Reading Blog: October 2022

~reading up on civil rights and Soviet history~

What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Landmark Civil Rights Decision (Editor Jack M. Balkin, 2001)

The first third of the book discusses this historical / social / political context. In addition to negotiated language, the opinion was written especially concise and readable for printing in newspapers. This section gives context to Warren’s appointment to the Court, and lobbying for votes. There’s also how Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP developed a strategy to integrate graduate schools and burden the state with equal facilities challenges first, with integrating primary schools seen as the most difficult confrontation with segregation. Integration was controversial even among Black activists because of fears that schools would fire Black teachers rather than have them teach integrated classes.

The editors discuss the legacy of Brown at it approached its 50th anniversary: schools re-segregating (which continues to deepen since 2001), modern conservative opposition to affirmative action, and the rewriting of history to center the Court and Constitution as the movers behind ending segregation (the Court had recently supported case-by-case disparity tests in Sweatt v. Painter, and the decade after Brown was marked by Massive Resistance in the South). Many of the successes of the civil rights era (such as the Voting Rights Act) would not be realized until 10 years later.
Though Oliver Brown’s challenge to Topeka’s Board of Education was just one of the cases which got consolidated into Brown v. Board, I appreciated there was also background on the person. Brown was fortunately positioned to lead the case with a daughter in school, a union-protected railroad job, and community connections in his role as a pastor.

In the latter part of the book, legal experts write their own opinion for the Brown decision, limited to data and precedents available in the 1950s. They can use this as a framework to hint at what the Court missed: the hesitance of courts to enforce and experiment, division of school districts to continue segregation, etc.
Some thought bubbles from this section:

  • Learning about other cases where the Court reaffirmed Plessy, including refusing to hear Lum v. Rice. Also some business/transport decisions where the Court did intervene, such as Buchanan v. Warley, which prevented governmental segregation of property sales in 1917.
  • The special session held by the Court to hear interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment. I appreciated the book’s explanation of politicians of the time conceptualizing categories of rights, to the point that the Fifteenth Amendment was needed to add voting rights.
  • The idea that any branch of the federal government could enforce personal rights in schools, private businesses, and local transport required dismantling interpretations of the commerce clause — part of the legal battles around the New Deal.
  • Mandatory public schooling being a few months in some places in the North when the amendments were written, vs. the more obvious need for an educated national workforce in the Cold War era.
    Between this and pellagra, it’s odd that statisticians + World Wars = the US military kicking the government into inventing modern education and nutrition.

This book has companions in this format which could also be interesting for a law student: one on Roe v. Wade and one on Obergefell v. Hodges.

Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Breakup of the Soviet Union (Edward W. Walker, 2003)

Walker covers the peculiar history of nationalism in Soviet socialism, when Marx had claimed to be post-national. During the revolution years and WW1 it was useful for Lenin to support anti-colonial and self-determination movements. During Stalin’s rule, more countries joined the constitution and were set up with national languages, histories, and institutions. These distinctions were sharpened or even invented by federalization and ethnic IDs and inheritance on official documents. Before this record-keeping, the book claims that Tajikistan’s people would have described themselves as Persian (Wiki says “Tajik […] had some previous pejorative usage as a label for eastern Persians”) and a pan-Turkic country lasted six years before being dissolved.

Dissolution snuck up on Soviet leaders. Gorbachev later wrote that he’d thought nationality was ‘solved’ before he became leader, and was shocked by events to the contrary (this book cites a disaster relief visit to Armenia). Russians living and working in high positions around the Eastern Bloc were not threatened at first by calls for ‘sovereignty’ because it was seen as a constitutional reform until the final movements. When Baltic republics declared their laws and resource rights as supreme, there was a rush for other republics to follow suit to level their negotiating power.

Updates to previous reads

  • Gastropod ran an episode about medically-tailored meals, which are prescribed to patients frequently in the hospital with long-term conditions. This is distinct from, but reminded me, about food prices and nutrition in A History of Global Health, and iodizing salt etc. which are less influential at the WHO today. Also there are programs which explore prescription housing.
  • Several months ago I posted about an independent report on AGRA + Gates Foundation agricultural policy / aid programs. A critic had said that the report was revealing, and I’d planned to sit down and read. When I finally got around to it, I only made it so far, so there are mostly broad assessments here. The AGRA plan includes changing policies and funding markets such that smaller-scale farmers can use fertilizers and sell their produce in a better market. These changes impact millions of people, thus were seen as efficient use of Gates/AGRA influence and funds per farmer. Benefits for farmers were inconclusive, and the market setup would not keep operating independently. So you could criticize the underlying economic theory, but AGRA was certainly out there practicing what was preached.
    It’s unclear if the takeaway is: these farmers have different attitudes, scale, logistics, or incentives from places where the Green Revolution took root, that top-down methods lack value, or (as summarized) AGRA can adjust their focus and realize the change that they wanted.
    I’ve watched other orgs in global food for years, and there’s often this pattern of never touching on what we can/can’t control, or responsibilities when directing policy.
  • Re: Starved for Science, Mexico banned imports of GMO maize:
  • Tangential to Entangled Life on fungi, horizontal gene transfer was identified from plants to an insect species:
  • After reading the Locust book, I listened to an episode of “Stories of Impact” about another piece of Americana: the American chestnut tree.



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