Gladwell on Brown v Board of Education

Here’s an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, where he throws shade upon the very faulty social science (e.g., Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy) that informed the ridiculously consequential Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

MG: [Brown v. Board of Education] is formally a legal document but famously relied on social science to reach its conclusions. [In the episode,] I’m really examining the social science at the core of it and saying that the social science argument that the court made was wrong—or at least was painfully and tragically incomplete. There’re are million really important questions that arise out of the general re-examination of Brown that’s gone on, and one of them is that social science arguments are incorporated into public policy often at social science’s peril.

It’s really easy for public policy people to get it wrong, or to misunderstand what the science is telling them, or to twist the findings of researchers. To me, the great appeal of social science has always been that research is not definitive. It’s always posing a proposition to be debated. That’s not the way the rest of the world is; the rest of the world wants very definitive answers. And Brown is a really good example of this. Let’s face it: The social science that the court used in the Brown case is pretty flimsy social science—it is not psychology at its best.

DN: Absolutely. So, if I’m correct in understanding your argument, one way to think about it is that there’s a misalignment between the remedy the court applies in the Brown decision and the complaint itself?

MG: Yes, that’s part one. The court, for its own peculiar reasons, wanted to claim that black people, as a result of segregation, had suffered a kind of grievous and catastrophic psychological injury. And I’m sorry, that’s just not true.

Were there black people harmed by segregated schools? Yes—although I’m not sure whether it was the fact of segregation or the fact of institutional racism and inadequate funding and general neglect that caused the injury. But to draw the sweeping conclusion that the court did—that unless black kids can sit next to white kids in a classroom they can’t get an education—is nonsense! It sets you down a path that, as I detail in the episode, gets really problematic really fast. They compound the problem with their inattention to the details under which integration is executed.

Regarding the New Angry Black re-evaluation of Brown:

MG: Many African-American intellectuals have looked back on that and said, “You know what, we would’ve been better off if they had not overturned Plessy v. Ferguson,” and, “You want to play separate and equal? Let’s really do separate and equal,” and call them on their bluff. Remember the precedent that was being overturned by Brown was the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, [in 1896], which said that separate facilities for black people were fine so long as they were equal to those of white people. That was never the case in the South; there was separation without equality.

Like I said, many black intellectuals have subsequently said, “Look maybe what the court should’ve done in Brown in 1954 is say, ‘Alright, let’s actually do separate and equal—prove to me they’re equal before we go any further. Let’s start by equalizing funding. Let’s go down the list. If you want to have a separate law school for white people in the state of Texas then you have to prove to me that every element in the black law school is the equivalent of the white law school.’” That strikes me as being both a radical and a doable argument, at least in the short term. And then when you have equality—real equality—then you take the next step, and remove [segregation]. I’m not entirely convinced that would’ve been the right way to go—but I think that is an argument worth hearing.

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