Imani Perry, the author of “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States,” is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University. In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education opinion, the Supreme Court declared that state laws requiring segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. But change didn’t come easily, nor are schools all that integrated today. Sixty years after Brown, let’s examine some myths about the landmark court decision.
1. Brown v. Board of Education was only about school segregation.
The case indeed concerned segregation in public schools, but its impact went far beyond education. Brown overturned the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared that segregated train cars did not violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. While it wasn’t immediately clear, Brown would eventually dismantle segregation in all public facilities such as train cars, restaurants, department stores, and more. The case emboldened civil rights protesters, who found the federal courts on their side for the first time in nearly 100 years of struggle and defeat.
Before the Brown ruling, Jim Crow laws meant that schooling was segregated and wasn’t even available. As historian James Anderson has noted, high schools in many areas were provided only for white children. After Brown, some municipalities were forced to provide high school education for African American youth for the first time.
The case was also the first step in allowing significant numbers of Asians, Latinos, Africans, and Caribbean people to immigrate to the United States. The Civil Rights Act, so diligently fought for by African American activists in the decade following Brown, led Congress to change racially discriminatory immigration policies. Immigrants could no longer be legally Jim Crowed, either.
2. Brown v. Board ended school segregation.
American schools are as segregated today as 40 years ago, largely because of residential segregation and the racial gaps in wealth and employment. In the 1970s, white flight to affluent suburbs weakened cities’ tax base, hitting black migrants to Northern cities hard. Their schools became under-funded and more isolated than in the Southern Jim Crow states they had fled. Today, the Northeast has the most racially homogenous schools; New York state and Washington, D.C., have the most segregated schools — by race and economic status. And since there is no constitutional right to an education, the federal courts cannot mandate that schools get equal funding. Within schools, advanced programs have become forms of segregation. One study found that, as of 2006, African American students were underrepresented by 48 percent in gifted education; Hispanic students are underrepresented by 38 percent.
The courts have interpreted Brown to mean that explicit considerations of race are unconstitutional. As a result, efforts to desegregate — such as affirmative action at the college level or plans to create more diverse primary and secondary schools — are considered unconstitutional. Therefore, states are hindered when they try to integrate schools further.
3. School segregation was a problem only for African Americans in the South.
Although the starkest Jim Crow laws were found in the Deep South, school segregation was practiced worldwide. Oliver and Darlene Brown, the lead plaintiffs in Brown v. Board, brought the case in Topeka, Kan. Two of the other cases joined in the Brown litigation were in Delaware and the District. And the first state court case about racial segregation in schools was in Massachusetts: Sarah C. Roberts v. the City of Boston (1849). That ruling declared that it was legal for Boston not to admit 5-year-old Sarah Roberts, African American, to her all-white neighborhood school. Although Boston officially stopped having separate schools shortly before the Civil War, in the 1970s, it was the site of one of the most vicious and violent desegregation battles.
Brown v. Board of Education had a national and multiracial impact. Before the Supreme Court decision, Mexican Americans were segregated in practice, if not by law, in California, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado, to justify native Spanish-speakers. And in several parts of the country, Asian Americans and Native Americans were also segregated.
4. African Americans were united in their support for school desegregation.
African Americans generally rejoiced over the Brown ruling and the other changes it spurred. However, several African American critics didn’t want school integration to be a priority in the struggle for racial justice. For instance, Zora Neale Hurston argued that fighting for integration suggested that African American schools — notwithstanding their dedicated and trained faculty members and their role as centers of African American life — were inferior. “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?” she wrote in 1955.
W.E.B. Du Bois also had reservations. In a 1935 article, he argued that “a separate Negro school, where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black . . . is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats.” Many others warned that desegregation would mean the loss of an important black professional class. They were correct: Many black school administrators and teachers lost their jobs in the process of desegregation. And many communities lost control of their schools. Schools remain segregated, but they are no longer the community pillars they once were. In that sense, African Americans sacrificed their most important social institution outside of the church.
Affirmative action was imagined as a strategy to create integrated industries, professions, colleges, and universities. For hundreds of years, people of color had been systematically excluded from institutions and opportunities. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, affirmative action started to crack open the door of opportunity. However, since 1977 the Supreme Court has been steadily limiting the policy’s scope. At present, only elite private institutions have the resources to create the very narrowly tailored affirmative action policies allowed by the court. The vast majority of public colleges and universities — which have a duty to serve a broad cross-section of the population — are hamstrung in their efforts to equalize educational opportunity.
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