by Raymond Wolters. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2009. 328pp. Cloth. $44.95. ISBN: 9780826218285.

Reviewed by Jenny Diamond Cheng, Independent Scholar, Brooklyn, NY. jdc250 [at] gmail.com.


In this book, historian Raymond Wolters argues that official efforts to promote interracial mixing in public schools have been both bad law and disastrous public policy. Wolters’s central thesis, recognizable to those familiar with his earlier work, is that during the 1960s and 70s, overzealous federal bureaucrats and a Supreme Court in thrall to liberal ideology equated desegregation with active integration. The resulting race-conscious school busing programs betrayed the race-neutral values of BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION and were therefore doomed. Drawing on a number of case studies, tWolters argues strenuously that racial integration of America’s public schools – and especially court-ordered integration – has been an abject failure, prompting white flight and exacerbating racial tensions, while utterly failing to improve blacks’ academic achievement.

Wolters, who is a chaired professor of history at the University of Delaware, paints his narrative as a counterweight to a politically correct academic orthodoxy that purportedly brooks no dissent about the merits of integration. Despite his disingenuous claim that he is simply “explain[ing] the arguments on both sides of . . . controversial questions” (p.ix), it is never less than absolutely clear with whom his sympathies lie. This is the story of the Reasonable Everyman versus the Liberal Lunatics, and the author’s attempts to distance himself from the debates only irritate the reader.

Wolters devotes the first four chapters to the BROWN decision and its immediate aftermath. He argues that, although there were good reasons to end de jure segregation in the United States, there was no good originalist justification for the Supreme Court’s conclusion that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Furthermore, he maintains, the Court’s reliance on now-discredited social science evidence about how segregation harmed black children (the notorious ‘black dolls’ experiments) would later serve as the legal basis for misguided race-conscious balancing policies. As a matter of public policy, Wolters locates BROWN in the educational climate of the 1950s and early 1960s. He approvingly remarks that at that time, educational reformers were mainly interested in cultivating the most talented students, and ability grouping was standard practice. In this context, educators assumed that desegregation would erase the black-white achievement gap simply by giving black children access to better schools, and in any event, high achievers would be protected.

In practice, though, Wolters maintains, desegregation ruined perfectly good schools. Retreading ground he covered in his 1984 book, THE BURDEN OF BROWN, the author offers case histories [*398] of several locales that desegregated immediately after BROWN, including Topeka, the District of Columbia, and Wilmington, DE. He tells more or less the same story for all of these districts: desegregation brought in poorly performing, ill-behaved black students, white students were scared away, and the districts effectively resegregated. In the Deep South, states resisted desegregation for a full decade after BROWN. Eventually, though, even southern school districts desegregated, and Wolters details how once again, whites quickly fled the newly integrated public schools. In one of the book’s more interesting sections, Wolters examines the writings of intellectuals who bolstered popular resistance with theories about the biological inferiority of blacks. Although he does not fully make his case that most scholars and scientists at the time of BROWN agreed “not that the races were equal but that that the evidence of Negro inferiority was not conclusive” (p.99), his overview of the scientific racists is both intrinsically interesting and a well-taken reminder of how influential these theories have been at times.

In the next four chapters, Wolters turns to court-ordered busing, which he views as an unmitigated catastrophe. His discussion of how the staff members at the federal Office of Education interpreted the Civil Rights Act to mandate actual racial balance in schools is another one of the book’s high points. While the author is appalled at what he sees as a gross abuse of authority, his treatment usefully highlights the significant role that federal bureaucrats played in the civil rights movement. As John Skrentny has noted, “The images of the minority rights revolution are mostly of mainstream Euro-American males and minority advocates, wearing suits, sitting at desks, firing off memos, and meeting in government buildings to discuss new policy directions. While these are not romantic images, they are the images of power” (Skrentny 2002, 5).

Wolters sharply criticizes the Supreme Court – which upheld racial balancing programs in a series of cases – for abandoning the original meaning of BROWN and the language of the Civil Rights Act. He further implies that this legal shift was matched by a similarly misguided transformation among academics and policymakers, who began to define ‘equality of educational opportunity’ not to mean simply equal resources put into education, but equal results among groups. Although this notion “was at odds with the traditional American understanding of equality” (p.185), he suggests that elites were seriously frightened by the race riots of the 1960s and were trying to pacify the African American population.

If desegregation was bad for schools, then court-ordered integration was even worse, according to Wolters. Drawing on both ethnographic writings by other scholars and some of his own research, he describes how time and again, middle-class white schools were effectively destroyed by an influx of low-achieving, disruptive black students. Even when not mandated by the government, he argues, integrated education exacerbated racial tensions and did nothing to narrow the achievement gap between white and black students. He highlights the work of black scholars who questioned the value of integration, with particular attention to the debate about whether [*399] black students – especially those in integrated schools – viewed academic achievement as “acting white.”

Towards the end of the book, Wolters discusses the end of court-ordered busing in the 1990s. In two cases involving affirmative action, the Supreme Court emphasized that racial classifications had to meet the test of ‘strict scrutiny,’ and the federal courts began to strike down racial balance programs that were not specifically intended to redress proven discrimination. He argues that civil rights advocates were unable to prove that integration either raised African-Americans’ academic performance or improved race relations; they therefore turned to vague, unprovable arguments about the merits of “diversity.” To his chagrin, the Supreme Court invoked the diversity rationale in a 2003 affirmative action case, but four years later, the Court struck down racial balancing programs in two school districts. He concludes by praising the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts for “returning to the principle of nondiscrimination” (p.305) and for pushing educators to explore new avenues for school reform, the latter of which he promises to examine in his next book.

Wolters’s strident tone, coupled with his heavy reliance on secondary sources, makes this book considerably less persuasive than it might have been. To take just one example, in the chapter on desegregation in the Deep South, Wolters offers a series of case studies to argue that desegregation prompted white flight. The evidence he musters is compelling, even if the conclusion is not especially novel. However, when he notes that several of the scholarly studies upon which he relies fail to mention anything about the “misbehavior of black students at desegregated schools” (p.118), he promptly concludes that such omissions could only be the result of “the custom of political correctness in academia” (p.120). This sort of heavy-handed approach is unlikely to convince anyone who is not already committed to the author’s narrative.

More substantively, Wolters’s treatment of the Supreme Court does not particularly advance the ball. As a historical matter, he suggests that the Court has largely acted in accordance with the national mood, and when it has not – as in the cases upholding school busing programs – the Court has quickly retreated. This story is entirely plausible, and indeed many scholars have argued that BROWN in particular reflects the Court’s tendency to respond to a national majority (Balkin 2001, 19–22). However, this author does not make the case. For one thing, he seems completely disengaged from the extensive legal and political science literatures about the relationship between public opinion and Supreme Court decisionmaking. Furthermore, his tendency to locate each decision entirely in its own historical moment leads to some strange omissions. Most obviously, in his discussion of BROWN, he completely fails to mention that the Court was, centrally, grappling with PLESSY v. FERGUSON (1896). He therefore mistakenly dismisses Chief Justice Warren’s direct response to PLESSY, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” – as nothing but a “general statement” (p .10), and is apparently mystified as to why any reasonable person would think otherwise. [*400]

Indeed, a more acute awareness of the Supreme Court’s own institutional concerns might help to illuminate the Court’s support for busing in GREEN v. COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD (1968) and SWANN v. CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG (1971). Wolters finds these opinions both infuriating and baffling: “It is hard to account for this transformation, except to say that judicial objectivity was swept away by the vogue of integration” (p.139). What about the possibility that the Court was worried about its own legitimacy in the face of the South’s resistance to BROWN? As Bernard Schwartz has noted, “That the Court began to take an increasingly active role in the school cases . . . may be explained by the Justices’ increasing exasperation at southern refusals to implement BROWN” (Schwartz 1986, 64). As Schwartz’s book is one of Wolters’s key sources for his discussion of SWANN, presumably he is familiar with this argument; it would have been useful to know the extent to which he disagrees, and why.

The author’s normative claims about judicial decisionmaking are also less than convincing. For one thing, Wolters simply assumes that the Court is correct when it acts in accordance with public opinion and that it is inappropriate for courts to make unpopular decisions. There is certainly a case to be made for this point, and indeed countless reams of paper have been devoted to the question of whether courts should act as majoritarian or countermajoritarian institutions. Wolters, however, does not engage with any of these debates. Similarly, he is quick to criticize the Court for relying on social science evidence he views as faulty, and he implies that there was something shady about the civil rights strategy of using social science to establish favorable precedent and then rely on that settled caselaw in future cases. It would be unfair to expect this book, which is after all a history, to seriously grapple with the broader theoretical and practical questions that arise when the courts take into account (or fail to take into account) social science evidence. However, some acknowledgement that these questions even exist would have made the author’s treatment considerably more compelling.

In sum, while this book offers a few interesting and thought-provoking points, the author’s strong commitment to a particular narrative and extensive use of secondary sources will likely make it of limited interest.

Balkin, Jack M. 2001. “Brown as Icon.” In Jack M. Balkin (ed), WHAT BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION SHOULD HAVE SAID. New York: New York University Press.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1986. SWANN’S WAY: THE SCHOOL BUSING CASE AND THE SUPREME COURT. New York: Oxford University Press.

Skrentny, John D. 2002. THE MINORITY RIGHTS REVOLUTION. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press. [*401]

Wolters, Raymond. 1984. THE BURDEN OF BROWN: THIRTY YEARS OF SCHOOL DESEGREGATION. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

GREEN v. COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, 391 U.S. 430 (1968).

PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Jenny Diamond Cheng.