What we lose when we lose track of Brown

Today being the 63rd anniversary of Brown, I decided to go back and read the full court decision, which is short and very readable. A lot of this may be familiar to readers, but wanted to start with some background for those who don’t work on this issue on a regular basis. Anyway, here’s the basic structure of the argument:

  • Lower courts in several states had ruled against school integration on the basis of the “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy.
  • Plaintiffs in Brown argued that “separate but equal” violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The court’s decision argued that the the Fourteenth Amendment must be read via “its present place in American life” because “what others in Congress and the state legislatures had in mind (when they adopted the amendment in 1868) cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.”
  • So, the court looked at the state of public education in the 1950’s and determined that it is critical to American life, not for the arguments that are currently popular but for a deeply important reason that we don’t hear enough about today – democratic citizenship. More about this below.
    • The decision states that public education “is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities” and that “it is the very foundation of good citizenship,” which includes “helping [a student] to adjust normally to his environment.”
  • The “separate but equal” doctrine was ruled in violation of the constitution because separate is still harmful.
    • Part of this came from precedent – The court believed that “even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal” segregation does still “deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities.” One of the key precedents (McLaurin) illustrates this pretty well – in that case, the state of Oklahoma tried to create a separate school of education for a black student. Even if “equal” in tangible terms, the court decided that separation could negatively affect a student’s “ability to study, to engage in discussion and exchange views with other students.” Makes sense.
    • Part of it came from social science research – Citing several studies in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the court argued that “to separate [students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community and may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”
  • Famously, the court re-opened the case in order to consider “the formulations of decrees” based on the findings in Brown, leading to a second decision, Brown II, which counseled “all deliberate speed” in the development of plans for school integration.

Without addressing relief mechanisms for segregation (and then encouraging delay in the Brown II decision), the court’s lack of clarity contributed to 63 years and counting of often extremely contentious debate about what integration means for American public education. Rightly, much of this has focused on mechanisms for achieving statistical desegregation, like busing. These are undoubtedly important conversations that should be more common as schools continue to resegregate.

It’s also important to remember that, in the Brown decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the overarching purpose of education for democratic citizenship. It didn’t come from a liberal blogger (or the equivalent at that time), but from the Supreme Court. Today, this perspective is overwhelmed by the popular emphasis on education for economic gain (see: college and career readiness or arguments about education as a fix for poverty). I know that I’m not making a new argument here. In the final pages of “Making the Unequal Metropolis,” for example, Ansley T. Erickson writes essentially what I’m arguing – that “Brown’s call for attention to education as preparation for citizenship is one reminder of the need to situate educational efforts not in the logic of the market, but in the logic of democracy.”

But, especially on this anniversary of Brown, the emphasis on democratic citizenship bears repeating. It feels like there’s a new crisis of democracy coming daily from this administration. Many (maybe all?) agree that democracy has reached new levels of dysfunction and that debate about meaningful policies (that affect millions!) has deteriorated to historically low levels. It led to the Trump presidency and it is made worse by the Trump presidency. In 1983, the A Nation at Risk report sounded alarms about a perceived lack of standards and accountability in American public schools. Unlike the report’s manufactured crisis, there is real risk in the degradation of our democracy – real questions about the integrity of political dialogue in this country, about our ability to live together in an increasingly multicultural democracy. Brown reminds us that integrated (!) public education directed at democratic citizenship is perhaps the best place to nurture the kinds of democratic citizens who are able to respond to these challenges with soundness of thought and competence.

5 thoughts on “What we lose when we lose track of Brown

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