In a recent court case in Lynn, Massachusetts, a white mother attacked her neighborhood elementary school’s enrollment policy, which prevented her daughter from attending in the interests of maintaining diversity, as racially discriminatory. For her, colorblindness was now paramount: “I don’t judge people by their race, and I don’t think the schools should, either.” In view of the fact that the test scores of the school’s diverse population were consistently rising, the district’s lawyer countered, attention to race as a means of redressing racial inequities remained crucial: “Why would you dismantle a plan that’s been so successful?”
How much does race count in education these days? In Jim Crow’s Children, Peter Irons wants his readers to know that for a century and a half, whites have fled and blacks have pursued equal opportunity: Benjamin Roberts, whose five-year-old daughter was denied entry to her local white primary school in Boston in 1849, would have understood perfectly the anguish of Oliver Brown, who sued the Topeka, Kansas, school district in 1950 because his eight-year-old daughter had to walk between train tracks to her segregated school. Though the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education (which consolidated cases from five states) famously ruled segregation illegal—and, in many Americans’ minds, made further consideration of the problem irrelevant—he has no doubt that white prejudice remains entrenched, and necessary to attack, even today. A respected and influential legal historian whose previous works have examined Japanese-internment lawsuits and the Supreme Court’s internal political struggles, Irons presents the liberal-activist historical argument for integrated primary schooling—a bottom-line moral imperative, to be asserted and sustained through increased judicial involvement—about as well as it can be made.
He leaves archival burrowing to the historians (all of whom are credited in a generous and illuminating bibliographical essay). Instead, Irons constructs a clear-eyed synopsis of the progress of integration-related court cases, from the earliest protests of de facto segregation in the 1830s and ’40s (in which “the best interests of all,” defined as local school boards’ catering to white parents’ prejudice, consistently triumphed) through the endless maneuvering over the Brown decision and the more recent reversals of its principles. The courts, in his reading, have gone far, but not far enough—they dismantled legal segregation but simultaneously (in the “all deliberate speed” clause in the second Brown decision of 1955) handed diehard segregationists an endless tool of delay.
In the best courtroom tradition, Irons presents each story cleanly, with a compassion and brevity that dignifies the suit in question, yet efficiently enough not to lose the narrative thread. What could easily have become a depressing litany of deserving plaintiffs banging futilely against the walls of intolerance reads instead as a tale of consistent legal shortsightedness: Time and again, courts have done the easy thing rather than the right thing, either bowing to precedents the justices themselves dismiss or somehow deciding that deliberately and unashamedly lopsided apportionments bore not the smallest link to race. (It was mere coincidence, the judges held, that in 1930 Alabama spent $37 per white child and $7 per black; South Carolina, $53 and $5.) But then, that had always been black Americans’ problem: As Justice Henry B. Brown argued in the Supreme Court’s notorious 8-1 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which enshrined the convenient fiction of “separate but equal” as law for the next 58 years, “The underlying fallacy . . . consist[s] in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
Irons does a particularly good job of explaining how courts actually decide on and present those decisions about the cases they hear, both mechanically and ideologically. His discussion of Brown itself, for instance, makes clear the enormous drudgery and backroom politicking (especially the serendipitous death of low-wattage Chief Justice Fred Vinson, to be replaced by liberal-minded glad-hander Earl Warren) that necessarily preceded the unanimous decision, a conclusion by no means foregone when the first plaintiffs summoned the courage to protest their treatment as much as seven years beforehand. As he makes clear, every case hinges on such a complex and unreadable combination of factors that no decision is simple.
One might argue that integration itself poses similar complexities. When Irons revisits the school districts that brought the original lawsuits consolidated into Brown, in states as varied as Delaware, Kansas, and South Carolina, he discovers some ironic improvement (the white “seg school” in South Carolina is a leaky shack in the woods, while the mostly black public school is modern and solid), some regression, and a persistent sense that loyalty trumps progress. A badly served seventh-grader in Washington, D.C., prefers his local school’s meager comforts to a stronger but frighteningly unfamiliar suburban school: “If I was a little kid . . . maybe it would be better. I don’t want a bunch of white kids to do their little ‘ha, ha, ha’ if I don’t know the capital of some country I never heard of.”
In that remark lie tangles of feeling and affiliation that Irons waves easily aside when mouthed by Clarence Thomas, who argued that support for integration was based on an implicit belief in black inferiority (otherwise, he claimed, why would liberals prefer schooling black children with whites to letting them achieve by themselves?). But what about Henry Louis Gates and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom cherished an ambivalent warmth toward their segregated upbringings? That question remains unanswered, but in the end Jim Crow’s Children amounts to a compelling brief on this nation’s unfinished racial—and, the author insists, moral, political, and social—duty.