Sixty-five years ago today, the justices of the United States Supreme Court voted to overturn decades of racial segregation in American public schools. Buttressed by the groundbreaking research of psychologists Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark on the adverse effects of segregation on black children, the Brown v. Board of Education decision inaugurated a new chapter in American education that would compel communities to reckon with racism and inequality in new ways. But as we reflect upon this momentous legal decision, we must ask whether the educational equity that Brown called for has actually been realized—as well as what curious residues of racial segregation remain more than a half-century later.
The Brown decision—which overturned the state-sanctioned segregation codified by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896—made a vital intervention into a nation where barring blacks from various public spaces was simply business as usual. These spaces included public schools where, as Clark and Clark showed, the separate and unequal learning environments of black and white children contributed to black children developing a profoundly negative sense of self. And yet, research conducted at UCLA confirms that black children in the South are now more likely to attend racially segregated schools than they were 50 years ago.
The research team at the UCLA Civil Rights Project attributes this continuing segregation to a host of factors including the emergence of “unitary status” school districts in the 1990s—a regressive trend in which a series of Supreme Court decisions began dismantling school districts’ desegregation plans. The 1991 Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision established a precedent that relaxed standards previously used to guide desegregation efforts at the district level. Thousands of school districts—many of which were located in the South—were thus declared “unitary” when the court concluded that they had “completely eradicated its system of dual or segregated schools.” Districts that received this designation were no longer subject to legal oversight for addressing the segregation that remained within their institutions, or the level of segregation that developed afterward in the absence of oversight and accountability.
In addition to the 1991 Dowell decision, the legacies of other key historical policy decisions and contemporary issues around affordable housing, gentrification, and zoning have converged to produce what has been termed the “resegregation of schools.” Additional policy decisions that have set the stage for our present situation include the policy of redlining adopted by the Federal Housing Administration in 1934—a policy which has had a decisive impact on the racial makeup and economic resources of communities across America. The impact of this and related developments include longstanding barriers to black home ownership, the development of racially segregated neighborhoods, and vast disparities in school funding between neighborhoods despite a veneer of juridical equality. These and a host of other factors have resulted in the public schools located in black communities being radically underresourced and reflecting a $23 billion gap in funding between black and white schools, according to think tank EdBuild.
Researchers at the National Coalition of School Diversity recently found that attending schools marked by this racial isolation “reduced academic achievement, increased exposure to the criminal justice system, and significantly worsened professional and educational outcomes.” They also found that racial isolation in schools deprived children of color of what they call “networks of opportunity”—or the informal connections that enable people to achieve upward mobility beginning with landing their first jobs and gaining admission to college.
Beyond these crucial findings related to economic outcomes, we must also remember the defining argument that was used to win the Brown case: that the emotional and psychological damage inflicted by separate and unequal learning environments is fundamentally unconstitutional. But given the apparent barriers to transforming our school districts—even 65 years after Brown, how can we find a way forward?
Though the 1954 Brown decision constituted a major victory for civil rights, it is apparent that much of the racial and economic order that precipitated Brown remains intact 65 years later. What the Brown decision did offer us, however, was a vision of equality to which we could begin holding our institutions and elected officials accountable. And as the UCLA Civil Rights Project illustrates in their findings on continuing segregation, that work is far from over. As such, we must approach this 65th anniversary of the Brown decision as a provocation and a challenge, not a victory lap.
As we consider the immensity of the task before us, the challenges may seem too multifaceted to confront. Amid the multiple drivers and manifestations of educational inequity at macro and micro scales, we at Facing History and Ourselves urge educators to keep these questions alive in their classrooms, schools, districts, and communities. And we encourage teachers to use our new Teaching Idea, “The Persistence of Racial Segregation in American Schools,” to bring these questions into their classrooms today.
Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to stream Eyes on the Prize for free and in its entirety via Facing History’s virtual library. This seminal documentary traces America’s Civil Rights Movement and includes a deep dive into African Americans’ rejection of “separate but equal” doctrine in education.