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The Pursuit of Racial and Ethnic Equality in American Public Schools: Mendez, Brown, and Beyond

reviewed by Mary Esther Soto Huerta - February 02, 2016

coverTitle: The Pursuit of Racial and Ethnic Equality in American Public Schools: Mendez, Brown, and Beyond
Author(s): Kristi L. Bowman (Ed.)
Publisher: Michigan State University Press, East Lansing
ISBN: 1611861802, Pages: 478, Year: 2014
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Kristi L. Bowman’s edited volume The Pursuit of Racial and Ethnic Equality in American Public Schools: Mendez, Brown, and Beyond is a fundamental reference for students, faculty, and others seeking a socio-historical, political, and analytical understanding of how the pursuit of equity in education for ethnic minorities continues to be influenced by civic-minded individuals who turn to the judicial system to seek their goals through school policy reform. The book also shows how pursuing equity is influenced by a dominant majority seeking to sustain entrenched status quo practices driving inequities in our schools.

The historical and legal precedents outlined in this volume signify a collective movement toward strengthening democratic principles through community building and judicial activism. The arrangement of the book’s content reveals how society continues using constructions of race and supporting ideologies that cause segregation in our schools. These social conditions burden ethnic minority students and their families in their pursuit of equity in schooling. Alba’s (2005) work helps us understand that the term minority describes people of color who are systemically forced to navigate societal contexts circumscribed by social boundaries. Bright social boundaries are overt and function to deny and/or restrict the civil rights of individuals by denying them full access to the legal, cultural, and institutional materials that already exist within our society and are enjoyed by the dominant majority. Alba explains that social boundaries emerge from past histories associated with particular minority groups, and that these divisions can be encoded as laws, edicts, and/or social pronouncements by the dominant majority wielding societal, economic, political, legal, and material power. Alba argues that ethnic minority groups learn to interpret bright social boundaries and are always cognizant of their location relative to any similar boundary.

Encoded laws, edicts, and/or social pronouncements enacted by the dominant majority create disparities in schooling that include systematic racial imbalances within school districts. These imbalances segregate minority students based on their ethnicity, low wealth, limited resources, and lack of social and political capital. Charles T. Clotfelter’s chapter examines the ideology of segregation and explains that the degree of racial segregation, or racial imbalance, in all U.S. schools can be quantitatively measured which is useful for comparing school districts or metropolitan areas (p. 196). He challenges readers to consider that while some areas are racially isolated by virtue of geography and population—as is the case of the border city Laredo, Texas—other instances of racial segregation are engineered by legislated policies and enacted as school district practices.

Editor Bowman provides chapters written by key actors involved in judicial action and legacy servants associated with particular case law to reveal how legislated policies establish inequities in schooling with the goal of normalizing them through social practices. Each chapter contextualizes the socio-historical and political factors that describe acts of social injustice in schooling opportunities for particular ethnic minority student groups. This enables readers to interpret both the rationale for engaging in civil litigation and administering court decrees. This format also offers robust documentation of critical legal proceedings associated with issues of equity, the impact of their legacy, and how court decrees are executed and supervised. David Hinojosa and Karolina Walters explain that only courts can rule on constitutional issues; thus, the remedies rendered in case law are typically relegated to the states (p. 355). This process makes states responsible for seeking judicial remedies and for enacting consent decrees through the legislators and agencies within their respective jurisdictions. This means that just when readers start understanding the trajectory of a successful enactment and implementation of a court decree seeking equity in educational opportunities (see Westminster v. Mendez, 1947, p. 9), additional readings detail how the mechanism of implementation can diminish the intent of court decrees, render unanticipated interpretations, and drive social practice based on a misalignment with case law remedies when managed by a dominant majority seeking to sustain segregation. Bowman provides the reader with many examples of district courts ruling to end de jure segregation, such as in Kansas City in one case. This decision was eventually reversed when the Supreme Court deemed that the lower court had exceeded its authority in multiple ways (p. 248).

Dominant majority groups, including legislators and school districts, can also work in tandem to diminish both the spirit and intent of court decrees when they use remedies as leverage to sustain segregation rather than work toward a unified approach of equity for all. School policies can partially adhere to court decrees through ebb and flow measures where the flow is only prompted by state government agencies policing school districts rather than offering the type of equity-focused technical support necessary to remedy Civil Rights violations. Allison R. Brown argues that the latter is especially critical for school districts that are already working toward providing equity for all students (p. 135).

Dominant majority groups can also find support from neoliberal ideologies and advocates for school choice as a pathway to establish schooling equity. The promise of school choice entices families from low-economic backgrounds, but the implementation unfortunately functions to segregate students based on wealth. Discriminatory housing practices that establish patterns of concentrated poverty in metropolitan and other areas also create racial imbalances. Clotfelter outlines how governmental policies impact lending and result in discriminatory practices in the real estate market’s design of residential patterns—both combine to influence the placement of public housing (p. 195). Clotfelter proposes that school districts existing in a particular area must be compared with others in the same context to truly understand the racial disparities present within the same metropolitan area.

Pursuing racial and ethnic equality in schools exists on a spectrum, and tension exists between case law aiming to reverse inequities established by status quo policies and de jure practices that seek to normalize inequities still present in our schools. Bowman offers readers the personal voices of civic activists who are instrumental because of their participatory roles in the legal system rather than only recounting historical legal precedent. These voices help authentically recount the past by explaining the impact of case law. The Pursuit of Racial and Ethnic Equality in American Public Schools reveals that civil action through judicial activity sustains fundamental democratic principles by considering the historical record of court cases seeking equity in schooling for all and their associated complexity.


Alba, R. (2005). Bright vs. blurred boundaries: Second generation assimilation and exclusion in France, Germany, and the United States. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28(1), 20–49.

Westminster School District of Orange County v. Mendez, 161 F.2d 774 (1947).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19376, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:51:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Mary Huerta
    Texas State University
    E-mail Author
    MARY ESTHER SOTO HUERTA, PhD is an Associate Professor of Culture, Literacy and Language in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education at Texas State University where she teaches courses in Biliteracy Development and Bilingual Education/ESL. Dr. Huerta’s peer-reviewed, co-authored publications include, Reaching out to Latino parents of English language learners; Creating equitable ecologies: Broadening access through multilingualism. Museums and Social Issues, 10(1), 8-17; Second-language literacy, immigration, and globalization. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, doi:10.1080/13670050.2014.928257; and Playful dialogues of a bilingual child in every day conversations: Foundation of early literacy. International Multilingual Research Journal, 8(3), 231-249. She is currently co-authoring a book focusing on Latinos using multilingualism as a literacy learning tool.
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