Deconstructing the Brown Myth

By Diana E. Hess

Illustrator: Katherine Streete


These are challenging days for the Brow n decision. There is an academic assault on Brown. Some are asking difficult and troubling questions about precisely how much impact Brown really had on American life.

—Law professor Burt Neuborne, 1996

I teach Brown because it is such a clear example of how a democracy, when it works the way it is supposed to, can make progress. It is obvious to my students that segregation was wrong and that the Court was right—few things in our history are just so manifestly good.

—High school social studies teacher, 2003

In June 2002, I asked 60 teachers from across the country who attended the United States Supreme Court Institutes sponsored by Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society whether they taught Brown v. Board of Education and its legacy as a matter of current controversy or as a historical conflict that was correctly decided—as borne out by its legacy.

Many seemed put off by the question, as if the very suggestion that Brown could be viewed as controversial was unthinkable. One teacher responded, “Treating Brown as a controversy would be like letting a Holocaust denier into my classroom.” Another remarked that to do so would violate her dedication to serving as an anti-racist role model for her students. A third teacher feared she would be thought of as racist if she presented Brown or its legacy as controversial.

But not all of the teachers shared these views. A fourth teacher remarked, “It’s not that I teach Brown as a mistake, but we do talk about whether integration was the right approach to improving educational opportunity. We analyze how much progress has really been made.”

That teacher’s point resonates with critiques of Brown that are attracting attention as the 50th anniversary of Brown approaches. There appears to be a contradiction between these critiques and how the case and its legacy are taught to students and the general public as grand democratic achievements. The debates swirling in civil rights organizations and in the academy also have competing perspectives about how Brown should be viewed.

There are numerous perspectives about what impact Brown has had on life in the United States, but the following summary illustrates those that have received the most attention.

Brown as Rightful Icon

This perspective is based on the opinion that the Court did the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons. The fact that Brown dealt with schools, which are powerful sites of cultural formation, clearly enhances its importance. A decision stating—in a clear and forceful manner—that what historian James Patterson calls “the very heart of constitutionally sanctioned Jim Crow” was legally and morally wrong sent a powerful democratic message that American apartheid had to end. If schools could not be segregated, then it was obvious that the other institutional supports of an immoral system would be felled as well.

Brown as Liberation Referent

Much of the glowing language used to describe Brown focuses not so much on what changes it caused at the time, but how it has become a symbol for other rights movements. For example, the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas that struck down state laws banning homosexual sodomy has been hailed by some as the Brown v. Board of Education for gay Americans.

Brown as Unfulfilled Promise

If the goal of Brown was to create equal educational opportunities for students of color through desegregation, even a cursory analysis of the current educational landscape in the United States provides evidence that the goal remains unmet. Legal scholar Jamin Raskin argues that the refusal of the Burger and Rehnquist courts to stay the course that began in Brown has resulted in the ironic and pernicious reality that “in many parts of America, there are 100 percent white suburban schools and 100 percent black or minority schools, and they are all perfectly lawful because the segregation is not commanded by the state.” In 1980, 63 percent of African-American students attended predominantly minority schools. By 1998, the figure was 70 percent. As Raskin aptly elaborates, whether the government has segregated by law or allowed it to happen in practice is a distinction that “surely escapes most elementary children.”

Brown as Well-Intentioned Error

Frustration with the difference between the progress many civil rights advocates hoped Brown would spark and the persistence of race-based unequal educational opportunities and outcomes has caused some to question the fundamental premises of Brown. Legal scholar Derrick Bell believes that instead of ordering the desegregation of schools, a better path for improving the educational opportunities for African-American students would have been to equalize the resources going into segregated schools. It is important to note that this solution might have prevented what is widely considered a particularly harmful consequence of the Brown decision—the loss of teaching positions (30,000 by one estimate) and school administrative positions for African-American educators.

Brown as Irrelevant

Some legal scholars believe Brown simply did not matter very much—that the desegregation of schools occurred largely because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gerald N. Rosenberg, a political scientist, advances this position by questioning whether litigation was the right mechanism for furthering civil rights goals. In doing so, he explicitly challenges the conventional wisdom about the power of courts in the United States, especially of the Supreme Court. According to Rosenberg, Brown failed to cause significant change because there was too little political pressure to enforce the decision—and quite a bit of pressure to resist it. Thus, it is misguided to expect the courts to act as the great engine of reform. To claim that Brown is an example of the judiciary at its majestic best is a “naïve and romantic belief in the triumph of rights over politics.”

Why have these controversies not generally entered the school curriculum? One reason is that some teachers are unaware of just how controversial Brown and its legacy are. The controversies are not reflected in most textbooks, are rarely aired at professional development activities, and are most prominent in law and political science journals that teachers do not commonly read. And because most teachers in the United States are white, they are less apt to know that within the African-American community, Brown and its legacy have been controversial for quite some time.

What critical race theorists have identified as convergence of interest may also explain why Brown is likely to be presented as an icon. According to legal scholar Derrick Bell:

The interests of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only they converge with the interests of whites. However, the Fourteenth Amendment, standing alone, will not authorize a judicial remedy providing effective racial equality for blacks where the remedy sought threatens the superior societal status of middle- and upper-class whites.

Bell is arguing that the Brown decision had particular economic and political advantages that whites in policymaking positions recognized. These advantages include the widely held view that the abolition of de jure school segregation would enhance America’s reputation in the world, that African Americans would be unwilling to serve in the military unless the formal segregationist policies were eradicated, and that economic growth in the South was being held back by racist policies. Thus, Brown is an example of what happens when interests of African Americans (for equal treatment under the law) and whites converge.

In a similar fashion, it is important to ask whose interests are served by how Brown is currently taught.

Celebrating Brown serves the interests of people who want to believe that racial discrimination was largely a problem of the past. I learned how this seemingly incongruous belief could be constructed from a high school history teacher who told me that his students could barely believe there was a time in the United States when the law was used to segregate schools. As a consequence, this teacher said that there was nothing controversial about Brown or its legacy to his students. I asked him to describe the student population in his school. He responded that virtually all of the students were white. Knowing that he lived near a racially diverse city, I asked where the students of color went to school. He told me that there was another high school—less than five miles away—where virtually all of the students were African-American.

How, I asked the teacher, could your students believe that segregation was a thing of the past, when they went to a segregated school? He responded that the students made a distinction between de jure and de facto segregation (even though they might not use those labels). That is, his students could simultaneously believe that Brown was a grand achievement because it mandated integration (thus, ridding the nation of a constitutional and moral blight) and that the school they attended was fulfilling the mandates of Brown because it was not segregated by law. To these students, the idea that Brown forced the desegregation of schools was such a powerful myth that it shrouded the reality of segregation, arguably perpetuating the same inequalities, but now without legal recourse. These white students did not have to confront continuing (and in many places, worsening) inequalities in educational opportunities that are based on race.

There are other, more laudable reasons that account for why Brown is more likely to be celebrated than examined critically. Teachers may focus on the majesty of Brown as a moral example they hope will shape their students’ views. As historian William McNeill writes, sometimes what is needed is “an appropriately idealized version of the past that may allow a group of human beings to come close to living up to its noblest ideas.” For many, Brown can deliver a number of moral messages about the nature of U.S. equality: what it is, why it is so important, and why individuals should be committed to advancing a more equal society. Some teachers may see the controversies about Brown in the world outside of school as quibbles in the academy that, if given air time, may serve to undermine the very moral commitments they are trying to build in students. And Brown, this argument continues, is a part of U.S. history that young people can easily feel proud of because it serves as such a powerful example that wrongs can be righted. Thus, the iconization of Brown is a perfect example of a redemptive narrative. The story of Brown, with its powerful heroes, its injustices overcome, and its unanimous decision, is employed to do much more than simply teach young people about a court case. It is used as a moral example.

The Harms of Iconization

I believe the arguments against teaching Brown as a triumphalist tale are compelling. It’s intellectually dishonest, it downplays the importance of race, and it overemphasizes the role of the Supreme Court.

Controversies around Brown are not simply academic concerns. Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP have held conferences about whether school desegregation is a failed policy. And debate continues to revolve around affirmative action. Both are evidence that the legacy of Brown is being fought on a terrain that is rife with conflict. For teachers (and textbooks) to present Brown and its legacy as non-controversial is intellectually dishonest and arguably a form of indoctrination.

In addition to the intellectual dishonesty of presenting Brown as non-controversial, the case and its legacy could provide especially compelling vehicles for infusing authentic issues related to race into the school curriculum. We know that the subject of race presents pedagogical challenges. Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the nation’s foremost experts on education issues about diversity writes, “Issues of race are avoided in U.S. classrooms for the same reasons that they are avoided in everyday life. We have not found ways to talk about them without feelings of rancor and guilt.” But ignoring issues does not solve them, and ignoring those related to race signals to students of color that the issues of particular concern to them are not important enough for the curriculum. Given the prominence of Brown in the curriculum, denying its controversies sends the especially strong “official” message that racial inequalities are a past problem now solved, instead of part and parcel of the contemporary reality of the world in which we live.

And issues related to race may be more productively discussed in schools than in other venues. As political scientist Amy Gutmann writes, “Schools have a much greater capacity than most parents and voluntary associations for teaching children to reason out loud about disagreements that arise in democratic politics.” Public schools’ greater capacity lies in the fact that they contain more ideological diversity than one would expect to find in many families or associations. This diversity of views provides a good setting in which to promote “rational deliberations of competing conceptions of the good life and the good society.”

A third harmful consequence of the iconization of Brown is that it may promote misconceptions about the Supreme Court and its role in American life. Because of Brown’s prominence in the curriculum, it is likely that young people form ideas about the Court from this case that become part of their conceptual framework for thinking about the Court generally. If that occurs, it is especially problematic because generalizations typically drawn from this case are contested at best, and at worst, outright myths.

One such generalization is that the Court’s primary and more frequently enacted function in U.S. democracy is to liberate people who are suffering under the heavy hand of a discriminatory majority. Historian Michael Klarman traced this misconception to Brown when he wrote, “The conventional assessment of the Court’s countermajoritarian capacity has been distorted, I believe, by a single decision— Brown. Because that ruling rescued us from our racist past, the conventional story line runs, the Court plainly can and does play the role of heroic defender of minority rights from majoritarian oppression.” Thus, the conventional presentation of Brown reinforces a particular view of the Supreme Court as an agent of social justice.

How Brown Could Be Taught

I believe that we need to rethink how Brown is typically presented in the school curriculum. I’ll outline below three alternative ways of teaching Brown that may clarify the distinction I am drawing between simply celebrating Brown and its legacy and teaching about its complexities.

The first approach is to directly infuse the controversies about Brown that exist in the academy into the school curriculum. It’s possible to teach students the different ways in which Brown and its legacy are viewed and have them deliberate core questions about them. For example, what accounts for the differing interpretations of Brown? Whose interests are advanced by each interpretation? Which interpretations do students think have the most merit? And are there other interpretations they can create? The main point here is to engage students directly in deliberating about the controversies—not to suggest that there is one right answer.

A second approach that could complement the first is to use Brown as a launching pad for investigating contemporary issues related to race in the United States. For example, students could examine what accounts for the resegregation that Gary Orfield and John Yun at the Harvard Civil Rights Project have so thoroughly documented. Students could deliberate an array of policy options that have been advanced to address the persistent educational inequalities in the United States, Brown being only one of these.

Another approach is to have students focus on what happened in their own schools and communities as a consequence of Brown. As an example, a group of students in an experimental civics course at Northwestern High School in Maryland spent the spring of 2003 creating an oral history project on school integration and resegregation in their county from 1955 to 2000. [See the website they created at]

The class, composed entirely of students of color, learned techniques of oral history and then interviewed people who had insider knowledge about what transpired during this time. The students interviewed an African American who had been the first to integrate a white school in 1956, a civil rights lawyer who had sued the county to institute busing, and teachers. The students heard a wide range of sharply competing opinions about how Brown and its legacy played out in their county. One of the course teachers, Peter Levine, explained that “A major goal [of the project] is to help our students see history not only as the record of state actions, powerful people, and downtrodden victims, but also as a story of communities making difficult decisions.” Students discussed possible answers to the question, “What should have been done to address school segregation in 1955?” The students generated a long list ranging from “leave it alone” to “integrating the teaching staff first” to “busing to achieve equal racial distribution in all schools.”

This oral history project captured the controversies about Brown and its legacy, and it speaks volumes about why iconicizing Brown is inauthentic to the world beyond school—the larger political world that we need to teach students how to negotiate and shape. Pretending an issue is uncontroversial does not make it so and deprives students of the opportunity to genuinely deliberate competing points of view on issues as significant as the relationship between race and educational opportunity. When teachers teach controversial questions as if there were one best answer, they deprive their students of the opportunity to do the necessary work of democracy and make them dangerously susceptible to blindly accepting the political conclusions of others. Even if the decision to deny a controversy is made with the best of intentions (and I believe that is often the case when Brown is celebrated in the curriculum), I fear the result because orthodoxy is, by definition, the enemy of inquiry. Redemptive narratives, such as the presentation of Brown and its effects as unequivocally positive, may become historical comfort foods. While soothing an immediate need, ultimately they will lull us away from teaching young people how to deal with the important and thorny issues that are part and parcel of the world in which we live.

Diana E. Hess ( is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This paper was presented at a conference titled “Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on Feb. 4-6, 2004. Thanks to Gloria Ladson-Billings, Simone Schweber, Keith Barton, and Peter Levine, who provided extremely helpful feedback on earlier drafts. For a fully referenced copy of this paper, contact the author.