Brown, Latinos and Equality

Long before the Supreme Court ruling in 1954, Latino activists were fighting segregation and expanding the definition of equal education

An Interview with Tony Baez by Catherine Capellaro

Luis “Tony” Baez has been active in the struggle for equal education in Milwaukee for decades. He currently serves as Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Baez was born in Puerto Rico and was active in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. He has spent years organizing parents and communities to make schools responsive to the needs of bilingual students.

RS: What was the impact of the Brown decision on Latino students in the United States?

Baez: I think it’s been quite significant. The issues that were raised in the Brown decision from a legal standpoint, in terms of equal access and an end to segregated education, were issues that were not unfamiliar to Latinos. In fact, prior to Brown, there had been numerous cases by Latinos that went to the courts since the 1920s arguing that segregated education was bad for Latinos. They were not acquiring English language skills or getting the same type of content or opportunities that whites were.

RS: What were the cases that helped lay the groundwork for Brown?

Baez: Texas had a whole mess of cases. There’s one particular case, Salvatierra, in 1933, where Latinos went even beyond the arguments that had been raised by African Americans in terms of segregated education. African Americans had argued those cases as a function of “let’s end segregation.” Latinos in the 1930s began to talk about the pedagogy. Salvatierra is one of the first federal cases where they brought to court a specialist in assessment, George Sanchez, a prominent Latino educator of the 1930s and 1940s, who appeared as an expert witness in a ton of desegregation cases in the Southwest. George presented evidence that not assessing students’ needs—in terms of language proficiency, in terms of knowing what their needs were—was also a form of segregation.

In Mendez v. Westminster (1946), the issue was the segregation of Mexican children in Orange County, Calif. Mendez was argued successfully in the courts, and a federal court ruled that there had been intentional segregation of Mexican-American children with intent to deprive them of equal access and equal opportunity in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Mendez became one of the first cases cited by the plaintiffs in the Brown cases when they went before the Supreme Court.

What I’m trying to say here is that there’s a myth. People think that Brown was the first determining case in issues of equal education, opportunity, and access—and an end to segregated education. Latinos were no strangers to this. The fact that Mendez was a precedent-setting case at the federal level cited in the Brown litigation is a good example.

RS: What was Brown’s broader impact?

Baez: It created the national consciousness that we have to eradicate segregation. In education, it provided opportunities for those who had been arguing that what had to happen was to go back to court with new approaches to better define what that meant.

Brown began to shape policy at the national level. In the early 1960s, there was a lot of debate on how to deal with the vestiges of segregation and an attempt to provide guidance to school systems all over the country. Lyndon B. Johnson finally signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included language that communities utilized immediately after that to make the claim that now that we were moving toward an end to segregated education, there were other issues we needed to address.

And in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was really grounded in the principles of Brown. The government now needed to be involved in trying to resolve some of these things. In 1967, Hispanics from all over the country worked with senators from the Southwest to promote the idea that we had to have a bilingual education policy. That’s where the Bilingual Education Act, Title XII of the ESEA, was enacted into law. It provided funding and support to school districts that wanted to engage in activities to eradicate the wrongs that had been caused prior to Brown.

Another important case came before the court in 1973: Keyes v. DenverKeyes was the first major northern case where plaintiffs tested the value of Brown. Will it work for us? And they used this to make changes in the school district. In Keyes, initially the plaintiffs were black. Then Hispanics came in and said, “What are you guys talking about? There are more of us than there are African Americans. So you guys have got to let us intervene.” So they intervened and brought together for the first time a lot of Latino experts who came to the court and said this was a lot more complex than just providing equal facilities. What we were dealing with here were school systems that, by virtue of the fact that they existed as segregated entities, created cultures that denied opportunities for learning.

RS: What was the impact of the Lau v. Nichols (1969) decision and how does it connect to the Brown decision?

Baez: Chinese Americans in San Francisco ended up in court because of Brown. African Americans had filed suit against the San Francisco school district and had argued that they wanted desegregated education. The Chinese felt that was not for them. They wanted to keep Chinatown. They wanted to stay together culturally and linguistically. They had negotiated for bilingual programs, for ESL programs. So they went to court to try to prevent the court from imposing a desegregation plan that would dismantle what they had done.

When the case reached the 9th Circuit, an interesting debate emerged. It emerged not because of the lawyers that were defending the Chinese, but because educators from all over the country started sending amicus [friend-of-the-court] briefs.They said the court needed to take into consideration that implementing Brown does not just mean creating this mix of people with no consideration for the particular educational needs of these kids—especially when they don’t speak English. That’s what found its way into the language used in the Supreme Court decision on Lau.

Lau is really legally about endorsing the federal government’s authority to promulgate rules to correct problems that emerge out of Brown and other situations. It sets the tone for a whole mess of bilingual decisions that were made after that. All of those decisions were based on a memorandum that the federal government released, the May 5, 1970 Memorandum, that was intended to provide guidance on how to meet the needs of language minority populations.

RS: Today, Latino students are the most segregated student population in the United States, according to Gary Orfield at the Harvard Civil Rights Project. What happened?

Baez: Communities are changing, and demographics are changing. Communities throughout the country have changed their positions on desegregation because even though they were seeing that school districts were working at efforts at integrating minority groups, that had not rendered the kinds of results that many communities were expecting. School districts were very slow in changing how they were organized, their pedagogies, and the people that taught the kids. So people were becoming discouraged with the idea that integration alone was the solution. They wanted more. They were looking for ways to change school systems that went beyond the mandate of Brown—because Brown had not defined what integrated education was all about. That was beyond the reach of the court.

The demographics of these communities were also creating situations where more affluent and middle-class whites that had options in terms of mobility started to move to suburban communities and the concentration of African Americans and Hispanics in city school districts became larger and larger. We’re going to become more and more segregated by virtue of demographics and economic conditions that we cannot control. If we don’t have the money to move to the suburbs and they do, we stay behind. So how do we force the issue so that school districts now address our needs, not in the context of what Brown began, but in this new reality?

RS: What do you see as the central issues as we continue the quest for equal education?

Baez: We have to continue to work to transform schools. We can create environments where we promote diversity, where white children, black children, and Hispanic children see the benefit of all coming together—to learn more, to be more global.

And we need—and it’s happening all over the country—to revisit the idea of schools, how they function, how they are organized, how they teach, the content of what they teach, how they involve community. How do we govern them so that we break away from rules that were created particularly to protect various interest groups or issues, sometimes teachers, sometimes administrators, sometimes others? We need to learn how to do this in the public realm. By creating private means of doing this we risk not having access to the public discourse that happens when public resources are invested into entities that have to be accountable. That’s why I disagree with voucher proponents.

RS: How has Brown served your activism?

Baez: If we had not had Brown, we would not have had the debate leading to this. I take issue with people who argue that issues of desegregation were misplaced. That’s nonsense. When I became involved with school issues in the early 1970s, I was trying to figure it out. The one tool that I had as a parent at that time to be able to force myself on a reluctant school administration that didn’t want parents there was to invoke the law and to say “You have to desegregate. You have to provide bilingual education.” It became our obligation as a community to organize, to become educated, to learn how to struggle with the issues. It forced us as communities to think through things and argue things. And one of the issues we raised is “forget the lawyers!” We need to work through a process to develop leadership that stays with us for a while, parents that can argue the cases so that we can come up with new ways of doing this.

RS: How does the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act hold up to its legislative predecessor, the ESEA?

Baez: There’s a huge difference between the two. ESEA was very enlightened legislation because it was supportive legislation. It did not create situations where the federal government was specifically directing pedagogy. When Title I came about, they were doing a lot of remedial stuff, taking kids out of classrooms and providing them with services. Basically, the legislation said school districts that do that to remediate the limited proficiencies of kids in reading and writing will get funding to do that. It was not a mandate. Even the bilingual education act was not a mandate.

It’s very different from NCLB. The different kind of thinking is that these school systems, these teachers, these communities don’t know what the heck they’re doing. “We do, we’re going to tell you how to do it and we’re going to tell you how to be accountable.” One of the things that has suffered as a consequence of NCLB is bilingual education, because they have created impediments to the flexibility that schools had, thanks to ESEA.