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‘Brown v. Board of Education’ at 70: A Dream Dissolved (Opinion)

Editor’s note: For additional perspectives on the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Education Week Opinion Contributor Bettina L. Love invited R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy to contribute an opinion essay for a brief series on the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

As we arrive at the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision on May 17, undoubtedly, new estimates of the segregation within our schools will be released, and commentaries on the significance of the lawsuit in sparking the modern Civil Rights Movement will proliferate. But behind this fanfare and reflection, a stark truth remains ignored.

The segregation that was meant to be uprooted with the Brown decision not only persisted, but it has grown, and today, we stand at a critical juncture—the promise of education as opportunity that has existed for more than 100 years is on the verge of being no more.

In recent decades, we have continued to whittle away at confidence in public schools, silenced the voices of Black students and families, and allowed opportunity hoarding to govern how we orient ourselves toward school and each other.

The landmark victory in 1954 was meant to actualize the ability of all students, particularly Black students, to have access to high-quality schooling and shatter the grip of segregation in our schools and public institutions. Like in the Reconstruction era, Black families after Brown ran at the chance to better themselves with education and saw it as one of the engines of mobility, if not the primary one.

As my grandfather who was raised in Selma, Ala., under Jim Crow would tell me, “Get you a good education, they can never take that away from you.” My family, like many, knew that accessing quality schooling was no easy task, and as resistance to desegregation proved to be an evergreen reality, we took matters into our own hands.

To gain access to good schools, families like mine ran to magnet schools, to the suburbs, to Roman Catholic schools, to charter schools in pursuit of “good schools,” but as we chased opportunities, actual opportunity was moving further away from us. The expansion of segregated suburbs, the crippling of affirmative action, the failed experiments of education reform, the gentrification of urban neighborhoods and their schools, all made it hard for Black children to find possibility.

A few years ago, I met a very talented Black teenager named Sasha at an open mic night outside of Detroit. Sasha performed a show-stopping poem that enraptured the room. As I talked to her about her future, I asked, “Where are you looking at for college?”

She replied matter-of-factly, “I’m not.”

I laughed and asked her to tell me where she was really thinking about. She was already on the Advanced Placement track at her high school and was flourishing in spoken word. Sasha, raised in the shadows of the collapse of the big three automakers, outlined how she’d seen a number of members of her family make the leap to college but struggle to pay bills, and those who went to schools with big names, quietly professed to her that they’d be paying back their debts “for the rest of their lives.”

Sasha was making a calculated decision to forgo college because it wasn’t a place of future possibility, instead it was a place that confined her options in the future.

There are many Sashas among us, talented, astute observers of the social world, who wonder if the world in front of them is opening wider or is it rapidly closing. I must admit, when I first spoke with Sasha, I thought her pessimism was grossly misplaced.

I’d read reams of studies that showed the return to investment on education was high for Black students. But at that time, I didn’t realize that Black borrowers carried debt longer than their white counterparts and that American student debt would grow to more than $1.7 trillion, equivalent to Australia’s GDP.

I told her about the access provided by affirmative action but didn’t predict that the twilight of affirmative action would come at the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. I told her about the scholarships that were surely available for a student with her talents, not knowing that DEI programs would be targeted state by state and, then, nationally.

For every study that demonstrates the power of education, there are emerging counterstories that remind us things are not promised.

Seventy years after Brown, we would all do well to learn, as I have, from the Sashas of this world. Talented, hardworking Black students have not only been segregated but know the opportunities that were possible when I was young adult are not nearly the same today. Many reflections on Brown assume that we have made progress and will continue to, but we also must soberly consider that tomorrow may be bleaker than yesterday and prepare accordingly.

Three years before the Brown decision, Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Today, we must ask ourselves not what happens to dreams deferred but what happens to a dream dissolved?

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