May 16, 2014
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Sixty years ago Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which said racially segregated schools violated the Constitution. Indiana University faculty members offer their perspectives on the decision and its legacy. They address the following themes:
Kevin D. Brown, professor in the IU Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, said the decision was "a turning point in American history." Even though it ultimately had a limited effect on school desegregation, he said, it had a far-reaching impact on American society.
“Recall that in 1954, people of African descent were called Negroes or colored out of respect, and coon, darkie and even black as an insult," Brown said. "The court's opinion preceded by 10 years the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by 11 years the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Segregation and conscious racial discrimination were the explicit law of the land in many areas of the country."
Discrimination based on race in employment, merchandising stores, eating establishments, places of entertainment, hotels and motels, was generally accepted as a fact of life in 1954, he said.
"Negroes seldom occupied positions above the most menial levels in American businesses and corporations. What became known as the glass ceiling was a firmly implanted, outright concrete barrier in the 1950s. Only a handful of Negroes attended the prestigious colleges and universities of this country and almost none of them taught there.
"No man of color had been elected mayor of a major U.S. city in the 20th century. There were only four Negroes serving in Congress, none of whom had been elected from any of the 11 states that made up the former Confederacy since 1900. Many places in the country maintained separate water fountains, waiting rooms, transportation facilities, restrooms, hospitals and cemeteries for whites and coloreds.
"Thus, while a reflection on this anniversary may acknowledge the frustration that comes with recognizing we still have a long way to go regarding race relations, it must also celebrate the success by pointing out how far we have come," Brown said.
Carlton Mark Waterhouse, professor of law at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, notes the decision created a tremendous sense of expectation. Many believed the nation's schools would no longer be segregated, either by law or in fact.
But that hasn't happened. De jure, or legally sanctioned, segregation came to an end. But de facto segregation continued as many whites moved to the suburbs or transferred their children to private schools. Schools grew less segregated for 20 years, but progress stalled.
"Today we find that schools in many places are more segregated than they were in the '70s," Waterhouse said. "That is, I think, discouraging to people. We tend to view ourselves as a less biased society today. But these consequences and outcomes suggest there are still ways in which race is affecting the education of our children."
Looking back, Waterhouse said, the fact that many schools in Northern cities were mostly white or mostly black should have suggested Brown v. Board of Education, "without a deeper commitment by America's white majority," wouldn't lead to full integration.
"Looking at housing policies, with discrimination in both government loan procedures and redlining practices, it was almost foreseeable that segregation was going to grow and expand as suburbs were developed and occupied by primarily white middle-class and upper-class residents," he said.
Another factor, he said, was that the court decision left intact social dominance factors that divided American society on racial lines. Declaring an end to legally mandated school segregation didn't address social dominance in employment, housing, finance and other areas -- as well as in education.
Today, it's common to hear that Brown accomplished its sole purpose by ending legally mandated school segregation. But that claim, Waterhouse said, misses the endorsement of justice and equality that was central to the court's written opinion.
"It robs Brown of the sense of hopefulness and idealism that the justices were expressing," he said. "They were aiming higher than that."
Suzanne Eckes of the IU School of Education notes that, in the Supreme Court's 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall observed that "unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."
"His words effectively capture the spirit behind a decades-long quest to integrate public schools in America," she said. "Now 60 years after the watershed decision, Brown's promise remains unfulfilled. On this anniversary, the U.S. education system remains segregated. Students are sorted not only by race but by socio-economic status, ability, gender and sexual orientation."
The sorting of students, she said, occurs in traditional public schools as well as charter and private schools, including private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers.
"Despite widespread concern regarding student body segregation, some school leaders use recruitment strategies that result in increased segregation, often with the stated purpose of providing greater educational opportunities for marginalized students," she said. "What has evolved is a form of voluntary segregation that is considered by some to be leveling the playing field and by others to be a major civil rights failure."
Eckes, who teaches and writes about education law, is an associate professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program at IU Bloomington. She can be reached at 812-856-8376 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Top