- Historic Sites
The Home And Family
The 50 Biggest Changes In The Last 50 Years
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
In 1954 the Supreme Court decreed an end to that principle. Everyone knows that Brown v. Board of Education did not exactly bring about a revolution in boards of education all over America. Schools remained segregated just as before, and white schools tended to be better, and black schools worse, and the realities of racial hierarchy never did come to an end. Then again, in France beheading the king did not exactly put an end to the realities of social hierarchy either. Even today a surprising number of top figures in French life remain people with a de in their names, signifying aristocracy, as in Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister. Still, beheading the king back in 1793 did bring to an end an important principle — namely, the principle of monarchy, therefore of authority as a whole, taken in its ancient feudal version. Brown v. Board of Education did the same, in an American version. The decision brought an end to the principle of racial hierarchy and therefore to the many other kinds of authority that were somehow linked to the principle of racial hierarchy. And what was the effect on American life?
Balzac figured that all hell broke loose in French families after 1793, and many a commentator has concluded that all hell likewise broke loose in American families after 1954. Divorces increased. Promiscuity blossomed. Single motherhood flourished. People took drugs. Children became disrespectful. Homosexuals became much more visible. Homosexuals got married, which they had always done, but now they began to get married to one another. I could go on with the list of horrors, as seen by those who think the list is horrific. But I should like to argue, instead, that from a sans-culotte point of view, the changes that swept across American life in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education have been by and large salutary. The ancien régime in America may have been the good old days for some people, but not for most. The end of the principle of hierarchy in racial relations brought about a thousand changes in American life, among them five hundred alterations in the American family. And these alterations had their positive aspect.
I will list the best, the most admirable, of the changes, beginning with No. 2 because I have already cited Brown v. Board of Education as change number one. The others, in my view, have been:
to pursue careers outside the home and therefore realize their own talents, and thus advance the whole of society.
to appreciate the full talents of women.
to become better lovers, I am convinced, because of their greater freedom to be themselves.
to the peculiarities and needs of their children, instead of merely demanding blind obedience.
that has permitted modern society to take a firmer line against certain kinds of crime—against child molestation, for instance, and against rape.
Young people were no longer pushed into too-early unions.
came to be looked on by a great many people as an ordinary sexual orientation, instead of as something shameful, sinful, et cetera.
Homosexuals began to be accepted, in a trend that has lately led, through a process that began with Brown v. Board of Education , to the dawn of legal recognition of gay marriage here and there around the country. And, finally . . .
The country became a little more tolerant and a little more protective of the right to privacy, as shown by Bill Clinton’s political victory over the many censorious busybodies who tried to have him removed from office in the aftermath of his White House affair.
Freedom, personal growth, sensitivity, amorousness, honesty, tolerance, privacy—these are the salutary changes that have overtaken the family and the home in the years after Brown v. Board of Education . My own guess is that French family life took a turn for the better after the French Revolution, in spite of Balzac. American family life is better, I say, after the civil rights revolution. Let Balzac and the reactionaries beat their nostalgic drums in outraged dismay. Let them count up the numerous downsides. I shall study their books. Some of those books will make a terrific read, I’m sure. Balzac himself is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Even so, progress is a good thing.