in urban areas; race-based steering of prospective homebuyers toward specific neighborhoods.

The Brown decision's reasoning is just as applicable to these ``sanctions.'' As a multiethnic democracy, the United States should redouble its efforts to remove them as well.

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