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When Did We Become Disillusioned With Desegregation? (Opinion)

Several years after Education Week was launched in the early 1980s, the 30th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education presented our Opinion section with the first occasion for what has become a decennial project: inviting leading scholars to reflect on the significance of the landmark desegregation case. The consensus has rarely been rosy.

The first major anniversary we were around to mark threw some cold water on the occasion, as the civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Derrick Bell confessed to his lack of enthusiasm for the upcoming commemoration.

“What I fear as I see civil-rights groups gearing up for the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education,” he wrote several months before the anniversary, “is the transformation of a once-powerful legal precedent into the equivalent of an annual holiday with no more implication for the equal educational opportunity it promised than the celebrations dutifully carried out each year for Black History Month.”

A year after this reflection on the significance of 30 years of Brown, he would resign from his post as the dean of the University of Oregon Law School in protest when the university’s search committee refused to hire an Asian American woman for a faculty position. He then returned to a professorship at Harvard University, where he had once been the law school’s first Black tenured professor—before leaving that post, too, in protest over failures to hire women of color.

But that all came later. In 1984, he was waging a different fight, in the pages of Education Week: How should we interpret the legacy of the landmark civil rights case?

It remains a live question this year as scholars and practitioners set down their markers for the case’s 70th anniversary.

Earlier this month, sociologist R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy recounted why one talented Black teenager decided to forgo college—and how that exchange drove home how the racial progress made in the decades since Brown is neither guaranteed or even permanent. Instead, ballooning student debt, attacks on DEI programs, and the downfall of affirmative action in university admissions led him to warn that the opportunities available to him as a young adult are already drying up for the next generation.

Author and professor Bettina L. Love was even more direct: “Today, the last vestiges of Brown’s legacy are fading quickly.”

Former principal Sharif El-Mekki had a similarly dim view of the ruling’s modern legacy, concluding, “The unforeseen consequence of integration was the loss of Black teachers en masse, turning integration into a one-way street. Had integration been a two-way process, with white students attending predominantly Black schools, resources might have flowed into these institutions, bolstering their capacity to provide high-quality education. Instead, white flight and the exodus of white students from integrated schools drained resources from those schools and exacerbated the practical inequality faced by Black and brown students.”

So just what went wrong in the decades since 1954 to leave so many of today’s educators disillusioned?

By Bell’s accounting back in 1984, the broken promise of Brown began with an overly literal interpretation of the ruling, as policymakers and civil rights activists treated racial integration as the end itself rather than as a necessary step on the road to truly equal opportunity.

“I have been one of the more or less unheard voices urging that the Brown decision be read to require a focus on equal educational opportunity,” he wrote. “Such a reading would mean no coerced assignment of blacks by race, but would also mean that school systems must allocate resources without discrimination and, most important, must permit blacks to be involved in all policymaking so that they can play the important role in the schooling of their children so essential to effective education.”

For all that modern commentators are echoing that argument today, it was not without detractors 40 years ago. Just months after his initial essay, Bell returned to the Opinion pages to respond to a private correspondence he had received from an Alabama superintendent about his reflection on Brown.

That superintendent’s message was twofold: Yes, desegregation remained a serious problem in some large cities, but he was proud of the desegregation they had achieved in his small Alabama district. Secondly, the superintendent painted a grim picture of the home lives of many Black students—”second-generation welfare families where there is a high rate of absenteeism from school and an inordinate rate of illegitimate births,” as Bell recounts—to conclude that schools cannot be expected to rectify these out-of-school factors.

That letter, Bell argued, encapsulated the limitations of measuring equal educational opportunity for Black students purely by the racial balance in schools: The pursuit of racial balance alone may expand opportunity for middle-class Black students but is not a sufficient remedy for materially disadvantaged students.

“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,” he insisted. “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.”

This analysis of economic inequality as a primary barrier to equal educational opportunity has been echoed by many scholars in the years since, including by Richard Rothstein at the 50th anniversary of Brown. Rothstein—who would later go on to write the bestselling The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America documenting the root causes of ongoing residential segregation—tallied up the socioeconomic inequalities between Black and white families that contribute to the so-called achievement gap in schools.

“It’s not that school improvement isn’t needed,” he concluded, after contemplating disparate access to health care, affordable housing, and economic opportunity. “It’s that without social and economic reform as well, school improvement will be stymied.”

In his own 50th anniversary reflection that same year, Bell doubled down on his disillusionment. His final word on the legacy of Brown in Education Week’s pages?

Decades of resistance to all but the bare minimum compliance had reduced the once landmark ruling to “a magnificent mirage, the legal equivalent of that city on a hill to which all aspire without any serious thought that it will ever be attained.”

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