How Brown v. Board of Education Changed—and Didn't Change—American Education

50 years after the Supreme Court decision struck down "separate but equal," scholastic opportunities for African-Americans have expanded. But inequality remains a major problem.
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Linda Brown Smith was a third grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. (AP Photo)

 

Two milestones in the history of American education are converging this spring. The second is reshaping the legacy of the first.

The first landmark moment will arrive May 17, with the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down "separate but equal" segregation in public education. The second watershed will follow in June, with the completion of what is likely to be the last school year ever in which a majority of America's K-12 public-school students are white.

That demographic transformation is both reinvigorating and reframing Brown's fundamental goal of ensuring educational opportunity for all Americans. The unanimous 1954 Brown decision was a genuine hinge in American history. Although its mandate to dismantle segregated public schools initially faced "massive resistance" across the South, the ruling provided irresistible moral authority to the drive for legal equality that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts a decade later.

Coming nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court had upheld segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren's ringing opinion in Brown was the belated midcourse correction that began America's transformation into a truly multiracial world nation.

But a distinct note of disenchantment is surfacing as scholars and advocates assess Brown's legacy. "Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission—to undo the school segregation that persists as a central feature of American public education today," Richard Rothstein, a veteran liberal educational analyst, declared in a paper this month.

That seems excessively pessimistic. Just before Brown, only about one in seven African-Americans, compared with more than one in three whites, held a high school degree. Today, the Census Bureau reports, the share of all African-American adults holding high school degrees (85 percent) nearly equals the share of whites (89 percent); blacks have slightly passed whites on that measure among young adults ages 25 to 29.

Before Brown, only about one in 40 African-Americans earned a college degree. Now more than one in five hold one. Educational advances have also keyed other gains, including the growth of a substantial black middle-class and health gains that have cut the white-black gap in life expectancy at birth by more than half since 1950.

Yet many other disparities remain. Whites (especially from more affluent families) still complete college at much higher rates than African-Americans. That's one reason census figures show the median income for African-American families remains only about three-fifths that for whites, not much better than in 1967. Hispanics, now the largest minority group, are likewise making clear gains but still trail whites and blacks on the key measures of educational attainment, on some fronts substantially.

Brown's core mission of encouraging integration can best be defined as unfinished. Many civil-rights advocates, such as Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, argue that after gains through the late 1980s, the public-school system is undergoing a "resegregation" that has left African-American and Latino students "experiencing more isolation … [than] a generation ago." Other analysts question whether segregation is worsening, but no one denies that racial and economic isolation remains daunting: One recent study found that three-fourths of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics attend schools where a majority of the students qualify as low-income.

The second big educational milestone arriving this spring should recast the debate over the first. From Brown to the ongoing affirmative-action debates that the Supreme Court revisited again this week, fairness has been the strongest argument for measures meant to provide educational chances for all. But as our society diversifies, broadening the circle of opportunity has become a matter not only of equity but also of competitiveness.

The National Center for Educational Statistics recently projected that minorities will become a majority of the K-12 public-school student body for the first time in 2014—and that majority will steadily widen. As recently as 1997, whites represented more than three-fifths of public-school students. This transformation isn't just limited to a few immigration hubs: Minorities now represent a majority in 310 of the 500 largest public-school districts, federal statistics show.

These minority young people are the nation's future workers, consumers, and taxpayers. If more of them don't obtain the education and training to reach the middle class, the U.S. "will be a poorer and less competitive society," says Rice University sociologist Steven Murdock, former Census Bureau director under George W. Bush and the author of Changing Texas, a recent book on that state's demographic transformation.

The increasing diversity and shrinking white share of America's youth population complicates Brown's original aim of promoting integrated schools. But that change only adds greater urgency to the decision's broader goal of ensuring all young people the opportunity to develop their talents.

The barriers to fulfilling that vision, from family breakdown to persistent residential and educational segregation, remain formidable. The difference is that as our society grows inexorably more diverse, the consequences of failing to overcome those barriers are rising—for all Americans. "These are realities," says Murdock, "that we are going to have to live with whether we are left, right, or in between."

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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