As the United States seeks to renew the power of its domestic example in face of an increasingly capable and confident China — often joined by Russia in spotlighting the underperformance and shortcomings of democracies — the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education offers important lessons.
The case actually combined five separate cases — four from states (Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia) and one from Washington, DC — that had challenged segregation in public schools. The plaintiffs won in Delaware, but the Delaware State Board of Education appealed; the plaintiffs in the other four jurisdictions lost, but they, too, appealed. The Supreme Court decided to consider all of the cases together, taking an issue of school segregation that had largely been considered on an ad hoc, subnational basis, and thrusting it into the national spotlight.
On May 17, 1954, America’s highest judicial body unanimously rendered one of its most famous verdicts:
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
While that decision marked an important milestone for social justice in the United States, it also had important foreign policy consequences.
THE DECISION AND ITS IMPACT
The wave of decolonization that followed World War II placed America’s race relations under greater scrutiny, a reality that the Soviet Union sought to exploit as it looked to make ideological inroads across Africa and Asia. The Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in which it warned that “[r]acial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”
Brown v. Board of Education was first argued from December 8-10, 1952, but the court proved unable to reach a verdict. Though Chief Justice Fred Vinson embraced desegregation in higher education, he was more equivocal about instituting it in grade schools. He died of an unexpected heart attack on September 8, 1953, however, and Earl Warren was sworn in as his replacement. The case was reargued from December 7-9, 1953 before the new chief justice, who did not harbor his predecessor’s doubts. When the Supreme Court finally rendered its verdict in May 1954, newspapers across the country hailed its significance against the backdrop of an unfolding Cold War. The St. Louis-Post Dispatch offered a representative encomium, concluding that in America’s “struggle against Communist encroachment,” the court’s decision had given Washington “a victory that no number of divisions, arms, and bombs could ever have won.” Such an interpretation may seem exaggerated in retrospect. It is not clear, after all, what decision the court would have reached had Justice Vinson presided over the second phase of arguments. Domestic reaction to the verdict was mixed, moreover, and implementation proved fraught. Even more dispiriting would be the next fifteen years that witnessed race riots and assassinations of prominent civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
If Washington hopes to be trusted in contributing to that system-level conversation, it must demonstrate anew that it can succeed in the narrower task of addressing its domestic challenges. In brief, what it does at home matters at least as much as what it does abroad, if not more.
Those same years, though, would significantly advance the cause of civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, still the bedrock of civil rights legislation in the United States, outlawed discrimination in employment, schools, and public places on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed measures like poll taxes and literacy tests that had been instituted to disenfranchise Black voters. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, built on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically applied its provisions to the sale, rental, and financing of housing. Important Supreme Court cases moved the needle forward as well: In 1962, Bailey v. Patterson banned racial segregation in both intrastate and interstate transportation facilities, and in 1967, Loving v. Virginia struck down laws against interracial marriage.
THE EXPLOITATION OF RACIAL INJUSTICE IN THE UNITED STATES
While Brown v. Board of Education was a victory for the civil rights movement in the United States, continued racial injustice gave the Soviet Union ample narrative fodder. In June 1963, the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research noted that there had been a surge in Soviet radio broadcasting about the state of US race relations following Dr. King’s arrest in Birmingham, Alabama that April. In Moscow’s telling, according to the memorandum, America’s treatment of its Black population was “indicative of its policy toward peoples of color throughout the world.” Of course, as the document noted, it was highly disingenuous of the Soviet Union to level such an accusation given its own “ill treatment of ethnic and racial minorities.”
As Moscow continued to press its case, the United States continued to make progress in combating racial injustice. There is no one decision, law, or achievement, no matter how momentous, that secures democracy — it is a process, after all, not an outcome. But Brown v. Board of Education highlights one of America’s important competitive advantages: Drawing on pressure from within and criticism from without to look inward and change course, however haltingly and incompletely.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came at a time when Washington was increasingly apprehensive about Moscow’s potential ideological appeal. Today, three decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States is primarily concerned with managing a resurgent China, focusing in large part on what it might do abroad: How, for example, might it contest Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea or offer alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative? As competition with China assumes a more ideological valence, the Biden administration is also considering how it might prevent core international institutions, such as the United Nations, from being reconfigured to advance authoritarian norms — by, for example, internalizing a conception of human rights that discounts individual freedoms and emphasizes economic development. These important discussions, in turn, inform a broader conversation on steps the United States can take alongside allies and partners to construct a more resilient post-pandemic order. But if Washington hopes to be trusted in contributing to that system-level conversation, it must demonstrate anew that it can succeed in the narrower task of addressing its domestic challenges. In brief, what it does at home matters at least as much as what it does abroad, if not more.
US DEMOCRACY IN A POST–PANDEMIC WORLD
Close to a year ago, with a pandemic, a recession, and protests against racial injustice simultaneously roiling the United States, Tom McTague, a staff writer with The Atlantic, concluded that “America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question.” The early months of this year, though, suggest that perhaps it can. The United States has now fully vaccinated over 40% of its population against COVID-19, behind only Chile, Bahrain, and Israel, and has administered more shots than any other country except China. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that its economy will expand by 6.9% this year, marking what would be its fastest growth since 1984. A record 23% of the members of the new Congress are Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American, indicating that the corridors of power in Washington are becoming more diverse and inclusive. And, as Financial Times journalist David Pilling observed last June, “despite its evident traumas and failings, the US continues to act as a moral and political touchstone for much of the world.”
Renewal, of course, is an unending process; old challenges evolve and new ones emerge. And the United States has an enormous amount of work cut out for it. Though it is now on a steady path to recovering from the pandemic, it still accounts for 20% of global COVID-19 infections and 17% of deaths, despite being home to just 4% of the world’s population. Its income and wealth distributions are increasingly unequal. The blackouts that ensued after this February’s winter storms place in sharp relief the obsolescence of its critical infrastructure, much of which is poised to grow more vulnerable to climate change and cyber attacks. Ideological polarization is intensifying, with a recent analysis warning that the United States is increasingly in the grips of “political sectarianism.” As the Economist stated plainly late last month, America’s reckoning with racial injustice continues: “Despite the gains in legal and political rights made by African Americans since the civil rights era, measures of relative poverty and black-white segregation have barely moved for half a century.”
THE ENDURING IMPORTANCE OF SELF-REFLECTION
When the Soviet Union spotlighted socioeconomic fissures in the United States, Washington often rejoined by charging Moscow with hypocrisy. Its most effective responses, though, were acknowledging that it had to make progress on those issues, debating how to do so in plain view of the rest of the world, and ultimately demonstrating that it could (even if slowly) bridge the gap between its rhetoric and its practices.
Today, as China grows more convinced that the United States has entered into terminal decline, touting its own model of governance more openly while critiquing America’s more sharply, Washington’s best bet is to demonstrate once more that it can reinvigorate itself, beginning at home. Brown v. Board of Education affirms that one of the most reliable sources of renewal is introspection. Where self-congratulation breeds complacency — and self-flagellation, despair — self-examination can yield an optimistic urgency, compelling the United States to believe that it can and must do more to narrow the divide between the ideals it professes and the realities it embodies.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice.