The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s unanimous school desegregation decision whose 60th anniversary we will celebrate on May 17, had enormous impact. Its narrow result was to annihilate the “separate but equal” rule, previously sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 1896, that permitted states and school districts to designate some schools for “whites-only” and others for “Negroes-only.”1


But more important, the Brown decision focused the nation’s attention on black subjugation in a fashion not seen since Radical Republicans attempted to reconstruct the South after the Civil War. Brown’s 1954 success in highlighting the nation’s racial caste system gave encouragement to a wave of freedom rides to desegregate interstate transportation, to national support for Rosa Parks’ determination to desegregate local buses and other public facilities, to lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and other public accommodations, to heroic efforts to register African Americans in the Deep South to vote, and to confrontations over admission of African Americans to southern universities. It also spurred civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, 1964, 1965, and 1968 that, in combination, undid the nation’s legal support for race-based status. None of this would have taken place without Brown.2

But Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission—to undo the school segregation that persists as a modal characteristic of American public education today. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on May 17, 1954, Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and chief attorney for the plaintiffs, predicted that there would be “no organized resistance” to the Supreme Court’s order and that schools nationwide would be fully desegregated “in up to five years,” ensuring that black children throughout the nation would have educations that would gain them entry to skilled jobs and colleges on an equal basis with whites.3

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court where he spent the next 24 years in a fruitless struggle to prevent the perpetuation of school segregation, and indeed its exacerbation, after an initial rollback.

Today, things are getting worse. The typical black student now attends a school where only 29 percent of his or her fellow students are white, down from 36 percent in 1980. Subsequently, the courts, over Marshall’s and other pro-integration justices’ objections, began to free southern school districts from orders compelling them to adopt deliberate policies to integrate.4 In fact, black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been collected.5

Of course, Brown did accomplish a great deal, even with respect to school desegregation. Although today, typical black students in Southern states attend schools where only 29 percent of their fellow students are white, in 1954 the percentage was zero. (Here, too, however, we are now going backwards: In 1980, the percentage for Southern states was 40 percent.)6 This progress from 1954 to the present is shamefully inadequate, but it is not nothing.

Black Student Achievement and the Achievement Gap

Black student achievement, nationwide, and in every state, has improved at a spectacular rate since Brown. Although we don’t have a reliable measure of achievement going back very far in time, we have good data for the last few decades, from the federal sampled test of math and reading, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It shows, for example, that black fourth-graders now have average math scores that are better than average white math scores only a generation ago. Yet because average white achievement has also improved, the gap between black and white achievement remains. The average black student still performs better than only about 25 percent of white students, making the goal of equal qualification for the labor market a distant and daunting goal.7

It is too easy to forget that the Brown decision was propelled not merely by a principled objection to the idea of “separate but equal,” but by Southern states’ unrestrained contempt for the “equal” part of the formula. Black students were not only segregated but wholly denied meaningful educational opportunity. Schools 60 years ago were separate but not equal. In Clarendon, South Carolina, the school system at the heart of the Brown collection of cases, per pupil spending in schools for whites was more than four times the rate in schools for blacks. The capital value of schools for whites was nine times the value of shacks for blacks. The pupil-teacher ratio in schools attended by whites was 28-to-1, for those attended by blacks it was 47-to-1. There were flush toilets in schools for whites and outhouses at schools for blacks; buses transported white students to school while black students walked; schools for whites had janitors while schools for blacks were cleaned by teachers and students themselves. High school vocational programs for whites included typing and bookkeeping, but high school vocational programs for blacks consisted of agriculture and home economics.8 And so on.

All that ended with Brown. Although not the intent of the Legal Defense Fund, Marshall, or the other plaintiff attorneys, the case did provoke Southern states to make schools for blacks and whites more nearly equal, if still largely separate.

We are today considerably more knowledgeable about the challenges to student achievement posed by race and social class status than we were in 1954, if less motivated to do much to address them. Here is some of what we now know:

Resource Equality Is Not Enough

Per-pupil spending on black and white students today is now roughly equal (compared with the disparities of 60 years ago), but students who come to school with the handicaps of lower-social-class status need a lot more resources, not just a little more, and certainly not the same as those enjoyed by white middle-class students.

  • Children whose parents have less educational attainment and lower literacy levels hear less complex language at home, and are read to less frequently. Narrowing the difference between their school readiness and that of middle-class children requires provision of high-quality early childhood programs, from birth. As a nation, we’ve barely begun to recognize this; public discussion, such as it is, mostly concerns only provision of prekindergarten classes beginning at age 3 or 4, not birth. High-quality early childhood programs (with trained professionals, low child-caregiver ratios, and spacious play areas), as well as nurse home-visiting programs that support mothers to be more effective caregivers, will be very expensive to implement.9
  • New research has shown that the most important predictor for young children of later academic success is the general background knowledge with which they come to school. For very young children, having visited a zoo better predicts reading ability than knowing how to sound out letters that spell animal names. High-quality early childhood programs can help with this for young children from lower-social-class families. For older youth, participation in equally high-quality after-school and summer programs is necessary to boost achievement. Such programs do not stop at academic remediation and homework help, but include field trips, club activity, music, art, and dance, and organized athletics comparable to what middle-class children take for granted. These programs, too, are expensive.10
  • We also now know that for young minority children from lower-social-class backgrounds, smaller class sizes can boost achievement because in such classes, children get more adult attention. Middle-class children, typically from smaller families, not only get academically supportive adult attention at home, but more of it. Lowering class sizes for children who need it most is also very expensive. So is ensuring that such children have teachers who are more skilled than teachers of middle-class children. And children who come to school stressed from segregated neighborhoods with more crime and violence need added support services in school, like counselors and social workers. This, too, is expensive.11
  • Racially isolated neighborhoods typically have fewer primary care physicians, so children living in those neighborhoods typically receive less routine and preventive health care (even if they have Medicaid or private health insurance), contributing to greater absenteeism. They also have unique health problems contributing to lower achievement—for example, iron-deficiency anemia and lead poisoning, or asthma from living in less healthy environments. They tend not to get corrective lenses for vision problems. Putting full-service health clinics, with pediatric nurse practitioners, dentists and dental hygienists, and optometrists, in schools serving disadvantaged students is also an essential component of a narrowed achievement gap.12

Integration Remains Essential

In the Brown case, psychologist Kenneth Clark travelled to Clarendon County (and to other school districts whose cases were combined with Brown) to test the self-concept of young black children. He gave them black and white dolls from which to choose and concluded that the children had more positive feelings about the white dolls. The plaintiffs used his evidence to support their demand for desegregation. Chief Justice Earl Warren was sufficiently impressed to cite it in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision.

In retrospect, the study seems flawed for the purpose for which it was used: When Clark conducted the same exercise with black students in Northern integrated schools, he got similar results, suggesting that it was not school segregation, but a more generalized caste system, present in the North as well, that produced what Warren characterized as a “feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”13

Today, we know much more about how school segregation itself produces lower achievement for children from lower-social-class backgrounds.14 Feelings of inferiority are but a small part of the explanation.

  • When a few children in a classroom come from homes with less literacy, and without the benefit of high-quality early childhood care, a skilled teacher can give those children special attention. But when most children in that classroom have these disadvantages, the average instructional level must decline. The most skilled teachers must devote more time to remediation, less to new instruction.
  • When most or even many children in a classroom are sorely stressed, having endured life in a violent neighborhood, teachers must devote more time to discipline, less to learning.
  • When children have been exposed to few college-educated adults (except for their teachers), these children’s own ambitions are inevitably constrained. Parents in such schools do not have the educational backgrounds themselves to be able to monitor curricular decisions. Parent involvement, an essential ingredient of successful schools, consists in such schools mostly of fundraising support and chaperoning field trips.

Segregated Neighborhoods Lead to Segregated Schools

The schools black children attend today, in North and South, East and West, are segregated mostly because their schools are located in segregated neighborhoods. In some small cities and towns, schools can be integrated by adjusting attendance zones, establishing magnet schools, or implementing controlled choice programs. But in major metropolitan areas, places like Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, St. Louis, and so on, distances between ghetto and suburb are too great, and school district jurisdictional lines too established, for these methods to accomplish significant integration. Schools cannot be integrated unless the neighborhoods where they are located are integrated; in particular, by making housing opportunities for low-income, black, urban residents available in white middle-class suburbs.

As it turns out, the most important school policies are housing policies, and we pursue too few of them, and too weakly. Low-income working families are eligible for vouchers to supplement their rental payments up to market rates, even in middle-class communities, but the voucher program is barely funded, and when families do get vouchers, landlords in middle-class communities typically refuse them, so the vouchers perpetuate rather than reduce segregation.15 Suburbs maintain zoning ordinances that prevent construction of low- and moderate-income housing, rendering federal subsidies for such housing less useful to combat segregation. Government programs encourage the destruction of public housing ghettos but make inadequate provision for rehousing the displaced residents, many of whom are then forced to leave their gentrifying neighborhoods to seek homes in newly segregating inner-ring suburbs.16

It is now apparent that we are stuck. Unless we desegregate neighborhoods, we can’t desegregate schools, and unless we desegregate schools, the doors to opportunity for too many black students will continue to be closed.

In a short while, following the conclusion of a comment period, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to issue a rule requiring all municipalities, including white suburbs, to abide by the 1968 Fair Housing Act’s requirement that they follow policies to “affirmatively further fair housing,” i.e., to integrate.17

Whether and to what extent this rule is enforced will determine whether the failed promise of Brown can be fulfilled.

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