Brown and racial equality in public education

In his unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court in the watershed case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Chief Justice Earl Warren asked the foundational question: “Does segregation of children in public schools based solely on race, deprive Black children of equal educational opportunities?” He answered: “We believe that it does.”

Therefore, the Court held, segregation violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. As Chief Justice Warren explained, the separation of children “solely because of their race generates 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.”

The Court’s recognition of the impact of segregation on Black children represented a reversal of its view in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Plessy Court had stated that the assumption of racial inferiority was fallacious. But the Warren Court dismissed its predecessor’s view on grounds that modern “psychological knowledge” demonstrates the imprint on Black children of the feeling of inferiority. In footnote 11, perhaps the most famous footnote in the history of the Court’s opinions, Warren bolstered this determination by listing seven works and studies of leading social scientists and psychologists.

The Court’s historic reversal of Plessy, as it pertained to public school education, rested on a simple principle: separate but equal educational facilities are “inherently unequal.” The Brown decision dealt only with the “constitutionality of segregation in public education,” and did not address segregation in other realms of American life. The Court’s decisions holding segregation unconstitutional in other areas — public buildings, transportation, housing and restaurants, among others — would come later, each resting on the landmark precedent established in Brown. By 1963, as the Court said, racial discrimination under American law was prohibited.

Criticisms of Brown have been laid at the Court’s doorstep. For example, the Court’s opinion in Brown might have more clearly demonstrated that the mere act of segregation denies educational equality, but demonstration of a truism resists unnecessary iterations. Every southerner knew that segregation in public schools was designed to maintain white supremacy. How blacks and whites felt about inferiority, moreover, had nothing to do with the objective reality of the principle of racial equality before the law. Indeed, as Justice William O. Douglas said of the 14th Amendment: “No classifications on the basis of race can be made. A negro can’t be put by the state in one room because he’s black and another put in the other room because he’s white.”

The Brown decision has been criticized for its failure to impose orders and remedies. The Court did not impose on public schools any order to immediately halt the practice of segregation. Nor did it impose a remedy. While both orders and remedies typically accompany an equal protection ruling, the Court in Brown departed from that norm because of the Justices’ concerns about the impact of its ruling throughout southern states. Fears of widespread defiance and violence persuaded the Court to delay decrees.

This criticism has some merit, of course. It is true that the failure of the Court to issue a decree to immediately halt segregation in public schools undermined respect for the decision part of the Court’s claim to legal as well as political and moral authority: the defense of principle. How true and great is the equal protection principle, critics asked, if the Court is reluctant to stop segregation?

The Court anticipated these criticisms but nonetheless decided that a gradualist approach to the matter of orders and remedies provided a wiser course. As it turned out, the Court’s well-founded fears of widespread defiance and violence were not allayed by delays in judicial decrees. An entire year passed before the Court issued its remedial opinion — in Brown II, as it is popularly known. In this most sensitive of cases, the Court again declined to order an immediate end to segregation in public schools. Instead, it instructed the lower courts to require school boards to “make a prompt and reasonable start” toward “compliance at the earliest practicable date.” The lower courts should issue decrees to admit Black children to the schools “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.”

The pervasive defiance, evasion and violence throughout the South confirmed the Court’s worst fears. In 1956, a “Southern Manifesto,” signed by 82 members of the House of Representatives and 19 members of the Senate, denounced Brown as grounded on “personal political and social ideas” rather than the Constitution. Some in Congress asserted that racial integration was “a radical, pro-Communist political movement.”

That response also reflects a harsh reality about our judicial system and the judiciary’s lack of an enforcement power. The judiciary has no means of enforcing its rulings; indeed, it is dependent upon on the executive branch to implement its rulings. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Court hoped for support from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. For his part, however. President Eisenhower gave the decision no political support, pledging only to carry out the law of the land.

In the end, Brown itself could not change the hearts and minds of all Americans on the issue of racial equality in the schools, but it certainly brought to the forefront constitutional principles that would well serve the nation.