THE BLOG
05/19/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Brown v. Board of Education at 60

Supreme Court decisions are important not only for what they decide but for the reasoning that produces or explains the ultimate result. That is particularly important in iconic decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, decided 60 years ago.

Brown, of course, unanimously held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In reaching that result, it also articulated or relied on other basic principles including that fair educational opportunity is essential to the American Dream, that America should be one nation for all citizens, not separate nations racially divided, and that the Constitution's meaning evolves over time as experience informs and shapes its content.

Yet among the principles central to Brown was the basic American ideal that majorities should be sensitive to the rights, interests and reasonable perceptions of minorities, and that public policies which offend that imperative may be constitutionally offensive even when they formally treat majority and minority citizens the same.

Brown addressed that problem in the context of public education, specifically the practice in some states of providing "separate but equal" public schools for white and black children. Typically, of course, the schools for black children were inferior in tangible respects so they were not only separate but very unequal. But in Brown lower courts had found that some of the racially segregated schools were equal or becoming so in material respects, a finding which forced the Court to consider whether state sponsored separation itself was constitutionally impermissible even when the schools were equal with respect to buildings, curriculum, teacher qualifications and salaries and other measurable criteria.

The Court found that racially segregating children in public schools by itself deprived African-American children of equal educational opportunities. It reached that decision based on its conclusion that racial segregation signaled to African-American children that they were inferiors, outsiders in the American community, and that this message caused them constitutional harm. Indeed, it was widely understood that "separate but equal" was a strategy a white majority imposed to keep blacks apart.

Although some have claimed that Brown stands for the principle that classifying based on race is never permitted (not even to achieve diversity or remedy past discrimination), the Court's words in that celebrated decision refute that interpretation. The Court characterized the issue for decision as whether racial segregation in public schools "deprive[s] the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities," not whether racial segregation or racial classification hurt white children or all children. The reason racial segregation was offensive was that separating minority children "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." These words and this rationale would have made no sense in 1954 as applied to white children. Brown did not proscribe all racial classifications but simply those that subjugated minorities.

Jim Crow segregation which Brown addressed was not, of course, a product of good faith reasoning. Its message of black inferiority, and of white superiority, were natural consequences of white supremacist thinking.

Yet Brown did not reject majority messages of black inferiority solely when produced by malevolent intent. Instead, the Court articulated a broader principle regarding the rights of racial minorities in America.

In our democratic system, majorities often prevail but subject to various structural arrangements to make law-making difficult. And even when majorities work their will through the legislative process, judicial review constrains majority preference.

Brown suggests that in exercising judicial review it's often important for courts to consider the impact on minorities of programs majorities impose. It's not simply that minorities are often subjected to prejudice and are not well-positioned to prevail in the political process, although those factors certainly are important.

It's also because most of us are a lot better at seeing the merit of our own views than at understanding the perspectives of people different from ourselves. It's relatively easy to convince ourselves that our own views are reasonable, even right. It's harder, often even for people of good will, to see the world through the eyes of those situated differently vis a vis various laws or practices.

That simple fact of human nature makes it likely that majoritarian solutions will often undervalue the just concerns of minorities and may produce arrangements that seem appropriate to majorities but are unfairly hurtful to minorities. Sometimes the harm is deliberately imposed but often it reflects subconscious biases or comes from the failure to understand, rather than from any desire to hurt. America's mistreatment of African-Americans presents, of course, the most egregious example of discrimination against a minority but instances of this phenomenon have hurt other less powerful groups including those based on gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, alienage and disability.

The 60 years since Brown have brought considerable progress in recognizing, and in trying to remedy, a range of injustices against African-Americans and against other minority groups. Those years have shown that many of these problems are not easily resolved. They also confirm that America has an enormous stake in continuing that quest, not only to fashion a more just society but also one which benefits from the talents of all, not simply those who are privileged. Quite clearly, much remains to be done.

Government and its citizens must continually be sensitive to how majoritarian solutions impact minorities and whether social arrangements send a message that they are lesser members of society, and should act to remedy such affronts. That is one of the implications of a pluralistic society and one of the enduring lessons of Brown.