Brown v. Board of Education at 60: The pursuit of equity in a changing landscape

By Sarah Rubin, Boston University Public Service Fellow, LCCR

When the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision sixty years ago, the decision marked a major milestone on the path towards racial equity. On May 13, 2014, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, along with Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, the California Historical Society, and the University of San Francisco School of Education held an event to honor and commemorate this anniversary. Esteemed community members gathered to discuss the legacy of Brown and examine the successes and the persistent challenges that San Francisco schools have seen in the six decades since the decision.

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From the legal side, the policy side, the district side and the higher education side, from the perspective of parents, students, and advocates, the panel and the audience grappled with issues such as equity and access, disproportionate discipline, retention of African American teachers, and the impact of charter schools.A uniting theme among the comments made by the participants was that many of the core issues of the Brown case are ones with which we still struggle: different treatment on the basis of race; rampant inequity, unequal distribution of resources, and a high degree of segregation. Sixty years later, we continue to grapple with how to address these issues and effect change.

An often forgotten aspect of the discussion regarding solutions is the tension, so central to this struggle, between local control and top-down federal mandates. In 1954, “local control” was what obstructed justice in desegregation cases like Brown: School districts argued that integration was a matter for states, not the federal government, to decide. Ultimately, it grew clear that the next steps toward racial equity could only be taken with top-down assistance from the court. This was not, however, without resistance: Even in the aftermath of Brown, many public schools attempted to maintain segregation – with George Wallace, then Governor of Alabama, famously blocking the door of the University of Alabama auditorium on registration day to keep out black students.

In this, we see a premiere example of the potential threat that local control poses in the quest for racial justice: Local control carries with it the threat that local bias will taint the rules. Yet even when we see periods of top-down involvement in the business of equity, as with the Brown decision, over time, the pendulum inevitably swings back to a place where local control is favored. We find ourselves today in such a place, as the federal government has increasingly removed itself from integration efforts. With this, of course, have come predictable results: A 2012 press release by the Civil Rights Project highlights “persistent and serious” increases in segregation by race and poverty in recent years.

Perhaps a less predictable result has been the rise of attempts at the local level to combat racial injustice. Although the “local” had historically been a foe of equity, today’s advocates have found ways to push for local change at a time when top-down efforts have virtually disappeared. Charter schools, for example, exercise ultra-local control, with freedom from many district rules and regulations, in order–in theory, anyway–to leave space for solutions targeting the specific needs of the communities in which these schools sit. On some level, it makes sense: After all, local control allows a community to capitalize on a shared interest in the wellbeing of its own people.

Unfortunately, recent data has shown that such local efforts are not immune from the tendency toward inequality and segregation. Just last weekthe U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter highlighting areas in which it has seen patterns of discrimination in charters, including admissions and the administration of discipline.

The likeliest answer to this struggle between top-down and more local approaches has, it seems, been in front of our eyes all along, embedded in the Brown case itself. In Brown, it was the careful balance of bottom-up and top-down efforts–grassroots organizers in tandem with civil rights attorneys, and ultimately the unanimous decision of the Court’s nine justices–that made for the case’s success. Perhaps one of the essential lessons of Brown, then, is that neither top-down control nor local control, in and of themselves, are enough; rather, it is a delicate balance between the two that is needed, and we as advocates bear the responsibility of striking and monitoring this balance.