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Essay: With All Deliberate Speed

Essayist Clarence Page reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision on desegregation, but he insists modern-day African-Americans have only as much integration as they can afford.

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    I was just a kid when the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down. In May of 1954, the Supreme Court decided that states could no longer claim the right to sustain separate-but-equal schools and other public facilities. That meant black children like 7-year-old Linda Brown of Topeka, Kansas, would no longer be forced to travel past an all-white school every day to attend an all-black school.

    I recall a lot of happiness among the grown-ups when that decision came down — but no dancing in the streets. That's because there was a catch: The Brown decision contained no mechanism for its own enforcement. A year went by and the states dragged their heels. Once again, our dream of freedom was deferred.


    I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever. (Cheers and applause)


    The high court took the case up again in 1955 and called for enforcement "with all deliberate speed." Another bitter irony: "Deliberate" means "slow." "Slow speed" is a curious phrase, an oxymoron, like a "deafening silence" or the "more perfect union" that the Constitution strives to achieve.

    "Deliberate speed" turned out to be very deliberate. Ten years after Brown, fewer than 1 percent of segregated schools had been desegregated. But Brown did change the law in our nation of laws from a headwind to a tailwind for black progress, backing us up instead of getting in the way. The high court paved the way for an energized decade of civil rights protests, confrontations and, eventually, legislation.

    Enforcement of Brown also brought a backlash over school busing, sometimes violently, even in liberal cities of the north like Boston. School desegregation peaked in the late 1980s. Courts began to decide that the goals of Brown had largely been achieved. In 1991, the Supreme Court, with little fanfare, allowed a return to neighborhood schools instead of busing, even if the result was more segregation.

    So how much progress have we made? A recent study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University says public schools nationwide are almost as segregated as they were when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. Most white students across the country still have little contact with black or Hispanic students, and vice versa. Fifty years after Brown, desegregation is turning back into re-segregation. But school enrollment numbers don't tell the whole story.

    Today's America is more integrated overall, but mostly in the workplace. After work, most of us go home to largely segregated lives. When you buy your house, you buy your school. School patterns follow housing patterns, which follow income patterns, as well as race. Segregation by race has eroded. Segregation by class remains. The black middle class has tripled in size since the 1960s. But the divide between rich and poor among blacks alone is larger than the divide between blacks and whites.

    Thanks to Brown, we can have as much integration as we can afford, regardless of race, creed or color. A lot of families can't afford to have a choice. It is fashionable these days to say that our race problems are really a problem of economic class. And yet, race continues to make problems of class even more vexing.

    Sandra Day O'Connor, the Supreme Court's first woman justice, said last year that it may take 25 more years before we don't need affirmative action anymore. Fifty years have passed since Brown, and we still need more time to form a more perfect union with all deliberate speed.

    I'm Clarence Page.