Why, so many years after the world-changing ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, does the world seem so unchanged? To note only the extremely obvious, schools across the country are more segregated than ever. Has the ruling's original promise been unfulfilled? Martha Minow, the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and the school's dean (she succeeded Elena Kagan) grapples with the long-term consequences of Brown, and in particular with some of its unexpected, and salutary consequences, in her book "In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark." It is a fascinating book, even for laymen, in part because Minow explains clearly and cogently how the Brown decision has radiated out in surprising ways. I recently had an e-mail conversation with Minow about Brown, its disappointments, and successes. (Full disclosure: Minow and I both sit on the board of the Charles H. Revson Foundation; Minow chairs the board; I kibitz at meetings.)
Jeffrey Goldberg: It seems to me, and probably other people, that Brown changed
everything and nothing at the same time. In other words, the Supreme
Court could ultimately not mandate true racial integration. Much of
your book is about the non-race consequences of Brown; did you focus on
this because Brown's impact on integration has been so disappointing?
Or am I wrong in my assumptions?
Martha Minow: I wrote the book in the context of so many public discussions about disappointments around Brown v. Board of Education--and I share the disappointment that public K-12 schools today are in most parts of the country racially imbalanced in their enrollments. I did want to give Brown its due for shattering the racial apartheid of Jim Crow laws, where statutes and ordinances mandated segregation by race not only of school children, but also their textbooks in summer storage; and where racial hierarchy enforced by vigilante justice and lynching deprived African-Americans of access to public accommodations, good jobs, political participation, and more. That era is over, and the social movement surrounding Brown generating the 1964 Civil Rights Act and political and economic changes that at least in some measure contributed to the successes of people like Oprah Winfrey, Ken Chennault, and Barack Obama.