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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
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America faces an identity crisis 70 years after Brown v Board of Education

On the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court — and the country — are split on what it means to create equality in the building blocks of American democracy.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Seventy years after a unanimous Supreme Court moved to define America’s values in Brown v. Board of Education, the bench has split over the famed ruling’s promises to the country.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, and five of his conservative colleagues rejected four decades of precedent supporting the idea that affirmative steps were needed to achieve Brown’s promises. Instead, the conservative majority said the recognition of race by schools had created a new iteration of separate but equal.

But unlike in Brown, that interpretation was not shared across the bench. Three justices vehemently dissented, accusing the court of backpedaling on the promises of one of the high court’s most sacred decisions.

Conflicting readings of Supreme Court opinions are not rare, of course. The justices spend a great deal of time arguing over their previous colleagues’ words, but the significance of the Supreme Court — and more broadly the nation — dividing on Brown reveals a broader chasm.  

“What you see is a battle over America's future,” said Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, an assistant professor of higher education administration and director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at George Washington University. “Who do we want America to be? Who has control over where America will go?”

In its simplest form, Brown overturned the separate but equal doctrine in the court’s infamous 1896 ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson. Chief Justice Earl Warren emphasized the importance of education in a democracy and said that right should be provided to all on equal terms.

The case positioned education as a cornerstone of society, legal experts say.

“There was a real focus in the Brown decision on how public education is the foundation of citizenship, recognizing the role that education plays in developing children into civically minded adults, and what that looks like,” said Jin Hee Lee, director of strategic initiatives at the Legal Defense Fund.

“To be living in a segregated world — that's impossible to reconcile with the notion that we are a free and fair multiracial democracy.”

Building equality

The lofty ideals presented in Brown were just that: goals and aspirations for a nation divided by race. But Brown itself didn’t actually desegregate America’s schools. Instead, Warren and his colleagues gave the nation a task: create equality in education.

America has spent decades trying to complete that task. There’s no question progress has been made, but whether Brown’s goals have been fully achieved differs between the varying readings of the ruling: Was Brown a promise to create and foster a multiracial democracy, or did the ruling simply stop America from dividing its citizens by race?

The answer changes depending on who's asked. Each side reads the same words and comes up with two divergent interpretations of the same case, a reflection of two different Americas.

“This is about politics as much as it is about law,” said Sheryll Cashin, a Georgetown law professor. “The same dichotomy in terms of how Brown is interpreted and what it stands for, I think, is reflected if you look at the Republican Party now and the philosophy of its head, Donald Trump, compared to Biden, compared to Obama.”  

Cashin clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall — who also happened to be the civil rights lawyer who argued in Brown.

“For him, the 14th Amendment and Brown were a dagger in the heart of Jim Crow caste,” Cashin said of Marshall. “It put the onus on the state school districts and other parts of the state to dismantle practices and institutions born of caste.”

Marshall’s idea of Brown wasn’t just about having Black and white kids in the same classroom. The broader view of Brown’s promises sees an obligation to create a functioning multiracial democracy.

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Cashin said that in the eyes of many people, Brown marks the beginning of the civil rights movement; it was something to be proud of.

"The court and the country saying, 'We are now rejecting racial hierarchy. We can no longer square state-sanctioned racial hierarchy with our Constitution' ... It actually fired the imaginations of a new generation of African Americans, like, 'Hey, I'm an equal citizen,'" Cashin said.

"In Black America, Brown wasn't just overruling Plessy — it was overruling Dred Scott.”

The ruling in Brown was met with a massive resistance movement, however, and it took a decade to implement the 1954 ruling.

While there has been clear progress in desegregating schools by race in the last 70 years, the nation’s education system continues to face segregation by both race and class.

LaShawn Harris, a professor of history at Michigan State University, said there remains a form of de facto segregation that prevents Brown’s promise from being fully achieved.

“Society has witnessed the diverse ways in which various school districts and politicians have denied students access to educational resources, have denied schools, particularly those in underserved communities, adequate funding, and have signaled, through educational and political policies, to underserved communities that their students and educators are unworthy of investment,” Harris said in an email.

This view of Brown sees the call for equality as more than diverse faces in a classroom but diverse perspectives as well.

“We may have desegregated, which means that we put Black students and white students or students of color and white students in classrooms together, but that's different than meaningfully learning together and thinking about what does a curriculum look like when we really celebrate who people are,” said Terah Venzant Chambers, a professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion at Michigan State University.

Chambers said what's often forgotten about Brown’s call for desegregation is that it was focused solely on the students. She pointed out that thousands of Black teachers and administrators were fired over the course of desegregation.

“I think about the loss of those teachers, and what we know about the vibrant and powerful learning environments that they created during segregation, with such meager resources," Chambers said, "and it makes me think about what they could have contributed to our educational system, and the compounding effects of that over 70 years.”

While Brown is praised widely from both interpretations, it is not free from critique. Brown was a recognition of America’s problems but the promise to do better did not come with an instruction manual.  

This not only made desegregation difficult, but it also created openings for resistance. The court was not carrying out its charge; that was left to school board members and superintendents who were left with a lot of latitude in how desegregation was carried out.

Chambers also serves on a school board, and she said administrators can learn from the resistance to Brown.

"It makes me understand the important role that I have and the elected position that I'm in, but also the importance of the other branches of government, the opportunities that we have ourselves as individuals, the work that we still need to do, regardless of what the Supreme Court does or does not do,” Chamber said.

Nor has diversifying schools been a linear process. In fact, some people see political fights surrounding education today as a renewed resistance to Brown — book bans, for instance, and censorship efforts to exclude certain viewpoints from schools.

For the liberal justices on the current court, this was the argument for why affirmative action policies were essential to meeting Brown’s promises. 

Affirmative action in 2024

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Barack Obama appointee, said the court’s post-Brown precedents held that affirmative steps are constitutionally necessary to achieve the promise of racial equality.

“The court’s recharacterization of Brown is nothing but revisionist history and an affront to the legendary life of Justice Marshall, a great jurist who was a champion of true equal opportunity, not rhetorical flourishes about colorblindness,” Sotomayor wrote.

The conservative justices — particularly Justice Clarence Thomas — fundamentally disagree with this idea. The George H.W. Bush appointee noted his decadeslong dissent from the court’s push for these policies.

Thomas views the Constitution as colorblind, seeing affirmative action and any other form of discrimination based on race as contrary to the 14th Amendment.

Differences between the two opposing interpretations of Brown aren’t subtle; they’re complete opposites. Both sides of the debate think racial segregation in America is wrong and that the country still needs to do more to achieve the goals of Brown, but decades later the answer to how to do that still remains elusive.

“We have to think more broadly about how to make the opportunities in our country equally available to everyone, recognizing that there are these historic barriers and disadvantages that we need to break down,” said the Legal Defense Fund's Lee. “Speaking in those terms, I think the vast majority of people agree with that, but what’s been unfortunate is to distort that common value and couch it in terms of simplistic terms like identity politics.”

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Civil Rights, Education

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