On May 17, 1954, 7-year-old Linda Brown became the successful plaintiff in perhaps the most significant civil rights ruling in Supreme Court history — Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. It was a decision that would desegregate schools. But instead of simply commemorating the 65th anniversary of Brown, we should measure our progress to an equal society today. And the progress is incomplete.
There were actually two Brown cases. Brown II (1955) focused on the mechanisms for integration, including the phrase “with all deliberate speed.” This introduced the imperative of immediacy, but its vagueness and lack of timeline allowed states to resist integration for decades.
Public opinion was against integration as well: Two years after Brown, only 49% of Americans supported integration — 61% of Northerners and 15% of Southerners.
The years that followed presented some of America’s most shameful moments, such as mobs attempting to intimidate black students into abandoning their right to attend an integrated school or college. Despite these disgraceful events, between 1954 and 1988 the percentage of black children attending majority white schools in the south increased from 0% to 43%.
If we were to celebrate the high point of integration, it would be 31 years ago, in 1988. Since then, two cases accelerated the decline of school integration. Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991) and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) weakened district desegregation plans by releasing districts from court orders and declaring some integration plans unconstitutional.
Although residential segregation in American cities has been on the decline since 2000, most metro areas with populations of more than 1 million and more than 3% black populations have black-white segregation indices over 50, which is considered highly segregated. Without mechanisms to create racially diverse schools, neighborhood schools and districts by default tend to be racially segregated.
A 2019 report found that more than half of American schoolchildren attended “racially concentrated districts,” where 75% of students are white or of color — and also found that nonwhite districts received $2,200 less per student. These data should make us ask — how committed are we to integrated schools?
This is an open question that is very relevant today: Ten Trump judicial nominees have refused to endorse the Brown decision, something scholars consider a settled legal question. We know that integrated schools do not reduce achievement.
Students in diverse schools benefit with greater empathy, less prejudice and a broader array of abilities for work in an increasingly diverse world. But two-thirds of black and Latino students are in schools where the majority of their classmates are low income, isolating them from opportunities that wealthier peers can access.
Additionally, inaccurate stereotypes about schools with low-income children of color quickly emerge, such as concerns about school safety and drug use. And it is no guarantee that federal policy at this time will reinforce efforts toward integration.
Instead, the motivation to meet the promise of Brown will come from white, black and Latino parents alike. We need more parents to hear what writer and speaker Abby Norman says: “White people get to be comfortable in most of American society.
It took me until I was an adult to be somewhere white feelings were not centered…. My kids already know what that is like.” The grass-roots organization Integrated Schools, with 15 chapters across the nation, offers the following advice: research and reflect, speak up, set foot, step in, step up (not on), and step out. The savior mentality isn’t helpful or welcome.
On this anniversary of one of the most important civil rights cases of the past 100 years, we have an opportunity for critical re-assessment of our progress toward an integrated, not simply desegregated, society.
Instead of a surface analysis, we need to look closely at how we make housing choices, how we fund schools equitably and how we provide resources for low-income communities. May 17, 1954, marked a high mark for American morality, but to realize its potential, we must be committed to individual and collective action to meet the legacy of Brown.
Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy, and an associate dean in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. He is co-editor of “Legacies of Brown: Multiracial Equity in American Education” (with Dorinda Carter Andrews and Stella Flores).