On the Legacy of Brown

“…Brown, seen solely as a school case, must be considered a failure.”

– Robert L. Carter, federal district court judge for the Southern District of New York, former general counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, presented part of the oral argument in Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court.

Brown v. Board of Education is known for overturning the legal doctrine of separate but equal, which was settled into national law by Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a case that said that a Louisiana statute that MANDATED blacks and whites sit in separate cars was legal. That court essentially held that separate could be equal, and any connotations of inferiority felt by black people was of their own doing, not by the law itself. Brown overturned that, saying that the state cannot enforce laws that required separation, that de jure segregation was inherently unequal because it connotated that one race, i.e., whites, were superior to the other, i.e., blacks.

Prior to Brown, the LDF hadn’t attacked segregation in public schools on its face. Rather, it had made the claim that blacks schools were not equal in facilities, curriculum, etc., and fought for the courts to order school districts to equalize black and white schools. In many cases, this strategy succeeded. But the LDF realized that they could do more; victories challenging the basis of segregation per se in higher education showed that there really was something inherently unequal in state-sanctioned separation. In law schools, for example, access to other students who were to be future colleagues, an alumni network, prestige and traditions the Court agreed were “intangibles” that equalization of facilities could never overcome.

So Brown was decided this day 57 years ago, and “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional.

In the consent decree that followed Brown (known as Brown II), state governments were charged with implementing desegregation plans “with all deliberate speed.” In the South, they moved to do just this. In the late 1960s, the South was largely desegregated, hitting a high of desegregation and stayed that way through the late 1980s. But since then, most dramatically in the South but all through the nation, public schools are becoming and have become, hyper-segregated, and as we all know, the opportunity gap for black children is wide and growing.

Why? Again from Judge Carter:

“The lawyers did not understand then how effective white power could be in preventing full implementation of the law; nor did they realize at the time that the basic barrier to full equality for blacks was not racial segregation, a symptom, but white supremacy, the disease.”

The reason the public schools are segregated today is not because of any law on the books, but because of the “law” of white supremacy. In 1957, when the Little Rock Nine desegregated Little Rock Central High School, they were met with this:

Today, while the rhetoric is cloaked in much nicer language, the same underlying message is behind the actions of our government when they do not do what needs to be done to ensure equality in education, and behind our lack of action as we co-sign through our apathy. For while Brown focused on integration, it did so for the same reason my mother took me out of my all-black elementary school and sent me on the bus and subway into Center City Philadelphia to attend an integrated school: because of the belief that if black children were educated next to white children, there was no way they would be denied and equal opportunity to succeed. The driving force behind the integration ideal was not mixing for mixing sake, but what mixing could ultimately achieve. “Green follows white,” the saying goes; where the white people are, the money, prestige, and opportunity follow.

But like Judge Carter said, black folks underestimated the power of white supremacy. And we continue to do so today when we tout color-blindness and bootstrapping as the way for black folks to get ahead, without acknowledging the structural constraints of white supremacy. Let me be clear – white supremacy is a system of power, one that shapes the very foundation of this country. It is a principle upon which this country was built. White supremacy was institutionalized in slavery and in Jim Crow. By the time Brown came around, it no longer needed legal sanction; it was a part of WHO WE ARE. Read any article on stereotypes, bias, prejudice. Take the Implicit Association Test. See how deep white supremacy runs in our national conscious.

It is any one person who is alive today that is not a skinhead’s fault? Well, no. I get that people are not overt racists anymore, and people get really upset if they even think I am coming anywhere close to calling them the r-word. But guess what? That’s not relevant. We are way beyond that. There is no gold sticker for not being an out-and-out racist. Because what’s important, outside of your hurt feelings, is that ensuring the education of ALL our children is everyone’s responsibility. No one gets a pass on this one. No one gets to sit back and say, “Well, that was history and gradmommy called me a racist and she’s ignorant and hateful so let me sulk and write a nasty comment and there.” Grow up.

It’s not history. It’s now. Integration is not the answer. That failed. Move on.

Because you cannot say that you believe in equality, that you believe in the values of Brown and then sit back and see the current situation and be cool with it. You cannot.


MLK did NOT say that he hoped one day that his children would not be seen as black; he said that he hoped his children would not be JUDGED by the color of their skin. Integration is an ideal once all people are equal. But you don’t get equality just by saying it is so. Hoping and wishing it was so. Even praying that it was so. Brown proved that. The Civil Rights Acts proved that. Affirmative action has proved that. But what Brown did do was point wrong out. Equality will only come by pointing out white privilege and supremacist thinking when we see it, by investigating it, and by dismantling it. That is the legacy of Brown.

One thought on “On the Legacy of Brown

  1. Once again, you have written a thought provoking and insightful article. As an adoptive parent of a beautiful African American little girl, I have found your posts to be very informative and very helpful in my search to be a better mother. Most adoption sites that are for trans racial adoptions really don’t address key issues with racism that are faced in this country. Avoiding it does not make it go away! Due to personal experiences, and in part to your blogs, this Canadian who was not fully aware of the racial issues in the US, now has her eyes opened and is hopefully, going to be a better parent. I also appreciate your previous links to loveisntenough.com because I am finding more insightful and helpful information there. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to parenting- especially when one is parenting a black child in the US. Thank you.


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