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The Mexican American Struggle for Equal Educational Opportunity in Mendez v. Westminster: Helping to Pave the Way for Brown v. Board of Education

by Richard R. Valencia - 2005

Few people in the United States are aware of the central role that Mexican Americans have played in some of the most important legal struggles regarding school desegregation. The most significant such case is Mendez v. Westminster (1946), a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 5,000 Mexican American students in Orange County, California. The Mendez case became the first successful constitutional challenge to segregation. In fact, in Mendez the U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Mexican American students' rights were being violated under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the Mendez case was never appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a number of legal scholars at that time hailed it as a case that could have accomplished what Brown eventually did eight years later: a reversal of the High Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had sanctioned legal segregation for nearly 60 years. Even though Mendez did not bring about the reversal of Plessy, it did lay some of the important groundwork for the landmark case that would. In this article, I use the lens of critical race theory to examine how Mendez and Brown were strongly connected and how Mendez served as a harbinger for Brown. This linkage can be captured in at least two ways. First, Mendez was a federal, Fourteenth Amendment case grounded in a theoretical argumentknown as integration theorythat stresses the harmful effects of segregation on Mexican American students. Secondly, in order to make this Fourteenth Amendment argument, the attorneys in Mendez used social science expert testimony. Such testimony, grounded in similar theoretical arguments, proved very useful in Brown. For these reasons it is important to remember the role of Mexican Americans and the Mendez case, in particular, in the broader struggle for equal educational opportunity in the United States and appreciate how they helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 3, 2005, p. 389-423
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11792, Date Accessed: 5/13/2021 3:11:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Valencia
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD R. VALENCIA is professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the College of Education of the University of Texas at Austin. His major research interests include racial/ethnic minority education, with a particular focus on Mexican Americans. Among his recent publications are an edited volume entitled Chicano School Failure and Success: Past, Present, and Future (2nd ed., RoutledgeFalmer, 2002), and “‘Mexican Americans Don’t Value Education!’: On the Basis of the Myth, Mythmaking, and Debunking,” in the Journal of Latinos and Education (with M. S. Black).
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