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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

Getting Around Brown
Gregory S Jacobs

(Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998)
291pp. Index. Bibl. $45.00; ISBN 0-8142-0720-0.

Pb.: $16.95; ISBN 0-8142-0721-9.

In 1896 the US Supreme Court set the 'separate but equal' criterion thereby legalising the segregation of Blacks and Whites. For the next 50 years civil rights groups fought the apartheid system which developed, most notably through separate schools, in most Southern states of the old confederacy and Washington DC. In 1954 the battle was won with the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision which ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal. Implementing Brown in the South was, of course, difficult, but, in time, progress was achieved. It was not until the 1968 Kerner Commission Report that attention shifted towards the Northern states. Here the level of segregation was almost as high, but on a de facto rather than de jure basis. In the event, desegregation in the North proved to be more intractable than in the South. This book, a case study of schools in Columbus, Ohio, explains why this was so.

Historically the public schools in Columbus, Ohio, had been segregated largely as a consequence of residency. The 1970s onwards was marked by an increasingly bitter struggle between those who sought to desegregate the public schools and those who fought against any practical measure to achieve this end. The single measure around which most conflict revolved was that of bussing.

The story which emerges in the book is one of frustration, struggle, success but ultimate failure. Bussing attempted to break the relationship between residency and schooling, but failed as the, largely White, public- and private-sector power-brokers of the city literally changed the ground rules. Jurisdictional change meant that 40 per cent of 'Columbus' was redefined as falling within suburban school districts, separate and distinct from the City school system. The virtual end of any single-family real estate development in the city proper exacerbated economic inequalities and reinforced racial patterns of residency. Bussing had been intended to transform the relation between housing and schools, but instead it severed the link.

The book concludes on a downbeat note. A radical solution is proposed, but is acknowledged to be politically inconceivable. Forty-four years after Brown desegregation in Northern cities has still not been achieved. Segregation there may have been de facto rather than de jure, but the lesson of the book is that it was not by accident: segregation was achieved and maintained by design. Brown's undoubted success has been in challenging public discrimination, but privatised discrimination has proved to be a more elusive target.

Tony Gallagher, QUB.

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