Education Opinion

Remembering the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

By Derrick Bell — June 06, 1984 6 min read
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For institutions, as for individuals, anniversaries are times for celebration, not criticism, festivity rather than fault-finding, and fulsome praise without parsimony. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education has become a symbolic institution of the highest importance, and its 30th anniversary last month, as expected, warranted nationwide commemorations. It will require more than a few toasts, however, before those drinking to the many accomplishments made by black people under the mandate of Brown will be able to recapture the euphoria we all felt back when racial discrimination seemed a far less complex evil than it does today.

A few months ago in this newspaper I predicted that this year’s celebration of Brown would be muted by the dismal statistics that show the demise of hope among those blacks still locked in the grip of racism-influenced poverty. (See “Brown v. Board of Education and the Black History Month Syndrome,” Education Week, Feb. 22, 1984.) The principles of Brown have not, I argued, brought meaningful integration or schooling tailored to the needs of most poor, black children.

In response to that article, a superintendent in a small Alabama school district wrote me to make two points. First, he told me that sprinkled across the South are school systems, like his, which have desegregated. In his community, which is about 75 percent white and 25 percent black, there are now black teachers, administrators, and students in positions of leadership and dignity. Conceding that the problems are more serious in large cities, he nevertheless wrote with pride of the desegregation in his schools.

Second, he expressed concern that equal opportunities in the schoolhouses were not enough and predicted that we may be a generation away from providing black children with equal opportunities in the home. He assured me that he was not speaking of any lack of love, admiration, fellowship, or religion in black homes. Rather, he explained, he was speaking of encouragement and assistance in a child’s maturation as he or she moves through childhood to adolescence and enters adulthood. He said that many black children do not receive reinforcement or resources at home that would complement the school in the rearing process. In addition, he reported that many black children are in second-generation welfare families where there is a high rate of absenteeism from school and an inordinate rate of illegitimate births. Often, these children do not receive enough to eat. The superintendent concluded that the school alone cannot itself reverse problems of this kind.

I doubt that this was his intention, but the Alabama school superintendent’s letter increased rather than allayed my fears about the growing irrelevance of both the Brown decision and its annual celebration to the problems of all too many poor, black children.

Thanks to the Court and the civil-rights movement, the Jim Crow signs are down and opportunities are up for those blacks with education and skills. But the number of single-parent black homes, illegitimate births, teen-aged school dropouts, and young black male suicides are also up compared with pre-1954 rates. The gap in income between blacks and whites has been increasing, as has the unemployment rate that for young ghetto blacks now approaches two-thirds of their population.

No one can deny that schools attempting to educate black children from such backgrounds have a difficult task. And it is significant that my Alabama correspondent did not indicate that the desegregated status of his schools had helped him much in this regard. Nor would I, in his place, guarantee a more optimistic report.

Middle-class parents, black as well as white, would not likely support changes in the school day and curriculum needed by poor children who come to school without the preparations for learning (including such things a stable, orderly home environment and a good breakfast) cited by the superintendent. But schools able to give priority to providing these preparations for learning are then able to teach many of the same children who are the despair of school officials throughout the country.

It is not that poor, black children would be better served were they back in state-segregated schools. But it is difficult to gain from the superintendent’s report any sense that those black children who need special attention most are likely to receive it in a system that is simply working in the best of faith to teach students without regard to race or color.

Desegregation, which has been pegged to the middle-class child in its assumption that all students are ready for learning, too often is a cruel means of denying poor blacks the educational advantages of Brown even as they attend racially balanced schools.

The message from our whole experience with desegregation is that the legal protection against discrimination provided by the Brown decision is a prerequisite for and not a guarantee of equal educational opportunity. Freed of the subordinating stigma of segregation sanctioned by law, black children must still be provided with the learning structures, teachers, materials, and curriculum designed to help them overcome social and class barriers to effective learning.

As any number of educators have shown, when educational programs are organized specifically for poor, black children--and when these programs are carried out by administrators and teachers committed to the proposition that, despite their disadvantages, these children too can learn--learning takes place. Regrettably, instances of such success have been covered more regularly in the popular media than in scholarly education journals, and there is a scarcity of studies of educationally effective schools for disadvantaged blacks.

It is as though any proof that black children can learn in all-black school settings constitutes a refutation of Brown and all it means. It does not. The potential value of the decision was that it lifted the weight of racial segregation from the backs of teachers and students.

To begin the implementation of that decision, civil-rights lawyers found it necessary to insist on actual integration of the schools. But racial-balance remedies, while perhaps sufficient for middle-class black children, are today mostly irrelevant for poor blacks locked in the ghettos of our major cities. If the Alabama school superintendent is correct, those remedies are hardly more educationally useful for many black children living in small communities where physical desegregation of the public schools has been achieved.

The Alabama superintendent’s letter is significant. It both reflects the progress in school desegregation made under Brown and reveals clearly the work still left to be done in providing black children with equal educational opportunity, whether those children attend racially balanced or mainly black schools.

Civil-rights lawyers chose segregation in the public schools knowing that it would be the most difficult aspect of the “separate but equal” principle for segregationists to defend. The lawyers recognized that strong impact of arguments based on the importance of public education for success in the modern world. They were successful, and their strategy resulted in legal precedents that have ended the overt segregation of blacks in all public places.

But on this, its 30th anniversary, it does not seem too soon to examine again the “equal educational opportunity” promise of the Brown decision. We who have profited most from the decision should not forget the class of black children on whose behalf the cases were brought and because of whose plight the victory was won.

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