Fifty years ago, lawyers went before the justices of the United States Supreme Court for the first round of arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. It would be two more years before the landmark decision that struck down the notion of "separate but equal" education. But it had already been 100 years since the first suit against racially segregated education was filed, in 1849 in Boston. And the last, we have yet to see.
The stories of the people behind these cases come together in Peter Irons's new book, "Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision" (Viking). They were black farm kids who walked to dilapidated schools, splashed by mud from buses that carried white students to modern facilities; parents who lost jobs for challenging the system; lawyers who spent decades fighting for integration and then watched as implementation of the ruling moved in slow motion.
As I read it, I was amazed at the determination leading up to the famous case. But I can only retreat into history so long, and when I come back, the news hints at the stereotypes people of color still battle. The Associated Press reported last week on a study showing that "black and Hispanic students ... have as much desire to succeed in school as their white and Asian peers."
The Minority Student Achievement Network conducted the study because of a "commonly held belief that African-American and Hispanic students often have an 'anti-school' orientation."
Irons's book shows the historical roots of such beliefs, reminding us to think twice about any argument that racial achievement gaps can be explained away by the idea that minority groups have inadequate desires for education.