Excerpt from “My Journey to Race Realism”: The Burden of Brown

The following is the first of two excerpts from an article, “My journey to race realism,” to appear in the Summer issue of The Occidental Quarterly. Prof. Ray Wolters is Thomas Muncy Keith Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware.

In the 1960s and 1970s I forged through the academic ranks.  My dissertation received favorable notice when it was published in 1970, and another book of 1975 received even better reviews.  At the age of 36, I was promoted to the rank of full professor at the University of Delaware, and I began to think about research for yet another book.  At that time, civil rights lawyers had brought a lawsuit seeking metropolitan busing for racial balance throughout the northern portion of New Castle County, Delaware.  From reading the local newspaper, I learned that the largest city in this region, Wilmington, had been one of the first five jurisdictions that the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), had ordered to desegregate its public schools.  Wilmington complied immediately, but desegregation led to inter-racial scuffles and a decline in cultural and academic standards.  This touched off White flight, and enrollment in Wilmington’s public schools tipped from 73% White to 90% Black.  I then learned that much the same had happened in three of the four other “Brown districts” — in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in Summerton, South Carolina, and in Washington D.C.  Only in Topeka, Kansas, where Blacks made up only 8% of the students, had the majority of Whites continued to patronize the public schools.  And desegregation had been problematic even in Topeka.[1]

In my best-known book, The Burden of Brown (1984), I told the story of how public education had fared in these five districts where desegregation began.  In the introduction and conclusion, and in a few statements that were interspersed in the text, I maintained that the misbehavior of Black students had created serious problems and that federal judges had made matters worse by redefining desegregation to mean something quite different from the original understanding.  When the implementation order for Brown was handed down in 1955, the Supreme Court defined “desegregation” as assigning students to public schools on “a racially non-discriminatory basis.”  Similarly,  in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress defined what “desegregation” meant and what it did not mean: “‘Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.”[2]

Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, and continuing for about 25 years, federal judges required assignment by race to ensure that the mix of races at individual schools would be approximately the same as the proportions that existed in a larger region or state.  The constitutional mandate was changed from prohibiting racial discrimination in order to separate the races to requiring racial discrimination in order to mix them.  “‘Desegregation” was re-defined to mean something quite different from what the 1954 Brown opinion had required; something that the 1964 Civil Rights Act had specifically said desegregation did not mean.

By the 1980s liberals were dominant in academia and in the national culture (although not in American politics at that time), and academic liberals had coalesced in support of the idea that racial justice required that students should be assigned by race to create racially balanced, White majority schools.  The rationale for this was articulated most influentially by sociologist James S. Coleman.  It held that the quality of a school depended largely on its youth culture and that middle-class schools were better.  Since “White” was presumed to be synonymous with “middle class” and “Black” the same as “lower class,” the purpose of integration was to create schools with enough middle-class White students to shape the prevailing attitudes and a substantial number of lower-class Black children to benefit from being exposed to peers who recognized the importance of school work.[3]

Since liberals were dominant in academic history and social science, it took some courage — or maybe just contrariness — for me to challenge the liberal consensus.  But I pointed out that careful studies of test scores did not support Professor Coleman’s theory — that, in fact, the evidence was so strong that Coleman eventually conceded that his theory was, in his own words, mistaken “wishful thinking.”[4]

I noted in addition that busing for racial balance was at odds with the original understanding of Brown, and with the arguments that Thurgood Marshall and other Black advocates had presented when the case was before the Supreme Court.  In their oral arguments for the Black plaintiffs, Marshall and other lawyers for the NAACP had said they were “Not asking for affirmative relief. …  The only thing that we ask for is that the state-imposed racial segregation be taken off, and to leave the county school   board … to assign children on any reasonable basis they want to assign them on … .  What we want from this Court is the striking down of race … .   Do not deny any child the right to go to the school of his choice on the grounds of race or color. …  Do not assign them on the basis of race.  If you have some other basis …  any other basis, we have no objection.  But just do not put in race or color as a factor.”[5]

There was some criticism of my book.  That was to be expected, since upholding the unalloyed benefits of racially-balanced integration had become an unofficial party line in academia and in much of the mainstream media.  But most reviews were favorable, and in 1985 the American Bar Association gave its annual Silver Gavel Award to The Burden of Brown.  Civil rights activists picketed the awards dinner, but the awards committee stood by its decision, explaining that “the award was made for literary merit and for shedding interesting light on legal history and issues.”[6]

I should acknowledge one more thing.  The Burden of Brown was written in sober prose that befit a scholarly book published by a university press.  But the book was prompted by a profound sense of grievance.  At the time, my wife and I were parents of young children who were happily attending good public schools in our predominantly-White city (Newark, Delaware).  But the courts’ redefinition of “desegregation” required our children to go to school with sizeable numbers of Black students from Wilmington, which for decades had had one of America’s highest rates for robbery and murder, rape and illegitimacy.   My wife and I had no problem when our children attended schools with Black students from Newark.  But we instinctively knew we could not allow the assignment of our children to classes where 30 percent of the students would be children from the ghettoes of Wilmington. The more we heard about the ways “desegregation” was unfolding, the greater the threat to our children loomed.  One of the math teachers at Newark High School, a woman who happened to be the wife of the chairman of my university’s history department, told me that so many Black students roamed through the halls while classes were in session that “You’d think our school had become all black.”  Another faculty wife, a physics teacher, told of the defiance she encountered when she came upon students who had stolen balloons and aluminum that were needed for an experiment.  A third teacher, a veteran with seventeen years’ experience in the classroom, quit teaching after she heard the school superintendent say that “desegregation” was going well.  The superintendent reminded her of “a general behind the lines who doesn’t really know what is happening to the soldiers on the front line.”  She offered the following description of conditions at her school.

The problems involving discipline are so acute in many classes that the teacher’s role is changing to that of a policeman with none of the safeguards. The problems of vandalism, violence, drug use and thievery seem to get worse each year.  Cheating and copying have become endemic diseases. Graffiti appear on the walls, desks, and books.  Litter piles up — a daily burden for overworked janitors.  Too many students are absent or late for class.  Noise in many classrooms has to be experienced to be believed.  There is constant gossiping, bickering, intermingled with threats and obscenities.[7]

The more my wife and I heard about the ways “desegregation” was unfolding, the more we recognized that, because of busing for racial balance, we would have to pay the tuition for sending our children to private schools.  Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell diplomatically understated the resentment when he acknowledged that many parents regarded busing for racial balance as an interference with “the concept of community” and with the “liberty to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” There was tremendous resentment during the decade when court-ordered busing for racial balance was being debated and implemented in Delaware. Thousands of parents evaded “desegregation” either by moving elsewhere or by sending their children to private schools.  Between 1971 and 1981, the enrollment of Black students in the “desegregation area” remained steady at about 15,000, but White enrollments declined from 70,173 to 35,764.[8]

Go to Second Excerpt: Reformers’ search to close “the gap”


[1] Raymond Wolters, Negroes and the Great Depression (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1970); Raymond Wolters, The New Negro on Campus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); Raymond Wolters, The Burden of Brown (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984).

[2] Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, 349 US 295 (1955); Public Law 88-352 (1964).

[3] James S. Coleman, Equality of Educational Opportunity (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966).

[4] James S. Coleman, quoted in National Observer (7 June 1975).

[5] Leon Friedman, ed., Argument: The Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1952-1955 (New York: Chelsea House, 1969), 47, 375, 402.

[6] Stuart Taylor, Jr., “When Lawyers Come to Town,” New York Times, 12 July 1985.

[7] Statements of Dorothy Munroe, Gladys Sharnoff, and Anna Hayes Owens, quoted in Raymond Wolters, The Burden of Brown, 242, 243.

[8] Keyes v. School District No. 1, 413 US 189 (1973); Raymond Wolters, The Burden of Brown, 247.

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