The Future of Brown

Victor Goode revisits the history of one of the linchpins of the civil rights movement and asks, what is Brownu2019s relevance for the next decade?

By Victor Goode Jul 21, 2004

By the time this article is read the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education will be well underway. Last year the academic press began the process of commemorating Brown with a number articles in education journals, law reviews and academic conferences. Most commentators will, of course, celebrate one of this country’s most important cases and lament that the vision of Brown to end segregated schooling in America remains unfulfilled. These two versions of Brown, as moral compass and unfulfilled promise, are both accurate. Seldom has the Supreme Court issued an opinion with such profound implications for the direction of our country, and seldom has a court order been so persistently evaded by a combination of determined opposition and eroding judicial support. While over these 50 years Brown has been critiqued from as many different directions as the geometric facets of a snowflake, today it remains a cornerstone of our legal culture, but one whose relevance for the next decade is in serious doubt.

From a purely legal standpoint Brown was remarkably sparse on the law. The entire decision is only a few pages long and even the principle litigants were shocked at the brevity of the opinion. But in its brief discussion, the Court issued a decree that resonates in the memory of most of us who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s. It declared that in the field of public education “separate but equal has no place.” However, in that simple majestic command lies one of Brown’s greatest ironies. The year 1954 will forever mark the beginning of the end of the legal structure of American apartheid known as “Jim Crow.” Although the decision was directed only at public education, it soon became the precedent for the legal assault on segregation in other areas of public life. In many ways Brown was far more successful in ending segregation in those arenas than it was in changing our public schools. With the civil rights movement at its peak, federal judges began applying Brown’s reasoning far beyond public education, and Congress finally responded in 1965 with the passage of the most comprehensive civil rights act in nearly 100 years. A social revolution had been unleashed, and Brown was one of its linchpins.

A Story of Unredeemed Promise

It’s not surprising that, despite Brown’s order to the district courts to end segregation in our schools, resistance to the new order was tenacious, ingenious and often violent. In fact, Brown’s 20th, 30th and 40th anniversaries have each served as benchmarks and bitter reminders of just how stubborn the resistance to school integration has been. While opposition was expected in the South and resulted in the Supreme Court modifying its decision in Brown II with the language for desegregation to proceed only with “all deliberate speed,” by the time the Court shifted its attention from South to North the reaction was often just as resolute. Whether the opponents rallied under the banner of “preserving neighborhood schools” or maintaining “quality education” or “parental choice,” the results were the same. Whites were reluctant to go to school with blacks and would back up that opposition with lawsuits, legislative proposals, foot dragging of every sort by the courts, and as a last resort, fleeing integrated school districts for the predominantly white suburbs.

Gary Orfield and Jon T. Yuen at the Harvard Center for Civil Rights have tracked this retrograde in school desegregation efforts and revealed a troubling state of affairs. Their studies show that today, more than 70 percent of the nation’s black students now attend predominantly minority schools. Another dramatic and largely ignored effect of resegregation has been on Latino students. In 1968 only a little more than 20 percent of Latino students were enrolled in intensely segregated schools. In 1998 approximately 75.6 percent of Latino students attended predominantly minority schools. This resegregation is occurring at a time when our nation’s public school system as a whole has never been more diverse. While whites make up only 60 percent of the children in the nation’s public schools, except in the South and Southwest, most white students have little contact with students of color. As metropolitan school districts have become overwhelmingly black and brown, they are now surrounded by suburban schools that are overwhelmingly white, according to Orfield and Yuen’s study “Brown: Dream or Nightmare.” Today the Court has declared that segregation that is not the direct result of intentional conduct by public officials is beyond the reach of the Brown mandate. This means that discrimination in housing, employment, home insurance, bank redlining, allocation of transportation funds, all of which have created this modern phenomenon known as the urban ghetto, will not affect the court’s narrow view of what constitutes unlawful school segregation.

However, the often tortuous story of Brown’s unredeemed promise is not only a tale of judicial retreat and white flight. One of Brown’s most controversial findings was from the testimony of Dr. Kenneth Clark and his now infamous “doll study.” Dr. Clark used a color preference experiment using black and white dolls to demonstrate that segregated schools had a harmful psychological impact on black students. His study, while based on other social science data that supported his premise, revealed that black children showed a preference for dolls with white features. Unfortunately, one of the controversies of his study was that black children in northern “integrated” schools showed a slightly higher preference for this color disassociation than children in segregated southern schools. The Court seized on his testimony and issued another of its most memorable phrases, declaring that “to separate them [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone (emphasis added). ”

That phrase has been cited by black critics of Brown as the epitome of liberal paternalism and the reason that the burdens of most school integration efforts have been thrust on their shoulders. The implication drawn from this language was that black children were suffering from some form of social maladjustment. Whether it was “caused” by segregation is beside the point. This notion of blacks as “victims” in need of association with whites as the necessary remedy to truly “make them equal” invokes racist images of the alleged civilizing influence of the white over the African that is as old as slavery itself. Oblivious to any paternalist implications, the Supreme Court used this idea that black children were being harmed by segregation, and harmed more severely by imposed legal segregation, as a central rationale for abandoning the “separate but equal” doctrine. Despite the flaws in the Clark study, it was clear even 50 years ago that the institutional racism of forced segregated schooling was harming a lot more than the self-esteem of black students.

So, where does that leave Brown and the legal mandate to achieve equality through the integration of our public schools? It is precisely this question that remains unresolved today.

Segregation and Inequality

If equality was linked to the desegregation of our schools in 1954, do we have equality today in this era of resegregation? For many this question has shifted the debate from integration to “equality of educational opportunity” and an effort to measure the distribution of educational resources rather than a distribution of students. While standardized testing has revealed an achievement gap between inner city and predominantly white suburban schools, the causes for the educational under-performance of non-white children, particularly in this era of resegregation, is less clear. At least one study, from Educational Trust, has found that “by the end of the fourth grade, African American, Latino and low income students are already two years behind grade level…by the time they reach the twelfth grade they are four years behind.” More recent research has for obvious reasons focused on whether integrated schools really do in fact provide “equal educational opportunity.” If it can be shown that there is a link between integration and academic performance (equal opportunity), then it supports the basic thesis of Brown. This research would also assuage anxious white parents who might be more willing to participate in an experiment in school integration as long as the quality of their own child’s education would not be compromised. Black parents who understandably want no part of a missionary effort might be convinced that integration is really worth fighting for if there really is a strong correlation between integration and educational quality. Unfortunately, while there certainly are good arguments for integrated public schools beyond formal equality, especially in this age of globalization, the data supporting a clear link between integration and academic performance is inconclusive despite nearly 25 years of studies.

Brown focused only on the integration of our schools, but the next evolution of Brown must reach beyond one institution and recognize the broader realities of structural racism that plague the education of children of color. Structural racism is racism underneath and across society, permeating its entire history, culture and institutions. Our culture, including our education, perpetuates, normalizes and legitimates the effects of racism, while making them invisible to the narrow legal definition of unlawful segregation. New studies offer a clear example of this through the connection between the health and the education of children of color.

A Public Health Crisis

While Dr. Kenneth Clark’s efforts in the Brown case focused on the always difficult to prove issue of psychological harm, recent research has taken a different direction as it looks at the physical harm that institutional racism creates. These new studies have begun to explore the relationship between race, class, poverty and stress from a public health perspective. The next link in this chain just might be how educational achievement is affected by the stress of discrimination. While much more research needs to be done before these studies reach a clear conclusion, their preliminary findings point toward a public health rationale for school desegregation efforts.

In Brown’s aftermath, our metropolitan school districts have not only remained segregated, they have also become concentrations of urban poverty. Today almost 29 percent of blacks live below the federal poverty threshold and 33 percent live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Latino students on average attend schools where 44 percent of the students are poor. We have known for some time that poor neighborhoods often correlate with substandard schooling. For example, schools with predominately students of color are on average twice as large as white schools, have a 15 percent larger class size, maintain a lower quality and remedial curriculum and attract less qualified teachers, according to Orfield and Yuen. In this mix of school data, we now have recent studies showing that these same neighborhoods also have an alarming increase in chronic health problems. In a recent New York Times article, researchers revealed that in many poor urban (black/brown) communities, even young people are becoming afflicted with chronic diseases and dying at rates similar to those of a Third World country. Asthma rates alone are at an epidemic level.

While initial reactions linked these results to the well-known disparity in health care between the rich and poor, that view failed to explain all the varieties of deteriorating health that were occurring in poor urban communities. Although some scientists still hold to the deprivation of services explanation, others now believe that we have created a combination of social and environmental conditions in poor communities as stark as if a line had been drawn around them. On one side of the line are middle class residents with the normal societal distribution of illnesses. But on the other are the poor with a dramatic prevalence of heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure, diabetes and other illnesses that seem to be tied in some way to increased prolonged exposure to stress. While school-age children have not been isolated in this population for separate study, we do know that many of their illnesses that manifest later in life have their origins in childhood or even at birth. Added to these reports on concentrated poverty and health are other studies that point toward institutional racism creating this harm, including its impact on school-age children.

Racial discrimination or racist events in the lives of African Americans have now been isolated as a special debilitating health factor. Reports have begun to measure the impact of racism as a specific stress factor that impacts physical as well as emotional health. This phenomenon called stress is not simply how we feel or react to events. While our affect is a part of the picture, there is also a clear biochemical reaction to stress. When we experience stresses on an occasional basis, there is generally no corresponding negative health impact. But when we are subjected to prolonged exposure to stress, we literally begin to wear our bodies down. While this is true of all of life’s stresses, this new research has pinpointed racist events, such as discrimination, as especially debilitating. The prolonged, grinding daily impact of institutional racism as a special form of stress may now be a major factor explaining this dramatic deterioration in the health of people of color, according to authors David Williams, Michael Spencer, and James Jackson in their study “Race, Stress and Physical Health.” While the Supreme Court might not recognize these events as proof of discrimination in a narrow legal sense, our biochemistry reacts to the stress of discrimination and creates long-term deleterious effects.

What remains to be determined is whether the unmistakable pattern of institutional racism experienced by children of color in our ghetto school districts can be linked to the host of illnesses they are beginning to manifest even at an early age. If it can, then the new quest for equal educational opportunity may be based on the right of our children to be free from the institutional racism of imposed educational isolation.

So what does this mean for the future of Brown? While Dr. Clark began with a focus on issues of self-image in black children 50 years ago, we now know that there is a clear relationship between race, poverty and poorly performing inner-city school districts well beyond the psychological factors. We are beginning to understand that those very same communities also suffer numerous forms of stress, especially the now documented stress from institutional racism that created these closed zones of poverty. This is structural racism, not formal legal discrimination but racism across institutions. And we now better understand the link between that form of racism and the clear measurable physical harm that it causes. In 1954 we called that harm the denial of equal protection under the law. At Brown’s next anniversary the struggle for equality just might be targeted at educational racism, our national public health crisis.