This past week marked the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. In announcing the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended legalized racial segregation in our culture, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The end of school segregation was but one step in the Civil Rights movement, but it was in many ways a pivotal step. While federal law eventually ended the practice of racial discrimination in hiring and housing, the force of law could not, and in fact did not change the hearts and minds of people. Racism, as is true for all sin, is beyond the reach of the law.
That is why public schools hold out hope for real change. Public schools offer an environment where our diversity is in full view. Classrooms serve as crucibles where the dross of racial hatred and suspicion can be burned away by the heat of understanding and acceptance. As children gather from every walk of life, from all races and religions, there is the hope that we might yet create a viable unity around our common experience as citizens.
And in some places it has worked, and worked well. But it has not worked everywhere. The growing disparity between the rich and the poor over the past 25 years has resulted in an ongoing two-tiered school system. Zoning rules tied to exclusive communities have managed to maintain segregation in many of our nation’s communities. And of course, segregation continues by way of private schools and academies, not to mention home schooling.
It must be noted that this is not an entirely white enterprise. In the past two decades a number of all black private schools have emerged which vigorously celebrate black history and culture.
What do these developments mean? Is the hope of a country unified around a common national experience still possible? Is such a dream even worth dreaming anymore?
Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped that “Democracy is the worst form of government ever invented—except for all the others that have been tried.” In other words, even though our form of government is not perfect, it does seem to offer the best hope for human development. Without laying aside a single ounce of our humanity or a single tenet of our faith, we can embrace one another as fellow citizens. We can be Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, atheists and agnostics, and yet still all be Americans.
Unfortunately, as of late, fear has assailed this fragile hope. The radical idea of individual liberty and social equality has bowed these days under the weight of our fear of terrorism. A renewed resentment between races has reared its ugly head. Divisions created by class and celebrity, saved and unsaved, rich and poor, male and female have carved deep lines of fragmentation that may very well mark the fault lines of our collapse.
But it does not have to be this way. Jesus once said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That certainly stands popular wisdom on its head. But Jesus had a vision of human community that transcends popular wisdom. His belief that those not against us are for us creates a patch of common ground that is big enough to pitch a fairly large tent—a tent large enough, despite our many differences, that is perhaps big enough for us all.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.