Brown 50 Years Later

A Rethinking Schools Editorial

illustration: JORDIN ISIP

It’s hard to believe that only a half century ago the United States Supreme Court banned legal segregation. Ironically, many of the schools named after the very people who fought segregation—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks—are among the most segregated schools in our communities.

The much-lauded goals of Brown v. Board of Education were undermined by resistance from whites as well as the economic and social structures that continue to maintain white supremacy. White policymakers dragged their feet in implementing equitable desegregation and placed the burden for most desegregation plans on African-American children. Five white members of the Supreme Court ruled against metropolitan desegregation in Detroit ( Milliken v. Bradley, 1974), essentially closing the door on desegregation across district lines.

Government officials, real-estate brokers, banks, and businesses refused to adopt policies that would have desegregated the workforce and neighborhoods and redistributed wealth. And as black students started enrolling in previously all-white schools, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of white families removed their children from schools and neighborhoods, opting for the privileged sanctuaries of private schools or suburbia.

Fifty years after the historic Brown decision, many students remain segregated between predominantly white suburbs and cities of color. Within the districts with diverse student populations, admission requirements, “open enrollment,” and “neighborhood school” policies segregate students into different schools. And even within schools with multiracial student populations, tracking, special education procedures, and “gifted” or “advanced placement” programs too often disguise racial segregation and discrimination.

What is particularly disheartening is that many people seem to have given up the notion that our society should and could become more desegregated in racial and economic terms. Even the most liberal think that “little can be done” to overcome segregation.

Rethinking Schools believes that our society must not abandon the goals of equality and justice that drove the Civil Rights Movement. We must, in fact, rebuild an even broader social movement to dismantle the policies and practices that sustain white supremacy. A central goal of such a renewed movement must include the development of institutional means through which people of color can exercise real economic and political power in determining the future of our society. And people of color should have full accessibility to all schools, institutions, and communities.

We support policies that promote multiracial, diversified schools. We do this not because of an antiquated and fundamentally racist notion that children of color can only learn while sitting next to white children. Rather, we support desegregated institutions and schools because history has shown that power and resources in a racist society follow people with white skin. In this society “separate” has always been and will continue to be “unequal.”

And we believe that the future of any multiracial democracy depends on the youngest members of society developing anti-racist, pro-equality values. Our decades of teaching experience have shown us that such attitudes are most effectively developed in quality, multiracial, genuinely desegregated schools.

Scholar/activist Cornel West said a few years ago, “Today, 86 percent of white suburban Americans live in neighborhoods that are less than one percent black, meaning that the prospects for the country depend largely on how its cities fare in the hands of a suburban electorate. There is no escape from our interracial interdependence, yet enforced racial hierarchy dooms us as a nation to collective paranoia and hysteria—the unmaking of any democratic order.”

The five decades since Brown offer abundant evidence that our nation cannot desegregate its schools without seriously challenging racial segregation and economic disparities in all of society: housing, jobs, recreation, transportation, health care, and religious institutions. Thus school desegregation must be only one part of a much larger and ambitious project: the redistribution of wealth and the racial and economic desegregation of all major institutions in our society.

In the educational arena this would mean equal and adequate school funding, anti-racist teaching practices, a substantial increase in the number of teachers of color, and an end to discriminatory tracking and admission policies.

But such policies would have to be set in an even broader political program of an expanded commitment to the public sphere, wealth redistribution, organizing the unorganized, progressive taxation, job creation, low-income housing, an end to racist lending and development policies that have led to a suburban/urban racial divide, universal health care, and public transportation. In the broadest sense this would mean the renunciation of the free-trade, “neo-liberal” policies that are destroying working-class and poor communities throughout the world.

Demanding such changes would be in keeping with a strong current that ran through the Civil Rights Movement, but which is not usually emphasized in school history texts. Activist Paul Robeson spoke of not only wanting “equal rights” but an “equal share.” The great march on Washington marking the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was officially called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.” And as early as 1965, soon after he returned from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement connected issues of racial justice at home to international justice abroad. They spoke out strongly against the deepening war in Vietnam. King called for a “radical revolution of values” and for “the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”

We believe that the Brown decision—which was both an outgrowth of and a spark to the Civil Rights Movement—can best be remembered on its 50th anniversary by recommitting ourselves to the movement’s goals of “jobs and justice” and a genuinely desegregated, equal society.

Given the current political climate, many people might think this impossible. We disagree.

It is no less impossible than the daunting tasks faced by activists at other times in U.S. history—the abolitionist, women’s rights, and labor movements come to mind. And of course, the early civil rights pioneers who risked their lives to rid the nation of the scourge of legal segregation. They had to fight not only powerful business interests and deeply ingrained racism, but the terrorism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils.

As educators, we need to think deeply about the kind of society we’re equipping our students to build. When we’re at our best, educators are the conscience of the country. Today we have a special responsibility to express our conviction at every opportunity that a profoundly more equal society is both desirable and attainable.

In many ways, educators are already contributing to building a powerful social movement for equality. For example, the “education not incarceration” activism connects educational inequality with the injustices of the prison industry. Teachers are involved in organizations like Jobs with Justice and livable wage campaigns, immigrant rights, and anti-sweatshop efforts. And, of course, teachers all over the country are developing curricula that reflect the visionary aims of the Civil Rights Movement.

On this 50th anniversary of Brown let’s recommit ourselves to the goals of equality and justice that have inspired such extraordinary activism throughout our country’s history.