Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision.
New York: Viking, 2002. xix + 376 pages. Suggested readings, chapter
sources, index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-14-200375-1 ISBN 0-67-088918-0;
$15.00 (paper), ISBN .
Anders Walker, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of
Peter Irons begins Jim Crow's Children with voices
from the past. Drawing from WPA interviews, he quotes former slaves
talking about difficulties they faced trying to read. "If we told [Mr.
Tabb] we had been learnin' to read," recounts one slave, "he would near
beat the daylights out of us" (p. 1). According to Irons, little has
changed. African Americans still confront serious barriers to acquiring
equal education in the
In a sweeping work that traces black education from slavery
to the present, Irons, who teaches at the University of California, San
Diego, suggests that Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark
Supreme Court ruling calling for the desegregation of public schools in
the South, failed blacks. Although instrumental in dismantling federal
approval of de jure segregation, or Jim Crow, in the South,
Brown failed to deliver equal education to African-American youth, a
goal that continues to prove elusive even today.
Much like James Patterson's Brown v. Board of Education:
A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, Irons summarizes
an ever-increasing body of secondary literature on school segregation,
adding weight to ascendant views that Brown did not end America's
struggle with segregated education. In pursuing this goal, Irons provides
a detailed summary of educational policy towards blacks beginning as early
as slavery. He does an excellent job of showing, for example, that the
South was never much of an outlier in either its racial views or racial
practice, despite the absence of formal Jim Crow segregation in the North.
Irons also does a deft job of summarizing the NAACP's strategy leading up
to Brown, a story familiar to fans of Richard Kluger's classic
work, Simple Justice.
The full weight of Irons's book, however, does not come to
bear until the second half. Dedicating six chapters to the reaction and
results of the Supreme Court's ruling, Irons shows first how southern and
later northern and western whites opposed forced integration. He documents
white flight, busing controversies, and even terrorism in cities like
Cleveland (which boasted large black populations and extreme white
resistance). In his closing chapters, Irons picks through the ruins of
desegregation, even interviewing black students and former plaintiffs in
Brown, revealing that Jim Crow's spirit, if not his body, lives on.
The culprit, according to Irons, is the federal judiciary,
and in particular the Supreme Court. If it weren't for the Burger and
Rehnquist Courts, he contends, integration would have continued. The
courts proved effective in the early stages of integration, first by
forcing the South to submit to federal mandates, and later by imposing
busing on the rest of the nation--only to concede ground in the 1970s and
80s by removing busing mandates and tolerating white flight out of heavily
Irons's argument is, undoubtedly, right. If the Supreme
Court had continued to aggressively back desegregation, Jim Crow would
have suffered. But this is not the only reason to read Jim Crow's
Children. In fact, Irons's work raises questions that are, in certain
ways, even more interesting still. Irons shows that American whites,
contrary to their oft-professed liberal proclamations about racial
equality, proved reluctant to sacrifice what they perceived to be the
future of their children for an abstract social ideal. And the Supreme
Court, as much symbolic authority as it may possess, has been unwilling
and (perhaps more important) unable to force Americans, over long periods
of time, to do things they do not want to do. Herein lurks the most
interesting part of Irons's study. He shows effectively not just that
courts refused to back desegregation, but that white America refused to
back desegregation. Irons shows how the courts, in pushing aggressively
for the abstract goal of integration through busing and other plans,
destroyed American cities by driving white taxpayers from them, eroded
faith in the courts as a means of protecting white interests, and drove a
wedge between liberal left-wing elites and the white working class,
thereby setting the stage for the impressive consolidation of power across
class lines that we see in today's Republican Party.
Jim Crow's children, then, are not just African-American
youths who may have been better off under equalization programs, but
Republican crusaders like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and William
Rehnquist who rose to power expressly to dismantle what the
had wrought. Brown created both a myth and a monster.
Why? That is the subject of another study. And yet, racism,
although an obvious culprit, may not be the only force at work here. On
the contrary, an even deeper force, long at work within
social formation, is likely also to blame. That is the utility of
segregated education to the preservation of class.
When confronting the prospect of having their children
bused into inner cities, white Americans did not have to be racist to
realize that their children would suffer. It may be true, for example,
that integration among children of the same class is a positive good. But
it may also be true that integration of children from different classes
may prove, and will likely prove, the opposite. This is not because black
children are different racially, but rather because Jim Crow involves much
more than simply racial separation.
whether de jure or de facto, has always been about resources
just as much as about race. The idea behind segregation, initially, was
not simply to punish blacks, but to create an underclass that was limited
in terms of what it could accomplish, and thereby better suited for the
menial tasks assigned to it. There was a reason, in other words, that Mr.
Tabb would have beaten his slaves. If they had learned to read, they would
have been less suited to being slaves.
Although slavery is gone, class structure continues in
America, as in most societies. In this respect, centuries of segregated
schooling have served their purpose--namely, the perpetuation of a class
system in which African Americans inhabit the bottom caste, performing
menial tasks with limited hope of advancement. The prospect confronting
white parents with forced busing, then, was to suddenly have their
children relegated to the same lower class, not simply by association with
black students, but by being sent to underfunded, poorly equipped schools
with student bodies who lacked the appropriate cultural, not to mention
If Irons had pursued this angle of analysis, he may have
been less harsh on the Supreme Court. After all, Brown itself was
an ambitious move--one that most white Americans agreed with only insofar
as it did not affect them personally. In fact, like the due process
revolution for criminal rights initiated by the Warren Court, Brown
was a radical step against the grain of American popular opinion, one that
invited the very backlash it received.
History, for better or for worse, is rarely determined by a
few old men, even if they are Supreme Court justices. On the contrary,
larger forces play into the reasons why Supreme Court justices rule the
way that they do. Haunting the Warren Court, for example, was the Cold
War. Irons doesn't consider this in his analysis, and yet scholars like
Mary Dudziak have shown its effect. In fact, if Irons had
considered Dudziak's work, his conclusions would only have been stronger.
After all, once the Cold War ended, there was little compelling reason to
promote equal education, save perhaps abstract moral ideals. Like it or
not, these have never governed educational, or any other policy, in the
. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
. James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A
Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2001).
. Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of
Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976; revised and expanded edition
. Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the
Image of American Democracy (Princeton:
Library of Congress
Call Number: KF4155 .I758 2002
* Brown, Oliver, 1918- --Trials, litigation, etc.
* Segregation in education--Law and legislation--United
Citation: Anders Walker. "Review of Peter Irons, Jim Crow's
Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision," H-Law, H-Net Reviews,
December, 2003. URL:
“Irons writes as an
unapologetic liberal who sees the Brown case as a triumph rather
than a more qualified victory… Legal historians and other specialists may
quibble with choices in presentation and argument. Irons, however, has
provided a lively and informative narrative on the case and its
consequences for the general reader and the American public at large.”
John P. Jackson, Jr.,
review of Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown
Decision, by Peter Irons, The Journal of American History 90
(March 2004): 1530.