The historian Charles Payne has described Brown v. Board of Education as “a milestone in search of something to signify.” Widely hailed as a symbol of Jim Crow's demise, the case is popularly understood to represent America at its best. For many, Brown symbolizes the end of segregation, a national condemnation of racism, a renewed commitment to the ideal of color-blind justice, or some combination of all of these, but Brown is equally affirmed in less celebratory narratives, in which it is seen to articulate a constitutional aspiration against which the injustice of current racial practices can be measured. Unlike the celebratory Brown, which indulges a fantasy of completion or accomplishment, this aspirational Brown marks “an appeal to law to make good on its promises” of equal citizenship and racial democracy, even if that promise remains as yet largely unfulfilled.
Mark Golub is assistant professor of politics and director of the Legal Studies Program at Scripps College <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Versions of this article were presented at the 2011 Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and Humanities (Las Vegas, NV), the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association (San Antonio, TX), and the 2011 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting and Exhibition (Seattle, WA). The author thanks Marek Steedman, Joel Olson, Kirstine Taylor, Constance Jordan, and David Tanenhaus for their helpful comments, as well as the audience members, fellow panelists, and anonymous reviewers of Law and History Review.