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70 Years After Brown v Board of Education: Progress and Persistent Challenges

Brown v Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education was a groundbreaking decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, ending racial segregation in public schools.

Posted: May 28, 2024 at 3:25 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Seventy years ago, Brown v Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision, declared state-sanctioned segregation in public schools unconstitutional. This historic ruling, often cited as one of the Supreme Court’s most revered decisions, marked a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and aimed to dismantle the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Yet, as we commemorate this anniversary, the landscape of school integration reveals a complex picture of progress, setbacks, and ongoing challenges.

The Legacy of Brown v Board of Education

The unanimous decision in Brown v Board of Education in 1954 was a monumental step towards equality. It merged five cases in which Black students faced inferior educational conditions compared to their White peers. The Court declared that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” sparking a national effort to integrate schools. The initial impact was profound, as integration peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, significantly reducing racial segregation in schools.

Jackie Beckley, born in 1961, was among the first Black students to attend previously all-White schools. Her experience highlighted the progress and the personal challenges that accompanied desegregation. She often faced discrimination which underlined the deep-seated racial tensions that persisted even after legal barriers were removed. Beckley recalls the duality of her experience: the pride of breaking barriers and the emotional toll of daily hostility from some peers and educators.

“You’re very much aware of the fact that you’re not like everybody else. You’re different,” she said.

Students were usually nice to her, she recalled, but if there was an argument, someone might hurl the n-word.

Persistent Segregation and Evolving Views

Today, school segregation remains a significant issue. According to a Washington Post-Ipsos survey, nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe more should be done to integrate schools, a sentiment that has grown steadily since 1973. However, opinions on how to achieve this are divided. While 75 percent of White respondents believe that integration has improved the quality of education for Black students, only 63 percent of Black respondents agree, down from 70 percent in 1994.

David Banks, Chancellor of New York City schools, captures the current sentiment among some educational leaders.

“I do not believe Black kids need to go to school with White kids to get a good education. I fundamentally reject that.”

Instead, Banks advocates for directing more resources and opportunities to high-poverty schools serving students of color.

The challenge of achieving meaningful integration is compounded by socioeconomic factors. Many Black leaders argue that the focus should shift from racial integration to ensuring equitable funding and resources for schools in high-poverty areas. Candace Northern, a mother of four from Sacramento, said the cases’ intention was good but didn’t make sense if the neighborhoods were still segregated.

“The intention behind [Brown] was good, but it really didn’t make sense to integrate the schools if you were still going to have separate neighborhoods and then only give the resources to the rich people.”

This view is supported by data showing that educational outcomes for Black students have declined in recent years. In Kansas, for example, the percentage of Black students below grade level in math increased from 42 percent in 2015 to 57 percent in 2023. Similar disparities exist in other states, showing the need for systemic changes beyond mere racial integration.

Many advocates emphasize the importance of culturally responsive teaching and curriculum that reflect the diverse histories and experiences of all students, suggesting that representation within the educational content is just as crucial as the structural changes.

Legal and Policy Shifts

In recent decades, the legal landscape has also shifted. More recent Supreme Court rulings have limited the ability of school officials to deliberately mix students by race. As a result, integration advocates have turned to state courts to challenge segregation based on district boundary lines, which often reinforce racial and economic divides. Cases in New Jersey, Minnesota, and New York are currently testing this strategy, with advocates arguing that true educational equity requires addressing these underlying structural issues.

A new organization, Brown’s Promise, is leading efforts to use state constitutions to challenge segregation and promote a “thorough and efficient” education for all students. Co-founder Ary Amerikaner emphasizes that concentrating poverty in a few districts undermines the goal of equitable education: “We cannot keep concentrating poverty in a small number of districts and expecting the adults to work miracles.”

Reflections on Progress and Future Directions

Despite the significant legal and social strides made since 1954, the promise of Brown v. Board of Education remains unfulfilled for many. President Joe Biden’s recent commemoration of the anniversary included meetings with surviving plaintiffs and their families.

As Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of lead plaintiff Oliver Brown, noted, the original plaintiffs “were taking a risk when they signed on to be part of this case.”

As we look to the future, the path forward involves not only continued efforts to integrate schools but also a renewed focus on ensuring that all schools, regardless of their racial or socioeconomic composition, receive the resources they need to provide high-quality education. This commitment to equity and excellence in education is essential for fulfilling the promise that Brown v. Board of Education began seventy years ago.

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