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Brown v. Board of Education was a monumental event, one that began a fundamental transformation of our country. Today, however, many people — lawyers and nonlawyers alike — do not appreciate what Brown truly signifies. Brown arose out of a world that is no longer recognizable to most people. Things have changed so fundamentally that we have trouble seeing that past as it was. Rarely is the reality of government-sanctioned white supremacy that characterized this country 50 years ago truly acknowledged today. In popular treatments — television, movies, magazines, schools — the issue of white supremacy is often ignored or presented as if the majority of people in the period leading up to Brown were somehow dominated by racists, but not really infected by racism themselves. We’re shown a world in which racial violence (and the threat of racial violence) was the exception — and good intentions and good institutions, the rule. That image is so far removed from reality that it does a profound disservice to the achievements of Brown. Today many associate the term segregation just with housing patterns. It was much more. Buses, restaurants, theaters, schools, parks, swimming pools, hotels, stores, restrooms, even drinking fountains — all were segregated. African-Americans were consigned to inferior facilities or, in many instances, denied facilities outright. In most of the South, for example, black people were barred from all public parks. Entire job categories were reserved for white people. Entire less-desirable job categories were reserved for African-Americans. Interracial marriage was a crime in many states. And all of this was obtained by operation of law, by custom, and by violence. Moreover, throughout the South, where the vast majority of African-Americans lived, they were denied the vote and barred from virtually any other participation in the political process. In this basic sense, racially oppressive segregation was totally inconsistent with democracy. Brown challenged the most fundamental assumptions of our society: assumptions about race, about justice, about democracy. It marked the beginning of the end of white supremacy and racial segregation. We are now so used to thinking of freedom and equality as the universal rights of all people, no matter how imperfectly that ideal is attained, that we have great difficulty imagining a world in which freedom and equality did not apply to African-Americans at all. No Supreme Court case since Brown comes close to matching its significance. Even last year’s University of Michigan cases are not comparable to Brown. Seen in this historical context, Brown is a watershed moment, heralding a fundamental change in the country. Not immediately, to be sure, but the trend was unmistakable. Overt oppression would come to an end. Overt white supremacy would come to an end. Civil rights laws long forgotten were resurrected. New civil rights laws were enacted, at the federal and the state level. However, having said all that, it is also important to realize what did not happen as a result of Brown. For many, the promise of Brown was the promise of a country pulled together rather than apart by race. A country strengthened by its racial diversity. A democracy made healthy. Those promises have been largely unfulfilled. The University of Michigan cases — Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger — were inspired by that unrealized vision of the democratic strength that comes from racial and ethnic diversity. Like Brown, they referenced where we are today, but focused on where we are headed tomorrow. In other words, they were not just consistent with Brown, but a necessary corollary to Brown. The educational value of racial and ethnic diversity is especially important in higher education. In the 50 years since Brown, most of the country’s major metropolitan centers have become majority-minority places to live, surrounded by white suburbs, sometimes with an occasional minority suburb. Few students, African-American, Hispanic, or white, attend K-12 schools with substantial diversity. Yet, as Brown made clear, democracy requires an educated public. And education includes learning about each other. Right now, most 18-year-olds have not, and this gap in knowledge allows indifference or stereotypes — or worse — to develop. Colleges and universities provide an invaluable opportunity for exposing and challenging indifference and stereotypes. When there are meaningful numbers of any racial or ethnic group in the student body, the other students will see a range of ideas, a range of viewpoints, a range of experiences within each group. All students will learn things about each other that they did not expect — both similarities and differences. The University of Michigan cases were about higher education, but they also forced a hard look at K-12 schools and the serious problems that remain 50 years after Brown. Poor educational opportunities still limit the number of black students who apply for and are qualified to attend selective colleges and universities, and thus make necessary the consideration of race in the college admissions process. Here is a bitter irony: Brown was responsible for setting in motion the great dismantling of the system of white supremacy and racial segregation, but as for its main focus, educational equality is still not the reality for all black children. Fifty years ago, education was picked as the focus of the attack because inferior segregated education was related in some way to most of the problems that black people faced. And today inferior education is related in some way to most of the problems black people face, including serious gaps in test scores; alarmingly high drop-out rates in high schools (especially for black males); disturbingly unequal funding bases and therefore unequal financial resources for public schools; the fact that almost two black women attend college for every black man; and the prevalence of poor jobs and high unemployment rates that are due in part to educational deficits. Our democracy requires educational proficiency. Our dynamic economy requires educational proficiency. So educational disparities associated with race threaten our democracy and our social and economic well-being. Of course, issues of race today are not just black and white. We are much more diverse, and much more aware of our diversity, than we were 50 years ago. Nor is it the case that race and ethnicity are our only problems or even that the problems just listed are only attributable to race. But race and ethnicity remain America’s most profound social issues. That there are remaining problems does not diminish the astonishing results of the Supreme Court’s decision a half-century ago. Rather, it should challenge us to attend to the unfinished business of Brown. Only by solving those problems can we ensure that our democracy achieves its promise of freedom and equality for everyone. John Payton, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering, was lead counsel in the University of Michigan cases and argued Gratz v. Bollinger in the U.S. Supreme Court.

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