“Sixty-five years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S Supreme Court declared that segregated public schools were ‘inherently unequal’ and unconstitutional, smashing a 1896 ruling that permitted ‘whites-only’ and ‘Negroes-only’ schools. The historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordered that public schools must be integrated, launching a decades-long struggle to end systemic inequality in American life.” The decision was unanimous, but much like today with any given social justice issue, the reaction was not.
Linda Brown (front row, right) and her sister Terry Lynn (far left row, third from front) who, with their parents, initiated the landmark Civil Rights lawsuit ‘Brown V. Board of Education,’ in their classroom in Topeka, Kan.CreditCarl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images
Integration, of course, did not guarantee a great education. The Hidden Cost of Brown v. Board: African American Educators’ Resistance to Desegregating Schools causes us to think about the displacement and dismissal of Black educators post-Brown. “While Brown enabled children of all races and backgrounds to have equal opportunity and access in education, poor integration implementation policies and widespread white backlash presented problems for many black students and teachers. Black students lost role models who not only knew them on a personal level, but had a unique understanding of their communities, cultural identities, and individual situations. Many blacks believed that ‘without the principals, the members of the African American community lost their voice in education, and the students also lost role models whom they were able to trust and emulate.’ Because education was one of the only well-respected career paths open to blacks, there was an abundance of well-trained, talented black teachers. The presence of skillful teachers resulted in many all-Black schools as places where children received an excellent academic education, along with schooling from their Black elders in ‘the ways of the world.’ Despite the saturation of talented African Americans in the national teaching force before the Brown case, this would change drastically after 1954. Over 38,000 black teachers in the South and border states lost their jobs after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Well over a half-century after Brown, black teachers make up a minuscule fraction of the teaching force, which has negatively impacted many black students in terms of test scores and graduation rates. Losing tens of thousands of black teachers in the teaching force in the mid-twentieth century has had lasting effects on today’s teaching force. In 2000, only 14 percent of teachers were persons of color.”
“When black schools were [shut down] or absorbed, celebrated black principals were demoted or fired. By some estimates, nearly a third of African-American teachers lost their jobs. Those who survived the purge were sometimes selected on the basis of a lighter skin color that made them more palatable to white communities.”
In the article, Why School Integration Matters, the question was raised: “Is integrated schooling in the United States a goal still worth pursuing? This is neither a cynical nor a hypothetical question. As we contemplate the significance of the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown decision, this basic question carries special pertinence. Today, all the evidence shows that even as American society is growing more racially and ethnically diverse, many of our schools are headed in the opposite direction… Across the country, many schools today are characterized by growing racial and socioeconomic isolation. Moreover, no major political leader has stepped forward either to call attention to this trend and its implications, or to offer ideas on what might be done to reverse it….We should all be concerned. At a time when our nation is becoming irreversibly more diverse, our lack of commitment to racial integration poses a major threat to the cohesiveness and stability of American society.”
Across the country, due much to “white flight”, Black and Latino students live in segregated, urban neighborhoods and attend overcrowded, under-funded, low-achieving schools, while most of their white counterparts attend affluent, nearly all-white schools in suburban America. Separate and unequal continues: “More than 80 percent of Black and Latino segregated schools are in high-poverty areas, compared with 5 percent of segregated white schools. These schools are traditionally associated with fewer resources, fewer advanced course offerings, more inexperienced teachers and lower average test scores. At the same time, despite the unequal resources that are traditionally associated with high poverty and minority schools, students in these schools are being subjected to increasingly rigorous testing that can have serious stakes attached for student promotion and graduation ( Brown v. Board; Where Are We Now?)
There is undeniably a hyper-segregation by race and class that is common in most urban areas. To illustrate, think for a minute about what school populations look like within our own district? How do Brody and Merrill’s demographics differ from Harding and Hiatt, for example? What about Hoyt’s population? In our district are students separated by race? Are the poorest and most disadvantaged children in certain schools? (If students are separated by race and class, is this “double-segregation”?) Now think about what public schools look like in Des Moines' suburbs? How do schools in Ankeny and Waukee look different from schools in Des Moines, not only with race and class, but also resources available to their districts? When school funding is tied to property taxes for example, what are the implications for students in the public schools in Des Moines versus the students attending school in the suburbs of Des Moines?
“Because of our lack of will to enforce Brown, too many children, white and Black, are growing up unprepared to participate in our increasingly diverse society.”
– Pedro A Noguera (keynote speaker at the 2019 DMPS Culture Climate Summit)
While Brown's promise remains, it can be argued that it is unfulfilled, but it surely does not mean that Brown was a failure. Most legal scholars still regard Brown as a historic, groundbreaking decision --The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the case is credited not only with starting the process of eliminating racial barriers in education, but it also helped in the fight for desegregation of everything from public golf courses to public buses. It also set precedent for the elimination of racial barriers to voting, housing access, and employment. It is also thought to be the fuel for other movements like, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people with disabilities.
On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Brown decision, it is important to remember that civil rights and educational opportunity are deeply intertwined. Pedro A. Noguera, author of Why School Integration Matters says, “I think it is essential that those of us who went to integrated schools let people know about the benefits of our education.” Yet, Noguera encourages us to acknowledge that his experience with racially integrated schooling, like that of many other Black and Latino students, was not entirely positive. “The prejudice and bigotry I encountered were very real.”
Despite its flaws and limitations, the effort to racially integrate our nation's schools continues to be important to the health of the diverse nation we are becoming. “Would the United States be as racially polarized and divided as it is now if more individuals had had the experience of learning together? What if our society had gone even further than merely placing children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in schools together, but had also committed to equality of opportunity in accessing the curriculum and the supports needed to be successful? What if we had made a concerted effort to integrate the teaching force, and were more intentional about the need to prepare teachers to work in racially diverse classrooms and build learning communities rooted in respect, trust, and empathy? We live in a multiracial society so we have good reason to speak out on our commitment to integrated educational opportunities for all. "Decades of social science research has found that racially diverse classrooms improve student experiences: enhanced learning, higher academic achievement for minorities, higher educational and occupational aspirations, increased civic engagement, a greater desire to live, work, and go to school in multiracial settings, and positive, increased social interaction among members of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Significantly, these benefits affect both white and minority students.” (Brown v. Board: Where Are We Now?)
During the next days/weeks, while we are still in the anniversary month of the Brown decision, consider reading/discussing articles (found HERE) with your students before engaging them in a discussion, using the following questions:
1. What do you think segregated schools were like in pre-1954 America? In what parts of the country were schools segregated? Were schools in your state segregated? How was the experience of a black student in public school different from that of a white student?
2. The Brown decision called for school desegregation to happen with "all deliberate speed." How quickly — and how fully — do you think schools de-segregated?
3. The Supreme Court decision has come to be known, in shorthand form, as Brown v. Board of Education. But that one name represents several cases. What other cities and states were involved in court battles to end public school segregation? How were these cases alike? How were they different?
4. What is segregation? Does it still exist? Other than schools, where have segregation battles been fought?
5. Different groups in the United States reacted differently to the Brown decision. How did African Americans react? Were all African Americans in favor of the decision? How did white Americans react? Where in the United States was the strongest reaction felt against Brown?
6. Is your school segregated? In what ways? What could you do to work against that segregation, bringing more integration to your school?
7. Do you believe in what Brown v. Board stands for? How close to — or far from — fully embracing the Brown decision are we, as a society? What else needs to happen for us to move closer to the ideals of Brown?
8. How would schools have looked in your area had the Supreme Court not ruled against segregation in 1954? How would your life, and the lives of other students, be different?