Raymond Wolters, Race and Education, 1954-2007, University of Missouri Press, 2008, 313 pp., $44.95.
The integration of American schools is almost always presented as a glorious march to justice, with hallowed beginnings in the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. Race and Education, by University of Delaware history professor Raymond Wolters, is a refreshingly clear-eyed account at what is better described as a mix of deceit and judicial arrogance, seasoned with naive idealism. Prof. Wolters explains the tortured reasoning of the most important school-integration decisions, and describes the staggering consequences they had on the lives of real Americans. His conclusion? “[D]esegregation was problematical from the start, and integration has been a failure.” This is an exhaustively researched, deeply thoughtful analysis of a historical process that is often described only in clichés.
An immense amount has been written about the Brown decision, and its unsavory background has gradually come to light. It is clear that Earl Warren and several other justices wanted to end segregation in schools and were determined to do it with or without legal justification. They naturally preferred to appear to be Constitutional scholars rather than legislators so they put out a request for a study of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause that could justify a finding that segregated schools were unconstitutional.
Liberal historians worked hard but could find no evidence that the framers of the Amendment ever thought it would require desegregation. In fact, the Congress that passed the Amendment established segregated schools in the District of Columbia, clearly expressing its view that equal protection did not require mixed-race schools. Historians twisted their research as best they could to make it look otherwise. Constitutional scholar Alfred H. Kelly later admitted he had “manipulated history” and “doctored all the evidence” so as to give the Justices grounds for a reasonable-sounding decision.
It was not enough. Even with doctored evidence there was no Constitutional basis for the Justices’ ambitions, so they skipped the Constitution entirely and based their ruling on social science (see “Brown v. Board: the Real Story,” AR, July 2004). This “science” was mainly black sociologist Kenneth Clark’s notorious doll studies.
Clark claimed that when black students in segregated schools were shown two dolls–one black, the other white–and asked which one they liked better, a substantial number chose the white doll. He claimed this meant segregation instilled feelings of inferiority. What he failed to say–but what was known to the lawyers arguing the case for segregation–was that his own research contradicted that claim. He had run the same experiment with children in integrated schools in Massachusetts and had found that even more of them preferred the white doll. If his research showed anything about feelings of inferiority, it was that integration made them worse. His evidence before the Supreme Court was deceitful.
Wesley Critz George reduced the NAACP lawyer to tears when he testified about brain differences between blacks and whites.
The main lawyer arguing the case for segregation, John W. Davis, knew this. However, he believed the Supreme Court of the United States of America would never stoop so low as to base a ruling on whether a practice made people feel bad rather than on whether it was Constitutional. He did not even bother to reply to the doll study, noting, “I can only say that if that sort of ‘fluff’ can move any court, ‘God save the state.'”
“Fluff” prevailed. The justices struck down segregation because they found that it “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their [blacks’] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Even the New York Times recognized the decision as a con job. Its sub-headline in the article announcing Brown read: “A Sociological Decision: Court Founded Its Segregation Ruling On Hearts and Minds Rather Than Laws.”
The decision caught the segregationists completely by surprise. Like Davis, they thought the court cared about the law, not “hearts and minds.”
Prof. Wolters notes the importance, however, of what the Brown court did not do. It required only that schools stop separating the races, and did not require that they force them together. And, indeed, the initial consequences of Brown were anti-climactic: a few ambitious black students transferred to formerly all-white schools, whereas no whites transferred to all-black schools. That was desegregation, or the end of official racial separation. Hardly anyone promoted integration, or forcible mixing, even though it would come with surprising speed.
Prof. Wolters finds it significant that shortly after Brown, the Supreme Court handed down a series of brief decisions forbidding segregation of public swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, etc. It did not give any reason for these rulings, noting only that they were rendered “in light of Brown.” These rulings meant no one was to be excluded from such facilities because of race, but cities were not obliged to cart people around town to make sure swimming pools were “integrated” rather than merely “desegregated.”
Prof. Wolters points out that during the late 1950s and early 1960s Americans had a traditional view of the role of schools. They took it for granted that children varied in ability and that it was logical to group them on that basis. They also took it for granted that the job of the schools was to teach academic subjects, not to instill self-esteem or promote “diversity.” When the Soviets beat us into space by orbiting Sputnik in 1957, it only encouraged the traditional view that school should be rigorous and science-oriented.
It was common even to complain that schools were not challenging the very best students; hardly anyone complained that they were neglecting the “downtrodden.” It was a time when James Conant, president of Harvard, scoffed at what he called “the dogma one often hears: that all the youth, irrespective of academic ability and interest, should complete grade twelve.” Only a few fanatics thought it was the job of the schools to mix the races.
It was in the 1960s that fashions changed. Americans put men on the moon (thereby proving we had caught up with the Soviets), blacks rioted, and people began to think schools should compensate for “disadvantage.” Schools were to become laboratories for liberalism as much as they were places of learning.
Absent from most histories is any but the most superficial and hostile treatment of the resistance to desegregation. Race and Education not only covers many neglected incidents in detail, it even notes that segregationist predictions were often correct.
On the legal front, the high-water mark of resistance was the now largely forgotten 1963 case of Stell v. Savannah. Dismayed that the Brown Court had based a decision on social science rather than law–and miserable social science at that–the segregationists decided to counter with social science of their own. They found a sympathetic South Carolina trial judge, Frank Scarlett, and sued to keep public schools separate. Prof. Wolters tells the story well.
The NAACP, which had lobbied the Supreme Court to admit sociological studies now took the opposite stance, insisting that science was irrelevant and that the legal precedent of Brown was all that mattered. Judge Scarlett, however, let an all-star lineup of race-realist scholars testify about everything from Kenneth Clark’s slanted doll studies to racial differences in IQ to reasons why whites and blacks were better off in separate schools. They predicted what actually happened: that blacks would not do better academically just because they went to white schools, that they would self-segregate just as they did in the North, and that there would be serious discipline problems. Full-scale integration, they predicted, would “ruin the white schools.” Professor Wolters writes that Wesley Critz George, emeritus professor of anatomy at the University of North Carolina medical school, reduced the NAACP lawyer Constance Motley to tears when he testified about mental differences between blacks and whites.
The NAACP did not even try to refute this evidence; it called no witnesses. Judge Scarlett duly ruled in favor of maintaining segregated schools but his decision was overturned. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the lower court’s job was to enforce desegregation as ordered by the Supreme Court, and that “no inferior court may refrain from acting as required . . . even if such a court should conclude that the Supreme Court erred.” Legally, it was the end of the road for segregated public education.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed just one year after the Stell case. Its provisions about employment and public accommodation are well known, but its provisions about schools are often overlooked. Prof. Wolters points out that the law ordered the attorney general to enforce desegregation of schools, but did not require integration: “‘desegregation,'” according to the law, “shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.” This was in accordance with the general understanding of Brown.
One of the most astonishing acts of judicial activism during this period was the 1967 case of Hobson v. Hanson, in which the famously liberal judge J. Skelly Wright found ability tracking itself to be unconstitutional. In a breath-taking ruling that fortunately did not affect any jurisdiction beyond the District of Columbia, he ruled that tests and grading themselves were culturally biased and “wholly inappropriate for making predictions about the academic potential of disadvantaged Negro children.”
Prof. Wolters points out that the end of ability grouping drove even the remaining middle-class blacks out of the DC system and concludes that Judge Wright single-handedly “destroyed an educational system that had been working reasonably well.” Wright was later honored with an endowed chair in his name at Yale Law School.
The decline in DC schools that followed was only made worse by a string of superintendants like Barbara Sizemore who threw out standardized tests and decided that students themselves should decide what they would study. Teachers would offer only “guidance.” By then, the tests were suspect in some circles because no district in the country could figure out how to get blacks to do as well on them as whites. Thus was born the enduring belief among liberals that this proved the tests were defective.
On to integration
During the 1960s, many education and civil rights bureaucrats decided that mere desegregation was not good enough because it did not produce wide-spread mixing. Despite the clear language of the Civil Rights Act and the accepted understanding of Brown, they worked diligently–but quietly–to push blacks and whites into the same schools. “Although the civil rights bureaucrats had a fundamental disagreement with the law they purported to enforce,” writes Prof. Wolters, “they were careful to avoid a candid discussion of their ideas.”
With the 1968 case of Green v. New Kent County, the Supreme Court handed the zealots exactly what they wanted. Prof. Wolters dryly points out the absurdities of the case that officially plunged the country into aggressive integration. New Kent County, Virginia, had two small school systems, one that served about 740 blacks and another that served about 560 whites. When the desegregation order came down, New Kent County stopped separating students by race and let them choose their schools. By 1967, 115 black children had gone to the white school and no whites had gone to the black school. There was no sign that any of the desegregated black children had been mistreated in any way.
The NAACP’s head lawyer, Jack Greenburg, told the court that although there appeared to be freedom of choice in New Kent County, it was as illusion. He insisted that most blacks avoided the white school only because they sensed whites did not want them there. Greenburg did not even consider the possibility that blacks could be proud of their school or prefer to study with other blacks.
Earl Warren seems to have been ever the sucker for bogus social theorizing. In his decision he wrote that the school system and its appearance of choice were “booby trapped” by “social and cultural influences that have existed for centuries there.” As an antidote to those benighted centuries, the school had to assign students by race and make sure they mixed. Warren, goaded on by Greenburg, clearly had the instincts of a Stalin. What people did when they had a choice was not a real choice unless he approved of their choice. Astonishingly, when it made this fateful ruling, the unanimous Court claimed merely to be enforcing the rules laid out in Brown 14 year earlier. As Prof. Wolters puts it, the justices “made a momentous wrong turn.”
Initially, the Supreme Court had limited its orders to school systems that practiced legal segregation. The Green decision laid the foundation for later decisions that spread forcible integration to the entire country, even to those areas where there had always been school choice but where neighborhood segregation led to generally segregated schools. Prof. Wolters deftly summarizes these decisions, as well as those of the 1990s and early 2000s that finally brought the Court back close to the original desegregationist thinking of Brown.
One of the most famous names associated with 1960s school integration is James S. Coleman, a professor of education at Johns Hopkins, and author of the famous 1966 paper known as “The Coleman Report.” He surprised liberals by finding that money alone did not seem to improve school performance. What mattered were parent involvement and a school atmosphere that reflected what were essentially white, middle-class values. He then reassured the liberals by explaining that if blacks were exposed to values of this kind they would pick up good habits and improve their grades while white children would be unaffected. Schools would take the place of the black family in shaping students’ minds. Coleman was so influential that he became known as “the scholar who inspired busing.”
Nine years later, in 1975, a sadder but wiser Coleman released a second report. He confessed that integration was “much more complicated than any of us ever realized,” and was honest enough to report what really happened. First, when blacks showed up, whites cleared out. On balance, he found that a five percent increase in the number of black students lead to a 10 percent drop in white enrollment–Coleman called this “an insoluble dilemma.” He also reported that black school performance did not improve after the move to white schools and that when teachers lowered standards for blacks many whites slacked off, too. Coleman wanted the races to mix but came to realize that aggressive integration of the kind he had promoted often served to drive the races apart. Needless to say, the second “Coleman report” had little influence, and some of Coleman’s erstwhile friends turned on him.
Many people, especially Southerners, knew what integration would bring long before Coleman figured it out, and Prof. Wolters describes Prince Edward County, Virginia’s remarkable campaign for segregation (see “Integration . . . Disintegration,” AR, July 1993). Rather than integrate, from 1959 to 1964, the county closed all public schools, slashed property taxes, and urged blacks and whites alike to build private schools. Robert T. Redd, who became the headmaster of a private school, explained, “We felt we understood black people as well as anybody because of our long interaction with them. We knew desegregation couldn’t work because of the inherent temperamental and intellectual differences.” Whites offered to set up private schools for blacks, but national leaders like Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King urged them to refuse. Black children without schools were too potent a symbol of white wickedness to be passed up.
In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the county had a legal duty to operate public, integrated schools, and ordered the county to levy taxes for that purposes. Even a few liberals worried that this was a usurpation of legislative, tax-raising power by the judiciary, but as was the case with Brown, principles could be sacrificed in the name of integration. This was a crucial decision because other districts would surely have followed Prince Edward’s example if the Court had not acted.
Many integrationists were convinced that once black and white children got to know each other they would fall into each others’ arms. Prof. Wolters reports that most studies found that the races seldom mixed and that children of neither race thought better of the other after integration. However, one psychologist, Walter G. Stephan, concluded that after integration black students’ views of whites improved while white students soured on blacks. What Prof. Stephan probably found was that students discovered that media portrayals are wrong: Whites are not inveterate “racists,” and blacks are not simply white people who happen to have black skin.
Today, how are we to view the tortured history of court-imposed school integration? Despite the failure of integration to achieve any of its goals, Prof. Wolters finds that it is now almost obligatory to criticize Brown because it required only desegregation and not integration. Furthermore, the decision is now hailed because it ignored the Constitution. As historian David Garrow wrote in 1997, the decision freed the Court from “the Constitution’s historical limitations.”
This is another way of saying we really do not have a Constitution. If judges can free it from its “historical limitations” they can make it say anything they like. After all, for 150 years, the Constitution permitted assignment of students by race, but it must have amended itself because it suddenly stopped permitting it in 1954. Just 14 years later, the Green Court discovered that the Constitution had amended itself again to require assignment by race, so long as the purpose was to mix the races. During the 1990s, the Constitution amended itself several more times, gradually working its way back to towards its 1954 condition. We are clearly not a nation of laws but a nation of judges, who rule us according to their fancy.
In Race and Education Prof. Wolters writes that we can expect a companion volume on the changing fashions of educational reform that have swept American schools. He appears to suspect that many doubtful theories arose because traditional approaches managed neither to raise blacks to white levels of achievement nor make children oblivious to race. If he dissects fads in education as remorselessly as he dissects fads in integration, we can look forward to a formidable work of scholarship.