Teachers' Domain, Reconsidering Brown, published December 20, 2004, retrieved on ,
In the video segments presented in this activity, historians and legal scholars Sheryll Cashin, Lani Guinier, Charles Ogletree, and Gary Orfield, reflect back on the promise of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and why it remains unfulfilled.
While Brown v. Board of Education is considered the most important civil rights ruling of the twentieth century, 50 years later some legal scholars and historians argue that full desegregation of American public schools never happened. Indeed, many see evidence of resegregation and the persistence of inequality. In other words, the promise of Brown remains unfulfilled.
According to these Brown scholars, the first sign of failure was the decision made in Brown II (1955), declaring that school integration should occur "with all deliberate speed." The wording proved ambiguous and set no clear time frame or procedure for achieving the goal of integration. Recalcitrant Southern whites engaged in massive resistance to desegregation plans and were bolstered by the federal government's reluctance to enforce the Brown decision. In contrast, when the federal government supported school desegregation efforts and the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that the time for desegregation had come (Green v. County School Board), progress occurred quite rapidly. Between 1968 and 1972, the South began to see a measure of school integration that would persist into the 1980s.
School desegregation reached its peak in the 1980s, but the changing composition of the Supreme Court resulted in rulings over the last 15 years that have backed away from the ideals of Brown. Without strong guidance from the Supreme Court, school districts are less obligated to undertake desegregation plans and, in combination with residential segregation, schools have become increasingly resegregated.
Although the landmark Brown ruling challenged de jure (by law) segregation common in the South, it didn't address de facto (in fact) segregation more common in the North. While not written into law, segregation "in fact" existed in many states where housing patterns revealed segregated neighborhoods; and, because children were assigned to neighborhood schools, the schools were in fact segregated.
Georgetown University Law School professor Sheryll Cashin cites federal housing policies enacted in the 1930s and 1940s that supported segregated communities by specifically excluding African Americans and other minorities from obtaining housing in growing white suburbs. Cashin and other Brown scholars argue that residential segregation and discriminatory policies still exist, creating a barrier to integrated schools.
Growing white and middle-class black flight from inner cities, another cause of residential and socioeconomic segregation, further hinder integration. America's communities remain largely homogeneous, with middle-class whites and some middle-class blacks residing in the suburbs, while poor blacks and whites remain in areas of poverty in the nation's cities. Schools reflect these broader segregation patterns. Harvard University professor Gary Orfield notes that schools comprised largely of minority students also have higher incidences of concentrated poverty - reinforcing the unequal status that the NAACP lawyers fought so hard to destroy in 1954.
Orfield points to America's rapidly changing demographic landscape, and predicts that within 50 years there will be no majority racial group. Because American society is becoming more diverse, the problem of school (and community) segregation is as important as ever. Inequality, Orfield asserts, will become more entrenched if nothing is done to stem the growing isolation of racial groups.
Harvard University Law School professor Lani Guinier adds that because race continues to be at the center of discussion, inequalities in American society become hidden. For example, in the Miner's Canary, Guinier notes a common tendency to blame minority students in underperforming schools, when she would argue that failing poor and minority schools signal not the inability of the students but the problems inherent in the broader society and the nation's failure to live up to Brown.
Harvard University Law School professor Charles Ogletree believes that America has not been willing to confront the disparities in education - a legacy of "all deliberate speed." Although the problems are often apparent, he believes that people are unwilling to create remedies that effectively correct those problems.
In rethinking why Brown's promise has not been achieved, these scholars agree that action can be taken. They advocate collective action by all groups in society, and a dramatic increase in resources to poor and minority schools. Combined with desegregation plans that integrate students in suburbs and inner cities, the promises of Brown can be realized and the limitations created by "all deliberate speed" and government policies can be overcome.
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