Have We Overcome?

Have We Overcome?
Commentary, November 2004
By Abigail Thernstrom & Stephan Thernstrom

Is America still “segregated”? In our deeply divided national conversation on race, the question endures, and it was raised again last spring by the 50th-anniversary celebrations of Brown v. Board of Education. Did that landmark decision by the Supreme Court promise much and deliver little?

The ruling itself spoke only of segregation in the nation’s public schools, but its potential sweep was unmistakable. Officially sanctioned separation of the races, the Justices wrote, had the “detrimental effect” of “denoting the inferiority of the Negro group,” generating “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community.” The logic of the decision, if not its words, was thus pertinent to the entire Jim Crow system, from water fountains to hospitals and bus systems, and was indeed rapidly extended to other spheres of public life in the South. The Justices had no magic wand with which to eliminate racism, of course, but in Brown they had declared, in effect, that racial inferiority was an idea whose time was up.

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