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60 years after 'Brown,' mixed results [Commentary]

Among my fellow liberals this is not a popular view: Brown v. Board, the historic Supreme Court decision of May 1954, has had negative consequences as well as positive.

The unanimous decision of the court was intended to ensure that black students would have equal access to public schools and a far better education than they were getting. It was obvious that separate was far from equal. White schools had better teachers, better facilities and better-performing students. If black children were able to sit side by side with white students, it was thought, the black children would learn more. Undoubtedly, that has often happened.

But an unintended consequence of Brown v. Board is that in many cities, the reverse also has happened, largely because of economic factors. Disadvantaged black students who brought the effects of their deprived childhoods into majority-white, middle-class schools had the aggregate result of bringing down the quality of many schools. Civility declined, extortion occurred, physical fights increased (even among girls), teachers were threatened, and black students who focused on school work were harassed for acting "white." In such schools, young teachers rarely stay more than two years.

Out-and-out racism has not been the main cause of white flight from cities. Middle-class parents, black as well as white, want schools that are getting the job done, and they're willing to move to get access to them.

When middle class black adults learn about what happens in city public schools and on the surrounding streets, they are appalled. They, like white city parents, clamber to get their children into charter schools, where the culture is significantly different from the culture of the neighborhood public school; or they'll try to get their children into a parochial school or a predominantly white independent school.

And so a major negative effect of the flight from cities has been re-segregation. City schools now are predominantly black. Suburban schools are typically majority white.

Then there is the whole matter of grading and standards. Some teachers, sensitive to possible accusations of racism, are reluctant to fail black students. Many pass when they shouldn't, and so do low-performing white kids. The effect is a corruption of the whole grading system and a lowering of standards.

The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board was obviously correct. But the effects have been far more complex than simply providing equal access. (One very positive result of the 1954 decision is that black educators are now sometimes chosen to be superintendents of predominantly white school districts.) The earlier flight of white families en masse from many cities led the quality of life in those cities to suffer. Now, black as well as white middle-class families are also leaving — but, not mainly for larger, newer houses and more space. They want public schools that have classroom civility and high standards.

Paul Marx is a retired University of New Haven professor of English and lives in Towson. His email is PPPMARX@comcast.net.

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