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70 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

Seven decades ago, U.S. civil rights history was made with the Brown v. Board of Education decision.Dr. Ivory A. ToldsonDr. Ivory A. Toldson

When the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in May 1954 that separate educational facilities between Black students and white students was “inherently unequal," dismissing the concept of “separate but equal” in public education, the nation began the task of desegregating its schools.

But the process was painful and slow. Per federal law, Black students were brought into schools that formerly, predominantly or exclusively served white students, an endeavor that forever changed public schooling in the country.

“It came at a time when there were woefully unequal facilities and Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land,” said Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and national director of Education Innovation and Research for the NAACP.  “Fifty-plus years after Plessy v. Ferguson, we saw that Black students were not in equal facilities and that the practice of forced segregation was morally wrong and worked against the best education for Black students.”

Now seven decades later, scholars since have looked back on the landmark case with ample respect – calling it “noble,” “correct,” and “necessary” – but said that its implementation and the lingering consequences were devastating. 

Immediate backlash and resistance

In the face of the court decision and subsequent federal efforts to desegregate, white mobs and state leaders alike posed plenty of pushback.

The Virginia legislature called for “massive resistance” against desegregating the state’s schools. Mississippi Sen. James Eastland proclaimed that the American South would “not abide by nor obey this legislative decision.” Pro-segregation White Citizens’ Councils were formed nationwide, comprising tens of thousands of members. And in Dallas, Texas, the city’s independent school district – like many throughout the nation – just refused to integrate. Even northern cities like Boston offered violent resistance that resulted in a public showdown in the 1970s.

Brown v. Board was a “noble cause,” but America just didn't have the “fortitude and endurance" to make sure it actually manifested, said Dr. Stefan Bradley, the Charles Hamilton Houston '15 Professor of Black Studies and History at Amherst College.

“The nation, because states and school districts were acting out, allowed for and accommodated bad behavior, [including] slowdowns, shutting entire school districts down, [and] turning the other way when violence occurred on campuses,” Bradley said. “That was the job of federal government to ensure that the ruling was followed. It was also the responsibility of the states to follow federal rulings in that way.”

Some federal enforcement did still occur. Such was the case in 1957, when the efforts of opposing citizens and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus himself blocked the way into Little Rock, Arkansas's Central High School for nine Black students – ‘The Little Rock Nine’ – prompting federal military intervention to make way for these students to attend class.

In the decades following Brown v. Board, further legal strides towards desegregation were made through court cases such as Green v. School Board of New Kent County in 1968 and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971. 

Resources and representation

The move toward school integration that Brown v. Board of Education permitted was fairly one-directional, leading to lasting complications in today’s schools, according to scholars.

The premise of Brown v. Board of Education was that Black schools did not have the adequate facilities and accommodations that white schools did. So, following the ruling, Black students and some Black staff and teachers were sent to integrate into white schools.

But white students weren’t sent to Black schools in the same way.

As a result, predominantly Black schools of the era lost students, highly qualified Black teachers and staff lost their jobs, and many Black students were subjected to vitriolic hatred and racism.

Dr. Stefan BradleyDr. Stefan Bradley“The way that desegregation was implemented was to draw Black kids to previously white-only institutions, have one or two teachers selected to go to those institutions, perhaps one administrator [and coach],” Bradley said. “What ends up happening is you essentially decimate the infrastructure of Black educational institutions.”

The impact of these losses might even be felt today. According to Education Week, Black principals and teachers made up 35-50% of educators in the 17 states with segregated school systems before the Brown ruling. Now, Black teachers comprise about 7% of U.S. public school teachersBlack males make up 1.3% – and Black principals comprise 11% of school principals, despite Black students being 15% of the national student population, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I don't think Brown v. Board even looked at how it would impact the representation of Black teachers,” said Dr. Donna Y. Ford, a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology at the Ohio State University. “We are suffering gravely, extensively, from this loss of Black teachers.”

And as white families fled elsewhere to America’s suburbs and private schools, the nation’s public schools have suffered financially, said Bradley.

“Public education is also being left to Black and Brown children largely in urban areas,” Bradley said. “All of this, with a reliance on property taxes as the funding base for education, means that you see great disparities between publicly funded schools and those that are private. In those situations, you also see great demographic disparities as well.”

It didn't help that discriminatory housing polices historically prevented Black families from owning homes and contributing to property taxes, all the while  colleges and universities become massive real-estate holders that were exempt from paying certain taxes, said Dr. Charles Davis, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan.

Segregation today

Brown v. Board of Education did not end racial segregation in U.S. schools. In many ways, the country’s schools are just as segregated today. 

According to a 2022 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than a third of the nation’s students – approximately 18.5 million students – attended schools where 75% or more students were of a single race or ethnicity. It concluded that today’s schools were still divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines, despite an increasingly diverse K-12 public school population.

Some of it has to do with perceptions and prejudices. Brown v. Board of Education reinforced the idea in people’s heads that Black schools were “sub-standard,” a perception that has unjustly stuck around to this day and has become pervasive, Toldson said.

“And so, you have the misperception that schools that are predominantly Black – those in socially, culturally, and economically diverse areas – are sub-standard. They have to prove that they aren't,” said Toldson. “A lot of times, they have to work really hard at proving that they are quality institutions because we're so used to Black schools underperforming.

“If you look at suburban schools that are predominantly white, a lot of times there's an assumption that that's a quality school, without even really getting into the dynamics of it.”

This creates a dynamic where white families – and some affluent Black families as well – may avoid sending their children to predominantly Black schools and worry that a school’s quality decreases as its number of Black students increases, Toldson said.

All of this isn’t to say that Brown v. Board of Education wasn’t beneficial and far-reaching. In fact, the current fields of special education for those with disabilities owe many of their legal foundations to the precedent that Brown set, said Dr. Addie McConomy, an assistant clinical professor of special education at Florida State University.

The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act – now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – came into being due as a result of court cases in the 1970s that cited Brown v. Board of Education as legal precedent. These cases argued for equal access to public education for children with disabilities, said McConomy.

Dr. Donna Y. FordDr. Donna Y. FordBut segregation in today’s schools is visible in other facets of public education as well, including gifted programs, according to Ford.

During the 2017-18 school year, white students made up 58.4% of public school students in gifted and talented programs despite comprising 47.3% of total public school enrollment. Meanwhile, Black students made up about 8.2% of students in such programs despite being 15.1% of the student body, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

To Ford, the focus on equality has not proved sufficient.

“I used to highly support Brown v. Board of Education, but years ago, I realized that equality is not enough," she said. :To really achieve the changes necessary, we have to focus on not an equal opportunity to learn but an equitable opportunity to learn. Our culture is different. Our needs are different. So do something different. And that is equity.”

A flawed legacy

In remembering Brown v. Board of Education, it’s important to keep in mind that the case and ruling was a compromise, with the plaintiffs and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on one end and white parties that continued to resist equality on the other, said Dr. David Johns, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC).

School integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education also came with unintended consequences for the students doing the integrating, including physical, psychological, and verbal violence, Johns added.

Johns has cited the late author and social critic bell hooks’s views on the matter, as written in her 1994 book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

“Gone was the messianic zeal to transform our minds and beings that had characterized teachers and their pedagogical practices in our all-black schools,” hooks wrote at the time. “Knowledge was suddenly about information only. It had no relation to how one lived, behaved. It was no longer connected to antiracist struggle. Bussed to white schools, we soon learned that obedience, and not a zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us.

“When we entered racist, desegregated, white schools we left a world where teachers believed that to educate black children rightly would require a political commitment.”

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