Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, what progress on race?

In many ways, America has moved steadily toward racial integration since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. But persistent problems remain involving remnants of segregation.

Orlin Wagner/AP
First lady Michelle Obama gives a thumbs up to students during Topeka Public Schools Senior Recognition Program in Topeka, Kan., Friday.

Slavery – the forerunner of racial segregation – was said by founder James Madison to have been America’s “original sin.”

Emancipation officially ended slavery, and – 60 years ago today – the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education officially ended separate-but-equal public school education.

Much progress has been made since then, even though separate-and-not-so-equal conditions persist in some areas and in some ways, including public education, housing patterns, economic well-being, and prison rates.

Recent outbursts of overt racism – NBA basketball team owner Donald Sterling, renegade rancher Cliven Bundy, New Hampshire police commissioner Robert Copeland – were startling, not least because they’re relatively rare.

But in a commencement speech Saturday at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, US Attorney General Eric Holder said, “We ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation.”

The greatest threats, he said, are “more subtle” and they “cut deeper.”

“For instance, in our criminal justice system, systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common,” Mr. Holder said, including studies showing that “in recent years, African-American men have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.”

New restrictions on voting, Holder said, “disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans, Hispanics, other communities of color and vulnerable populations such as the elderly.”

Speaking Friday to graduating high school seniors in Topeka, Kansas – the city whose discriminatory practices prompted the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 – first lady Michelle Obama spoke of the “painful history” of the Brown case, and of the steps that need to be taken toward fuller integration.

“Many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs,” she said. “Many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them. Too often, those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color, which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers.”

“No matter what you do, the point is to never be afraid to talk about these issues, particularly the issue of race, because even today, we still struggle to do that,” Mrs. Obama told the students. “We need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future.”

Like Attorney General Holder, Michelle Obama likely benefitted from the Brown case, named for Oliver Brown, an African-American welder and assistant pastor, who brought the case against the Topeka Board of Education for not allowing his daughter to attend a nearby all-white elementary school. 

As reports, Mrs. Obama recalled how she saw firsthand the integration of schools in Chicago. Despite the court’s decision in 1954, Obama, born in 1964, grew up in a time in which integration was resisted in her hometown and she attended predominantly black schools. However, by 1975, an integrated high school for high achievers opened and Obama attended.

Also benefitting from the Brown case was Cornell William Brooks, named Saturday as the new head of the NAACP.

"I am a beneficiary, an heir and a grandson, if you will, of Brown versus Board of Education," Mr. Brooks told the Associated Press.

His own education began in the federal Head Start program, which provides early childhood education to low-income children, then advanced through Jackson State University, the Boston University School of Theology, and Yale Law School.

There have been other recent breakthroughs on race in America, symbolic as well as substantial.

Dean Baquet’s appointment this week as executive editor of the New York Times came amidst turmoil over the forced departure of Jill Abramson, which critics say was impelled at least in part by sexism.

Still, Mr. Baquet, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New Orleans, is the first African-American in 163 years to head one of the most powerful voices in journalism today.

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