New Book: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism

Posted by on September 10, 2010

[posted from Comm-Org listserv]

From: Howell Baum <>

Dear colleagues,

I am pleased to announce the publication of Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism. The book tells the history of Baltimore school desegregation and argues that school officials’  liberalism limited their ability to understand race and act effectively to end segregation. The analysis has implications for contemporary difficulties dealing with race.

The book’s story is this: A liberal school board voted right after Brown to end segregation. However, they chose open enrollment, or freedom of choice, as their strategy. The policy made desegregation voluntary, and it explicitly disregarded students’ race: all students would be seen as raceless individuals free to choose any school in the city. School officials said they did not care what racial makeup resulted, so long as students had the freedom to choose. Significantly, black leaders urged the board to adopt this policy, took credit for the board’s actions, and continued to endorse the policy for two decades. No civil rights group
ever sued the school board to do anything more.

The analysis interprets school officials’ actions as a good-faith expression of their explicit liberalism. They saw society as made up of individuals, emphasized a procedural right to choose over any specific outcome, and believed government should not intervene in individual decisions. Free choice embodied these culturally normal American principles. The book argues that the Baltimore desegregation case shows the weaknesses of liberalism in grasping race conceptually and in developing deep strategies for redressing racial inequities.

Regards to all,
Howell Baum

Below is a description of the book from Cornell University Press and a link to the Press:

In the first book to present the history of Baltimore school desegregation, Howell S. Baum shows how good intentions got stuck on what Gunnar Myrdal called the “American Dilemma.” Immediately after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the city’s liberal school board voted to desegregate and adopted a free choice policy that made integration voluntary. Baltimore’s school desegregation proceeded peacefully, without the resistance or violence that occurred elsewhere. However, few whites chose to attend school with blacks, and after a few years of modest desegregation, schools resegregated and became increasingly segregated. The school board never changed its policy. Black leaders had urged the board to adopt free choice and, despite the limited desegregation, continued to support the policy and never sued the board to do anything else.

Baum finds that American liberalism is the key to explaining how this happened. Myrdal observed that many whites believed in equality in the abstract but considered blacks inferior and treated them unequally. School officials were classical liberals who saw the world in terms of individuals, not races. They adopted a desegregation policy that explicitly ignored students’ race and asserted that all students were equal in freedom to choose schools, while their policy let whites who disliked blacks avoid integration. School officials’ liberal thinking hindered them from understanding or talking about the city’s history of racial segregation, continuing barriers to desegregation, and realistic change strategies. From the classroom to city hall, Baum examines how Baltimore’s distinct identity as a border city between North and South shaped local conversations about the national conflict over race and equality. The city’s history of wrestling with the legacy of Brown reveals Americans’ preferred way of dealing with racial issues: not talking about race. This avoidance, Baum concludes, allows segregation to continue.

“As a major city just below the Mason-Dixon line, Baltimore won approval when it became one of the first cities in the country to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Unlike their
southern neighbors, white officials in Baltimore led the effort that resulted in the relatively peaceful desegregation of its public schools. Yet, in this wonderful book, Howell S. Baum digs deep into Baltimore’s
history of school desegregation to uncover how the city’s ‘liberalism’ actually led to a pattern of political and civic abandonment. Baum illustrates how ‘liberalism’ muffled racial conflict and consequently weakened the city’s capacity to address issues of race and equality in its public schools. Brown in Baltimore is a genuine tour de force.”—Marion Orr, Director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and the Fred Lippitt Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Urban Studies at Brown University, author of Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore

“In this sensitive, readable, and well-researched book, Howell S. Baum shows how Baltimore officials tried and failed to integrate the city schools. Baltimore City officials honored freedom of choice in the abstract, but that notion proved inadequate to produce schools in which whites and blacks studied together. Baum writes with particular insight about the working-class ethnic whites of East Baltimore, and he shows a fundamental understanding of the workings of federal regulatory agencies and the peculiar pace at which the courts manage social conflict. The result is a wonderful combination of social science and history that illuminates one of America’s key social concerns.”—Edward D. Berkowitz, George Washington University, author of Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies

“Howell S. Baum carefully traces the long arc of struggle over school desegregation in a distinctive American city. With a storyteller’s sense of narrative and a scholar’s attention to detail, he adroitly assays the limits of classic liberal solutions to the nation’s long-standing dilemma of race and sociospatial inequity in urban education.”—John L. Rury, University of Kansas, author of Education and Social Change: Contours in the History of American Schooling

About the Author
Howell S. Baum is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland. He is the author most recently of Community Action for School Reform and The Organization of Hope: Communities  Planning Themselves.

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