It’s been a while since I’ve really looked at Brown V. Board of Education. I could quote you the key line, “Seperate is inherently unequal,” but I haven’t had occasion to sit and read the decision since I was an undergrad.
I welcomed the chance when both the initial decision and SCOTUS’s second decision directing states and districts on the path to equity as part of my education policy class this week.
As is usually the case when I return to a text after some time, my perspective has changed.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren wrote, “We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.”
This is great. Not surprisingly, I found myself agreeing whole-heartedly with Warren’s words.
What was surprising was the degree to which I found myself bristling at what I interpreted at the implicit value statement of the entire decision. If you take the time to read through the text, it starts to become clear that the Court was working to protect African American students from the negative effects of being segregated from white students.
Though never quite naming the move, the Brown v. Board decision has a subtext of, “You’re right, we should make sure black students can hang out in our schools, because our schools are great.”
Warren even quotes the lower Kansan court:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.
What a missed opportunity.
In this brief opinion, the Court had the chance to gently nudge a reframing of the way we think about what it means to go to a school that is dominantly black or dominantly white. It could have taken a sentence to point out that it was white students who were also detrimentally affected by segregation. Instead the decision reified the position of white schools as more legitimate places of learning.
True, to make such a move would have invited the application of whatever the 1954 version of “activist court” was upon the justices. Then again, there’s was already an activist interpretation (thank goodness).
As history and Chief Justice Warren have robbed me of my druthers, I’ve started considering the multiple times teachers have spoken to me, taught me about Brown v. Board. Each one, to a person, has framed the decision as one allowing black kids to be around white kids (though I’m simplifying language).
And so, it makes me sad. Sad that I was 31 years old before I tripped over this new understanding. Sad I’m not in a classroom to have this conversation with students. Sad that several times along my way I’m sure I’ve reinforced this traditional interpretation of the decision that reinforces white privilege and undermines human value of African American students.
I’m sorry for that.