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Black, White, and Brown: The Transformation of Public Education in America

by Charles Vert Willie & Sarah Susannah Willie - 2005

This article reflects upon changes in U.S. education since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The authors reject both the naively hopeful and the bitterly cynical interpretations of the efficacy of Brown in favor of a more moderate assessment: Brown has had many positive effects, they argue, but it has been slow going and there is much work yet to be done. Drawing on their research in primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational settings, the authors argue that the concept of justice is a negotiated concept that depends on the "representative viewpoints"; they examine the obstacles that have impeded the full implementation of Brown; they note a few school systems that have achieved more just and equitable school systems; they consult census data that reveal increasing equity between Blacks and Whites when it comes to educational achievement; and finally, they examine the legacy of the Brown decision for other groups of children. Referring to Brown as a "work in progress," the authors argue that group-specific remedies are not only legally defensible, but also crucial in achieving greater educational equity and student diversity.

This article reflects upon changes in U.S. education since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The authors reject both the naively hopeful and the bitterly cynical interpretations of the efficacy of Brown in favor of a more moderate assessment: Brown has had many positive effects, they argue, but it has been slow going and there is much work yet to be done. Drawing on their research in primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational settings, the authors argue that the concept of justice is a negotiated concept that depends on the ‘‘representative viewpoints’’; they examine the obstacles that have impeded the full implementation of Brown; they note a few school systems that have achieved more just and equitable school systems; they consult census data that reveal increasing equity between Blacks and Whites when it comes to educational achievement; and finally, they examine the legacy of the Brown decision for other groups of children. Referring to Brown as a ‘‘work in progress,’’ the authors argue that group-specific remedies are not only legally defensible, but also crucial in achieving greater educational equity and student diversity.

I was eleven or twelve when the Brown vs. Board of Education [decision] was made. . . . My parents. . . were absolutely jubilant when the news came out. It was as though the walls of Jericho had come tumbling down, once again. . . .

— Cordell Black, 20031


Upon hearing the news of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Mr. and Mrs. Black were filled with hope, both for the children they were raising in the North, their son recalls, and their younger siblings in the South. Today, we reflect upon what Mr. and Mrs. Black could only anticipate.

We observe two contemporary, popular responses to the Brown decision and the outcomes that followed it. One perspective interprets the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, as evidence of racism’s inevitable demise—discrete moments in the 1950s and ’60 s when racism took its final quick if painful breaths. By the late 1960s, so this recent history is remembered, the country had buried its racist past and was reborn into a non-racist present (Murray 1984; Sowell 1996; the Thernstroms 1997). From this perspective, the fifty years since the Brown decision are recounted with a combination of humility, distancing, and self-congratulation: White Americans in the North awoke to the terrifying treatment of African Americans by Klan members and Southern police and their dogs; they realized the evils of racism, ceased seeing color, and—with a few outlying and embarrassing exceptions—cheerfully, if awkwardly, began welcoming Black Americans into their schools, neighborhoods, and friendship circles. When schools were not desegregated, no crime was committed because discrimination no longer existed, and those schools that remained fiscally challenged and racially segregated were (and continue to be treated as if they are) unsolvable problems, the unintended vestiges of de facto segregation or the result of problematic cultural values.2

On the other end of the spectrum is a second popular response to Brown. This perspective focuses on its failure to integrate fully the nation’s public schools and to educate effectively many if not most of the African American children served by them (McGill 1964; Bell 1976, 1992b, 1995; Ware 2004).3 Holders of this perspective interpret Brown’s promise of better schools through integration as a sham at worst and an unfulfilled promise at best when they count the numbers of poor and working-class Black students who remain in racially homogenous, resource-poor, mostly urban schools with high drop out rates (Bell 1976, 1995). Many in this group question the very value of integration, arguing that effective education must become the primary goal of lawyers serving Black clients (McGill 1964; Ware 2004). Although it was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund that argued and won the Brown suit, the most recent issue of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, publishes a lead article entitled ‘‘The Unfulfilled Promise’’ (May/June 2004).

Of course, there are a range of views between these two, but we trust the portraits above will be familiar to many people as representative of prevailing views. We see neither the response of self-serving optimism nor that of hopeless pessimism as wholly or accurately reflective of the complex reality that followed from the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate the nation’s public schools.

Contrary to the nostalgic perspective, the United States still wrestles with racism. For example, there are scholars who continue to assert intellectual capacity differences across racial groups to a small but receptive audience (Hernnstein and Murray 1994). But this is simply one of the more blatant forms of White supremacy.

As several scholars of race in the American context have observed, White Americans—uncomfortable with their own racial privilege and racism in a putatively post-racist context—have adopted proxies for race, like culture and class, to signal differences, justify exclusion, and ultimately to protect their own race and, in some cases, class privilege (Winant 1994; Gallagher 2003; Steinberg 1995). This explains why and how so many predominantly White public school districts continue to evade racial integration.

The perspective of Brown as a failure is also inaccurate. In 1950, before Brown, only 35 percent of White people and 13 percent of Black people twenty-five years and older had a high school education or more (U.S. Census Bureau 1960, 1971). Fifty years later, in the year 2000, 85 percent of White people and 79 percent of Black people in the same age range had a high school education or more (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). Meanwhile, the proportion of adults twenty-five years of age and older who have attended college but have not received a bachelor’s degree is 26.8 percent for Blacks and 25.4 percent for Whites, a parity that may be attributable to Brown and the Civil Rights Movement.

Although still lagging behind, African Americans have been steadily catching up to Whites over the years. Clearly, during the past 50 years Blacks as a group have advanced faster than Whites in terms of their rate of high school graduation and have significantly closed the gap in terms of educational attainment (C. Willie and Reddick 2003: 143; U.S. Census Bureau 2001).

With increased educational opportunities, Black people have also enhanced their position in the occupational hierarchy during the last half-century. African Americans have attained parity with European Americans for the first time in the occupational category of technical, sales and administrative support workers. This category is second tier to the top tier of managerial and professional specialties. In years gone by, workers in the second tier were often labeled semi-professionals and clerks; 28 percent of the White labor force is employed in these kinds of jobs compared with 27 percent of the Black labor force (U.S. Census Bureau 2001). When this 27 percent is linked with the 24 percent of workers employed in the top tier of managers and professionals, one observes that a majority of Black workers—for the first time in a decennial census—are recorded as employed in the ‘‘white collar’’ category (C. Willie and Reddick 2003: 146; U.S. Census Bureau 2001). We attribute this progress to the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Movement and the push for affirmative action (C. Willie and Reddick 2003; S. Willie 2003). Indeed, Robert L. Carter, legal counsel to the NAACP from 1944 to 1968, asserts that ‘‘Brown’s indirect consequences’’ beyond the campus have been ‘‘awesome. It has completely altered the style, the spirit, and the stance of race relations. . . [It encouraged] a social upheaval the extent and consequences of which cannot even now be measured with certainty’’ (cited in Bell 1992b: 551).

That a social sea-change has occurred in what people say regarding race is revealed by two surveys: A 2004 survey by the Gallup Organization reveals that 70 percent of Whites, 77 percent of Latinos, and 80 percent of Blacks now say they approve of interracial marriage. With reference to residential area, ‘‘majorities of Blacks, Whites and Hispanics all say they would rather live in racially mixed neighborhoods than surround themselves with only members of their own group’’ (Goodheart 2004: 38). Of course, there is still a significant amount of segregation in the residential locations of racial and ethnic groups, but data cited indicate important attitudinal changes.

Additionally, a study of segregation trends in twenty major school districts by the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York in Albany found that, in the year 2000, while school segregation continues, far fewer Blacks (47 percent) would have to move to other schools in order for the districts to achieve integration compared with 1968, when a much larger proportion (81 percent) would have had to move to other schools to achieve integration in these big cities (Ware 2004: 42). At the same time, according to the Lewis Mumford Center study, only 53 percent of Black students in these 20 urban school districts combined were attending desegregated schools in 1999. Furthermore, the ‘‘inner-city’’ of these urban communities, where many Black low-income students live, is still substantially segregated These data indicate that big city school districts are still segregated, but that they are less segregated today (in 1999) than they were in 1968.

This said, while we find the goals of Brown to have been appropriate and just, its implementation has been slow to offer effective and integrated education to many low-income and working-class Black students. Meanwhile, affluent Whites remain in control over most public school districts and the federal courts refuse to fully confront the inequality inherent in property tax-based resources for local school districts.4 Thus, some working-class and low-income Blacks find themselves in the paradoxical position of arguing for a return to the promise of Plessy—for an education ‘‘equal’’ to that of most predominantly White public schools even as they remain ‘‘separate’’ from them. Defensive in their dismissal of the benefits of racial integration and unaware of the other positive outcomes of the Brown decision, these less affluent Blacks want better schools for their children, although they may not know how to achieve this outcome.

In this essay, we draw upon our research in primary, secondary, and higher education to examine the obstacles that have impeded the full implementation of Brown. We argue that the concept of justice is a negotiated phenomenon dependent upon representative viewpoints, and we celebrate the successes of Brown, especially in the ways it has pried the doors of public education open further assuring an even greater representation of students in some schools. Finally, we interpret the situation of America’s public schools as neither in crisis nor beyond concern, but rather as a work in progress.


The harsh truth is that the first Brown decision was a great decision; the second Brown decision was a great mistake.

— Loren Miller, 1966

The first Brown decision, referred to as Brown I, was promulgated in 1954. Brown I offered observations and a diagnosis: ‘‘Segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws [guaranteed to American citizens by the Constitution]. . .. Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. . . and [s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’’

The second Brown decision, Brown II, was handed down the following year and offered the Supreme Court’s prescription. Affirming again that ‘‘racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional,’’ the Court nonetheless assigned ‘‘primary responsibility for. . . assessing and solving. . . [the] problems. . . arising from the transition to a system of public education freed of racial discrimination’’ to the very ‘‘school authorities’’ against whom Black plaintiffs had brought their case(s).

To devolve authority upon local school boards to solve the problem of public school segregation that they were responsible for creating and maintaining is like asking the fox who was caught stealing from the hen house to act as its security guard. Obviously, a plan designed by the thief will leave open opportunities for further theft and so will a school-desegregation plan be found wanting if developed by policy makers who have a history of establishing and maintaining segregation in public education. This is precisely what happened.

School boards in the United States have been and continue to be disproportionately controlled by affluent European Americans. In the 1940s, A.B. Hollingshead (1949) observed that ‘‘the members of the [school] board [have] a highly developed sense of responsibility for the preservation of the economic power and prestige interests of. . . the classes with which they were affiliated’’ (125). In 1954, affluent Whites continued to control many of the nation’s school boards; and some of them continued to believe in segregation and racial isolation. When faced with the court order to desegregate, they tended to retain White consultants some of whom were less interested in designing student assignment plans that redressed the grievances of people of color than they were in developing plans that were least offensive to White people. Moreover, affluent White school board members tended to retain chief school officers who were either not fully committed to racial desegregation or who were willing to protect the privileges of White and affluent people. One school-desegregation planner, John Finger, Jr. (1976), argued that ‘‘complete equity may be less important than feelings of. . . acceptability by children and parents’’ (p. 61).

Finger (1976) accused some judges of ‘‘adopting undesirable practices or fail[ing] to undertake steps we know are needed, desirable, [and] just because of public sentiment against busing’’ (p. 65). The comments of this education planner suggest that in some school districts Brown was never implemented properly as a way of redressing the complaints of injustice by the plaintiff class.

Although the situation has begun to change, albeit very slowly, over the last thirty years, Whites have continued to resist racial integration even as they have begun to embrace the idea of multiculturalism (Ware 2004; S. Willie 2003). In a study of the Corpus Christi, Texas, school district under court order to desegregate, we discovered that ‘‘obstructionists to school desegregation were [White and middle class] school trustees and the administrators.’’ Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to make their school system more fair, at every turn ‘‘[t]hey. . . insisted that all charges against the school system be tested in court, and they used ways of eroding the full requirements of desegregation’’ (C. Willie and Greenblatt 1981: 322). Indeed, during a particular court case when one of us was serving as a court-appointed expert in a Mountain state, the White superintendent asked, ‘‘How many one-race schools can we get away with?’’

These are but a few examples of thousands of school and other authorities who failed to accept responsibility for designing student assignment plans to redress the grievances of the plaintiff class. Angry over being the losing defendants in the court cases, many White school and political authorities threw themselves against the desegregation process.

In his study of a small town, Hollingshead (1949) found that opposition to change the schools came largely from affluent and elite families and that these families were able to block efforts to reorganize the school system through their control of the board of education. Pressure from local elites to block equity-minded reforms has also been documented in more recent research (see, for example, Wells and Serna 1996). Teachers and administrators, therefore, do not set their priorities in a vacuum; they respond to school boards, parents, superintendents, mayors; in short, they respond to the officials, constituents, and elites that fund, support and pressure them.


While the Supreme Court declared in Brown II that ‘‘constitutional principles cannot be allowed to yield simply because of disagreement with them,’’ it nevertheless permitted district courts to consider what it called ‘‘public and private considerations’’ in requiring a defendant school board to make a ‘‘reasonable start toward full compliance’’ with the Brown I court order. Indeed, it is likely that the belligerent attitude of Whites who opposed desegregation was considered by particular courts to constitute a valid ‘‘private consideration’’ in determining how far and how fast to go in integrating schools. The observations of Finger, a desegregation planner, mentioned above, attest to this fact. Failing to define operationally the concepts of public interest, private consideration, all deliberate speed, good faith compliance, and reasonable start, the Supreme Court effectively slowed the desegregation process, in Robert Dentler’s words, to something less than a snail’s pace (1991: 32).

Without a ‘‘road map’’ on how district courts and school boards might reach the goal of integrated education, more than ten years passed before significant desegregation even began to be implemented in a limited way in the nation’s public schools. During this decade, members of the plaintiff class and others in similar situations were unequivocally victims of justice denied. ‘‘[I]t took educators, desegregation planners, attorneys, and judges 15 to 20 years [after] Brown to master the challenge of how to plan and implement school desegregation methods that work’’ (Dentler 1991: 38).

A similar contradictory decision was reached in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson rendered in 1896. Plessy embraced the Louisiana State law of 1890 that required ‘‘equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races,’’ but did not provide guidelines to achieve such on trains, in schools and other public accommodations. The Court declared that ‘‘Legislation is powerless to . . . abolish distinctions based upon physical differences,’’ and that ‘‘the commingling of the races in public settings’’ is a matter of ‘‘voluntary consent of individuals.’’ Indeed, the Court declared that the Louisiana law was ‘‘reasonable’’ because the Legislature took into consideration ‘‘established usages, customs and traditions of the people.’’ The Court ignored or denied that the voluntary consent, traditions, and customs to which it referred belonged to a particular group of individuals, European Americans.5

What these cases and dozens of others reveal is the attempt by the Court both to provide equal protection of the nation’s citizens under the law and to protect White privilege. These are contradictory goals. Were the justices conscious of their desire to protect White privilege? Probably not, but it really doesn’t matter. Intent is not at issue. Failure to protect all citizens under the Constitution is at issue. Is it safe to assume that the race, class, and gender positions of the justices influenced their decisions? Absolutely. All people are influenced by their positions in the society. Furthermore, the justices of the nation’s highest court regularly returned to the intent of the framers of the Constitution—a gathering of fifty-five White, propertied, Christian men at odds with each other and sometimes even within themselves—to determine how wide the circle of democratic rights should extend.

With many of the decisions to extend rights to or protect the rights of a group within America, the Supreme Court justices have handed down contradictory rulings made so by their loyalty to the protection of White privilege and the Constitution. When will the protection of White privilege be jettisoned as a relic of an undemocratic past? We believe this will happen when men and women who have not benefited from it find themselves represented in proportionate numbers in the executive, legislative and judicial branches or our government. Critical race scholars such as Kimberle Crenshaw, Lani Guinier and Cheryl Harris, whose writings are published in a volume edited by Crenshaw et al.(1995), have made compelling arguments about ways of overcoming institutional racism.

We argue that justice and fairness are negotiated concepts, involving—if not the actual parties—representatives of varied individuals and their experiences and interests. The Supreme Court that issued the Plessy and the Brown decisions, while constituted of learned and scholarly men of European descent, is not different from any governing body whose wisdom is limited by the experiences, education and insights of its constitutive members. This is just one reason why it is imperative that each branch of the United States government be as representative as possible.


The great limitations of Brown were (1) the absence of adequate and specific guidelines for implementation of the Court order in a practical and effective way; (2) failure of school boards to design equitable student assignment plans that desegregated schools and enhanced education for all children simultaneously; (3) failure or public officers, especially governors and mayors, to enforce legitimate school-desegregation laws; and (4) failure to punish high-level authorities who deliberately violated the law. In this section, we share examples of court cases that reveal these limitations and what happened when people eventually implement thoughtful school-desegregations plans.

As Derrick Bell has argued, resistance to school desegregation was present in the North as well as the South. Resistance sometimes played itself out differently in 1970s Boston compared to 1950s Little Rock, but often similarities were unmistakable. For instance, in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine Black students were scheduled to enroll in the previously all-White Central High School in September of 1957, the federal government had to step in to enforce desegregation when the Arkansas governor refused to comply. As Loevy (1997) describes the Little Rock incident:

Before the African American students could ever enter the building, . . . the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus sent in the Arkansas National Guard to ‘‘maintain law and order’’ by keeping the black students out of school. By sending in the National Guard to prevent integration, Governor Faubus was directly challenging the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court (31–32).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower took action to enforce the Brown decision and abide by the law in Little Rock. He faced (and faced down) Governor Faubus first by federalizing the National Guard, then by removing them when they failed to uphold the law, and finally by sending in the U.S. Army troops to enforce school desegregation.

Two years later, however, in 1959, the political machine of Senator Harry Byrd that influenced all political action in Virginia worked through Governor J. Lindsay Almond ‘‘[who] repeated his strong stand against integration.’’ The governor, with the blessings of the Senator Byrd, gave state support to the closing of schools in Warren County, Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Prince Edward County. All of these schools were closed ‘‘as a way of preventing racial integration of students required by the Brown decision’’ (Sartain and Dennis 1981: 217).

More than a decade later in the Northern city of Boston the overwhelming resistance to desegregation on the part of elected officials was similar to that in Virginia, although no schools were closed. The equity and educational components that the U.S. District Court could and did order threatened the people in power in Boston who had used public schools to fulfill their personal interest rather than those of the public and the plaintiffs, according to the court desegregation expert Robert Dentler(1984).

At a U.S. District Court hearing in 1974, Boston’s mayor, Kevin White, said to Judge Garrity, who was soliciting the mayor’s help in enforcing the school-desegregation order: ‘‘It’s your federal court order, Your Honor, you enforce it’’ (Bullard, Grant and Stoia 1981: 43). Mayor White’s stance fueled resistance by the Boston School Committee, which in turn ‘‘refused to approve a plan that included busing the students in order to desegregate schools’’ (Bullard et al. 1981: 37).

Indeed, a year later, President Gerald Ford ‘‘incit[ed] further resistance’’ against the law of the land, publicly stating that he ‘‘disagreed with the court order [in Boston] and with forced busing’’ (Bullard et al. 1981: p. 43). While this was a reversal of President Eisenhower’s actions in Little Rock, such contempt was neither new nor prosecuted as public authorities ignored the oath they had taken to uphold the law.

Mirroring this resistance on the part of local, state and national political figures, the reaction of Whites in South Boston to the Black students who had been assigned to South Boston High School via the court order was shameful:

As the black students left South Boston High School hundreds of South Boston [White] people jammed the sidewalks and clogged the streets. They hooted and gestured at the departing black students as police made little effort to keep them at a distance. . . . As the last bus turned a corner and stopped for a red light, a blond teenager picked up a rock and heaved it through a bus window to the cheers of his companions (Bullard et al. 1981: 39–40).

According to Sartain and Dennis (1981), none of these White public officials who resisted federal court orders to desegregate schools spent any time in jail on a contempt-of-court charge for refusing to enforce public law sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Clearly, some of our public officials appear not to believe that the United States is a nation of laws unless the laws support their personal beliefs. The Brown II decision clearly stated that ‘‘constitutional principles cannot be allowed to yield simply because of disagreement with them.’’ This clause was ignored by President Ford, Governors Almond and Faubus, Mayor White, and scores of other elected officials across the United States. Thus, the absence of diligent enforcement of the Brown decision by governmental authorities limited the full and beneficial affect it could have had on the education of all children in the United States.

A report prepared for the National Urban League in 1989 concluded that:

‘‘. . . although the court sustained . . . [the] allegations of segregation and discrimination in public education [claimed by the black plaintiffs], it actually gave more desegregative relief to whites than to blacks . . . cities such as Atlanta, Milwaukee and St. Louis adopted desegregation plans that prohibit[ed] any all-white schools, but accommodat[ed] several all-black schools’’ (cited in C. Willie 1989b: 128–129).

It should not surprise us, therefore, that opinion polls reveal that in many cities throughout the nation two out of three Blacks feel that they still do not have the same educational opportunities as Whites, even after school desegregation (C. Willie 1989a: 219–247).

In fact, the perceptions of African Americans reflect a continuing reality. Inequitable distribution in school assignments of students of color is not a thing of the distant past. In the Charleston County School District of South Carolina, for example, a majority of Black students (52 percent) attended racially segregated Black schools with student bodies that were 80 to 100 percent Black during the 1996–97 school year. During this same school year, 84 percent of White students attended public schools that were racially mixed (C. Willie, Alicea, Alves and Mitchell 1988: 286). The experience of school integration for White students in Charleston County was substantially greater than the experience of school integration for Black students, which was only 48 percent. Bear in mind that the court order that sanctioned this disparity between the races was for the purpose of redressing the grievances of Black students who were members of the plaintiff class that won the school-desegregation court case in Charleston County. One could say that an inequitable remedy was derived to respond to the demands of the White defendants in this equity court case. Despite enrollment disparities by race, in 1990, the U.S. District Court granted the Charleston County School District unitary status for having achieved as much desegregation as the Court determined was practicable (C. Willie et al. 1998).

Beyond failure to provide parity with Whites with respect to all educational opportunities, several school districts have required Black students to shoulder a disproportionate burden to achieve desegregation. For example, Milwaukee transported nine times more Blacks than Whites to desegregate some of its public schools. Sociologist and education expert Mary Haywood Metz (1986) finds such unfairness appalling: ‘‘[N]o one should present a plan that requires such an imbalance in the use of transportation by race as a model of equity’’ (210).


The tale of two districts in Florida reveals why diversity in public schools is an asset and why segregation is such a liability. This tale also reveals another limitation of Brown, its exclusive focus on race rather than socioeconomic status as well.

Hillsborough County (which includes Tampa) is one of Florida’s larger school districts. During the 1999–2000 school year, it had seventeen schools that received a grade of ‘‘D’’ according to the state-designed rating system. Three-quarters of these low-achieving schools were segregated socio-economically, with high concentrations of low-income children ranging from 81 to 97 percent of their student bodies; nearly half of these low-achieving schools were highly segregated by race with people of color ranging from 82 to 97 percent of their student bodies. Seven of these 17 low-achieving schools were segregated both racially and socioeconomically. None of these schools was diversified socioeconomically and only one of seventeen was racially diversified with a balanced population of Whites and students of color. Our review of the data indicates low school-wide achievement scores are correlated with high rates of segregation for people of color (C. Willie, Edwards and Alves 2002).

In contrast to the story of segregation in Hillsborough County, Lee County, Florida, is a district that embraced, if belatedly, a well-executed school-desegregation plan, although race alone was considered. Lee County School District—with approximately 56,000 students, two-thirds of whom are White and one-third of whom are people of color—adopted a ‘‘Controlled Choice’’ plan in 1997. The plan, which was implemented during the 1998–99 school year, delineated the school district into three large student attendance zones, with each zone consisting of seven to eleven elementary schools, three to five middle schools, and two to three high schools. The student population in each zone was racially mixed, and the student body of each school was expected to be similar to the proportion of White students and students of color in each zone. In fact, proportions of students of each racial group varied no more or less than 10 to 15 percentage points above or below the zone-wide proportions for these groups. Students could choose any school in the zone and were not required to attend the school nearest to their homes.

This policy assured that there were not schools with high concentrations of poor students of color and encouraged schools to make themselves attractive to all students since they could now choose schools. After adopting the Controlled Choice student-assignment plan, the proportion of schools rated ‘‘A’’ by the state rating system in Lee County increased from 16 percent in 1998–99 to 32 percent in 1999–2000. And the proportion of state-rated ‘‘D’’ and ‘‘F’’ schools decreased from 15 percent in 1998–99 to zero in 1999–2000 (C. Willie et al. 2002).

The eventual success of the Florida plan included a specified, or controlled, amount of choice for students and their parents, along with enrollment fairness guidelines and support for schools that needed to improve. Such a plan proved to be a success outside of Florida as well. Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, is a relatively small school district with only about 6,000 students and slightly more than a dozen elementary schools. Because Cambridge has had a Controlled Choice plan that diversified school student bodies since the first half of the 1980s, 15 years later none of its elementary schools were racially segregated (See C. Willie, Metzger, Alicea and Alves, 1997). In fact, the Cambridge school with the highest average achievement score had a well-balanced, diversified student body—51 percent White and 49 percent of color (C. Willie, Edwards, Alves 2002). In these and many other school districts across the country school-desegregation policies not only provided parents with additional school choices, but also decreased the number of failing schools with high concentrations of poor students of color (see Wells and Crain 1997).


We quoted Judge Robert Carter above arguing that the ‘‘indirect consequences’’ of Brown ‘‘have been awesome‘‘(Bell 1992b: 551). In this section, we examine just a few of those consequences.

Movements to get public schools to acknowledge the rights, needs and aspirations of mentally and physically challenged children, students for whom English is a second language, and girls gathered ideas and inspiration from the Brown decision. Part of what made Brown inspirational (and practical to emulate) was the fact that it proposed population-specific procedures for overcoming unlawful discrimination. Brown clearly focused on specific population groups, such as ‘‘children of the minority,’’ ‘‘minors of the Negro race,’’ ‘‘the plaintiffs,’’ and ‘‘children’’ who had been harmed because of segregation and discrimination.

Public Law 94–142, also known as The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, was passed by Congress in 1975. It required school districts to provide free appropriate public education to all handicapped children. Fischer, Schimmel and Kelly (1981) argue that this law was enacted, in part, because of the African American Freedom Movement that ‘‘stimulated the handicapped to make claims on the basis of right and not of charity’’ (269). Like Brown, they note, Public Law 94–142 was enacted because of ‘‘court cases, legislation, and political activism’’ (Fischer et al.: 269). The similarities do not end, however, with the impetus for enacting these laws.

Similarly, Rostetter, Kowalski and Hunter (1984), authors of ‘‘Implementing the Integration Principle of PL 94–142,’’ conclude that ‘‘systematic direct instruction with non-handicapped peers is the only remedy to the interaction deficits that result from segregated education’’ (295). This statement is similar to one found in the 1950 McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents ruling in which the Supreme Court declared that restrictions placed on a Black graduate student that separated him from his peers imposed inequalities that cannot be sustained. This opinion, cited in the Brown decision, stated that ‘‘a Negro admitted to a white graduate school [should] be treated like all other students[,] . . . engage in discussion and exchange views with other students[.]’’ When it came to race, the Supreme Court argued in the Brown decision: ‘‘To separate [children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community[.]’’ The same can be said of handicapped people. Fischer, Schimmel and Kelly (1981) observed that before Public Law 94–142 ‘‘major strides [had not] been made toward extending equal protection of the law and due process to all school-aged handicapped children’’ (282).

What is true for racial minority and physically handicapped children is also true for those who arrive at school speaking a language other than English. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Lau v. Nichols case of 1974 mandated transitional bilingual education for children who cannot speak English. Again, the kind of population-specific remedies contained in the Brown decision were invoked in this case as well. The court in Lau v. Nichols found ‘‘there is not equal treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum’’ if they do not understand English. Indeed, the court found that for such students any meaningful education is dramatically delayed and effectively foreclosed.

To right this wrong, transitional bilingual education was mandated for non-English speaking students and schools were obligated to teach such courses. Fischer, Schimmel and Kelly (1981) argue, ‘‘It is clear that the law intends to integrate these non-English speaking students with English-speaking students and separate them for special instruction only when necessary’’ (280). For example, English-speaking and non-English speaking students could attend together regular classes in art, music, physical education and other courses in which language skills, specifically the mastery of standard English, are not of central importance (Fischer et al. 1981: 280).

By mandating a population-specific approach for non-English speaking minorities, the Lau v. Nichols decision paid attention ‘‘to their status in the community,’’ as mentioned in Brown I. In addition, the Lau Court appears to have embraced the contextual wisdom of Brown I, that ‘‘in these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.’’ And further, that ‘‘where the state had undertaken to provide [education], it is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.’’ It should be obvious that when education is not available to children who do not speak English, they should be taught in the language they understand until they can learn to speak and understand English.

The final progeny of the Brown decision that we discuss is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Section 901 of Title IX clearly states that ‘‘[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefit of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. . . .’’

Equal opportunity to participate in sports and other forms of physical education has been one among several benefits that female students have derived from this public law. The enforcement of this law has eliminated a substantial amount of gender discrimination in public schools and other public settings. According to the National Organization for Women (NOW, 2003), since the passage of Title IX, ‘‘women’s participation in sports has increased more than 400 percent at the college level and more than 800 percent at the high school level.’’

This brief review of what has happened to handicapped people, language minorities, girls and women since the Brown decision is evidence that Brown was not one big bang and then one big bust. Indeed it is better described as a door opened on behalf of one group of children that inspired and allowed other groups of children to enter through the same door, pursuing their rights to effective education as well.


Despite the beneficial effects of Brown that have enhanced the education of Black, Brown, and White people, it has not been immune to or protected from a severe backlash from many White people since the early 1980s in particular (see Edsall and Edsall 1991).

T. H. Bell, the first U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan, created the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1981 and directed it to examine the quality of the education in the United States and to report to the nation within 18 months. In its highly publicized report, A Nation at Risk, the Commission argued that ‘‘the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people’’ (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983: 5). Evidence to support this and other assertions in the report were not offered or, if offered, were not sufficient.

In many ways the National Commission report fed the backlash against Brown as well as its legacies, particularly those of the 1960s and 1970s. There is ample and growing evidence that much of the critique of public schools embodied in that report was unfounded. For instance, the same year that the National Commission declared that ‘‘the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity,’’ Gallup polls of attitudes toward education found that only 20 percent of the adults in the United States believed that school in their local communities should be awarded low grades of ‘‘D’’ or ‘‘F’’ for their performance (Elam 1984: 14). Only 7 percent gave ‘‘D’’ and ‘‘F’’ ratings to schools because of their curriculum; and only 16 percent rated quality of teaching in schools with ‘‘D’’ and ‘‘F’’ grades (Elam 1984: 15). These facts do not indicate that the people of this nation believe that educational institutions were failing in carrying out their mission in the 1980s. There was no evidence presented to support many of the National Commission’s claims, such as those mentioned above or another one, that ‘‘the average graduate of our schools and colleges today is not as well-educated as the average student of 25 or 35 years ago’’ (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983:11). As a result of the lack of evidence, scholars such as Berliner and Biddle (1995) have labeled the school reform movement stimulated by the report a ‘‘manufactured crisis.’’

What we found most interesting in A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) was the absence of any recommendation about school desegregation, or the other legislation and court rulings that made education more inclusive. The Commission was silent on Brown and its equity requirements. In fact, the same presidential administration that gave us A Nation At Risk also began a systematic assault on school desegregation through the U.S. Department of Justice. Because excellence and equity complement each other, a backlash that focuses on excellence alone and not on equity is harmful. Our more recent history suggests that this is the case.


It is meet and right that the Supreme Court would identify ‘‘the constitutionality of segregation in public education’’ as the ‘‘primary question’’ to be answered in the Brown decision. Our research and the studies we have reviewed overwhelmingly indicate that both racial and socioeconomic segregation, singly and jointly, are harmful to the educational achievement of many students (see, for example C. Willie et al. 2002). We also argue that the Supreme Court was on target when it ruled that ‘‘segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws’’ because ‘‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal’’ and that children of the minority are harmed when they are deprived of opportunities ‘‘to engage in discussion and exchange views with other students.’’

Despite the limitations of its implementation, the Brown decision has continued to nurture this society in many ways. Twenty-five years after Brown, Harold Hodgkinson (1979), former head of the National Institute of Education, declared that ‘‘evidence of the success of the public schools and colleges is clear.’’ For example, Hodgkinson (1979) noted that ‘‘academic performance. . . is slightly better. . . even though today’s scores represent a much wider range of student backgrounds’’ and that ‘‘access to college has increased markedly for women and minorities. . .’’ (159–61).

As we noted above, by 2000, the Black-White gap in terms of high school graduation still favored Whites, but had been reduced from 22 to 6 percentage points between Black and White racial groups. Clearly over the past 50 years, the Black-White gap in terms of educational attainment has been closing (C. Willie and Reddick 2003: 143). Nevertheless, the campaign by intellectuals to discredit the Brown decision began in earnest with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and has continued ever since.

In light of these educational opportunities more equitably distributed, we can understand why Berliner and Biddle (1995) called the sweeping attacks on the conduct and achievement of America’s public schools that began with the 1983 Commission report ‘‘nasty lies about education’’ (xi). Berliner and Biddle argue that public school critics tend to ignore existing evidence such as that presented in this discussion.

Despite such evidence that the Brown decision has had a beneficial effect on the nation once it was finally enforced, many people in positions of power today denigrate Brown and its goal of desegregation. Ironically, some African Americans that find their children still in under-funded and racially segregated schools have also begun to disparage Brown rather than the forces that have subverted the effective education of Black students. The movement that Brown unleashed upon the nation marched to the beat of a drummer for equity led by drum majors for inclusion. This movement is contrary to the narrow ideas of excellence and exclusion preferred by elites that have become so dominant in the past 20 years of educational reform.

Although the work of Brown is not yet finished and the continued backlash toward it raise challenging questions about the commitment of some of our elected officials to equity as well as excellence, its passage fifty years ago reveals several wonderful lessons about education leadership. Diversified representation on our governing boards and in our governing bodies is crucial for the protection of the rights of all members of the society. Leadership that strives to protect the rights of citizens while jettisoning the protections of privilege of a by-gone era will promote policies of fairness. Fair policies that involve dramatic social change depend on good leadership. Leaders can be found among students, parents, teachers, school policymakers and administrators, mayors, governors, lawyers, judges, social scientists and other citizens. Of these leaders, two things are required—the courage or compassion to be fair and a will to seek the public good. Because genuine fairness does no harm to any group, pursuing ‘‘justice as fairness’’ (Rawls 2001) for one group often results in ‘‘justices as fairness’’ for other groups. If we understand this, who could ask for anything more?

While equality promised in the Declaration of Independence and the goal of justice mentioned in the Preamble to the Constitution have not been fully attained for people of color in the United States, equity between different racial populations today is greater in education than it is in the economic system with reference to income and occupations(C. Willie and Reddick 2003: 137–156). Thus, we agree with Richard Kluger, author of Simple Justice (1975), that Brown deserves ‘‘a high place in the literature of liberty’’ (x).


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CHARLES VERT WILLIE is the Charles W. Eliot Professor of Education and Urban Studies, Emeritus, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA. A past vice president a of the American Sociological Association and court-appointed master in the Boston school-desegregation case, Professor Willie is the author of 28 books and more than 100 scholarly articles. He has served as expert witness and developed school-desegregation plans for scores of school districts throughout the United States.

SARAH SUSANNAH WILLIE, his daughter, is associate professor of sociology and chair of the Black Studies Program at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Acting Black: College, Race and the Performance of Identity (Routledge 2003) and will become associate provost of Swarthmore College in July, 2005.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 3, 2005, p. 475-495
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11797, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 4:47:33 AM

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  • Charles Willie
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    CHARLES VERT WILLIE is the Charles W. Eliot Professor of Education and Urban Studies, Emeritus, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA. A past vice president of the American Sociological Association and court-appointed master in the Boston school-desegregation case, Professor Willie is the author of 28 books and more than 100 scholarly articles. He has served as expert witness and developed school-desegregation plans for scores of school districts throughout the United States.
  • Sarah Willie
    Swarthmore College
    E-mail Author
    SARAH SUSANNAH WILLIE, his daughter, is associate professor and chair of the Black Studies Program at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Acting Black: College, Race and the Performance of Identity (Routledge 2003).
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