70 Years after Brown v. Board of Education, Desegregation in Public Schools continues to be the Wild West

by: Ji Ho (Geo) Yang, PHD Candidate at the University of Washington

Where has Brown v. Board of Education led us to?  What are the implications of this monumental court case?  How has it shaped the current educational landscape?  Understanding the complexities and history extending from Brown v. Board is pivotal for educational advocacy, whether as a teacher, researcher, or even a student.  My own understanding of the case has grown significantly, as well as deepening my understanding regarding educational equity.  The questions posed here will guide this blog post’s unpacking of Brown v. Board.  

Much of our broad assumptions about Brown vs. Board center on the dismantling of ‘separate, but equal’ as established by Plessy vs. Ferguson through the desegregation of schools and as a key and nascent part of the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. When learning about the Supreme Court case as a youth, the takeaway that I remember is the idea that ‘separate’ (i.e. segregation) was inherently unequal.  My early learning did not go into depth of why segregation is unequal.    

In order to effectively win in the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs’ (i.e. the Brown family, and other families of cases attached to the greater Brown vs. Board case) lawyers focused their arguments on the adverse and white supremacist impact that segregated schools had on Black children.  This was crystallized in the ‘doll test’ where Black and white children were given the choice between Black and white dolls.  Both groups of children predominantly chose the white dolls, which reflected how children internalized white superiority.  This argument and other aspects of the plaintiff’s argument helped dismantle ‘separate but equal’ in our schools, thus ending segregation via ‘de jure’; meaning legally sanctioned segregation.  For my past learning of Brown vs. Board, this is where the case ended.  But why do educational inequities persist?  And why has desegregation as a policy failed?

Explicit plans or visions of how to equalize schooling and promote equity were not solidified through Brown vs. Board, leaving the doors open for white interests to prevail at the expense of families of color.  The lack of clarity and intentionality of how to desegregate schools were not adequately addressed in subsequent Brown vs. Board cases.  Without federal policies, constitutionality, or legal measures to desegregate schools, a Wild West was created, allowing white interests to remain dominant and framed as status quo.  The Wild West remains in many ways despite Brown v. Board of Education’s 70th year anniversary. 

The burden of desegregation was laid almost exclusively on children and families of color.  An obvious example is how Black students were burdened to desegregate white schools via busing, rather than white students entering Black schools.  We see this play out differently, yet with similar results, in contemporary policies where previously non-white schools implement new course offerings and programs that bring in white families as a means of desegregating.  However, families and students are segregated by academic tracking, disciplining, and political capacity of white stakeholders to capitalize on resources at the expense of stakeholders of color.  The issue of desegregation regarding “when” and “how” white stakeholders entered Black educational spaces was a point of contention that complicated Brown v. Board.  After the case, many Black stakeholders fought to keep their districts away from white interests to have self-governance, autonomy, and pro-Blackness in their schools.  These families and leaders knew that desegregating districts and schools was not inherently going to equalize school resources or outcomes, but possibly make inequities more embedded.  While ultimately, Black and other stakeholders of color had to assimilate their autonomy in education to the local and state government, white stakeholders did not.  

The Wild West of desegregation created an environment of ‘de facto’ segregation where white stakeholders and communities had the opportunities and capacity to create their own school districts through the formation of suburbs and opt out of desegregation policies.  De facto segregation, unlike de jure, means that rather than segregation being constitutionally sanctioned, segregation was implicitly upheld through various policies and practices, such as redlining, school choice, and busing.  As much as white interests have become further entrenched since Brown v. Board, resistance and persistence have pushed the frontlines of educational justice and advocacy forward.  Leaders, educators, students, and families have fought for educational justice via protests, programmatic developments, litigations, legislative work, etc.  However, further work is needed to truly dismantle ‘separate but equal’ via deconstructing white supremacy and interests in education.  

As a youth learning civics and governance through key Supreme Court cases, what I was missing then was an understanding of what made segregation actually unequal in the U.S.  The fallacy of desegregating schools is the lack of addressing of white interests and supremacy in systems of segregation and racial inequities.  The inequality of segregation was inherited via the foundation of the U.S. on (racial) capitalism and whiteness, rather than segregation being inherently unequal.  As we continue the fight for the aspirations and legacy of Brown v. Board, we should keep in mind that desegregating education is less about simply upholding diversity in our classrooms, but rather having equity in school resources and outcomes so that stakeholders of color can have schooling that reflects their needs and aspirations.  

To close this blog, we will revisit the guiding questions posed at the beginning of this post.  Where has Brown v. Board of Education led us to?  What are the implications of this monumental court case?  How has it shaped the current educational landscape?  The impact and legacy of Brown v. Board is complicated, but ever present today.  It has solidified de facto segregation, burdened educational stakeholders of color, and yet to actualize the dream of equalizing resources and outcomes (not simply diversifying school communities).  However, it has also represented and served as a legacy for continual grassroots organizing, resistance of white and neoliberal hegemony, and transformational advocacy.  

Works Cited:

Cyna, E. (2019). Equalizing resources vs. retaining Black political power: Paradoxes of an urban-suburban school district merger in Durham, North Carolina, 1958–1996. History of Education Quarterly, 59(1), 35-64.

Erickson, A. T. (2012). Building inequality: The spatial organization of schooling in Nashville, Tennessee, after Brown. Journal of Urban History, 38(2), 247-270.

Green, T. L., & Gooden, M. A. (2016). The shaping of policy: Exploring the context, contradictions, and contours of privilege in Milliken v. Bradley, over 40 years later. Teachers College Record, 118(3), 1-30.

Vaught, S. E. (2009). The color of money: School funding and the commodification of black children. Urban Education, 44(5), 545-570.