Although it has been 61 years since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated legally-sanctioned racial apartheid in America’s public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, the insidious racial bias upon which legal segregation was predicated is still very much alive—both inside and outside of America’s classrooms.
Inside classrooms, the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of African American children—three times the rate of their white peers—cannot be justified by higher rates of misbehavior: social science research has long discredited that notion. Instead, research attributes these disparate discipline rates to implicit bias held by school decision-makers—the subconscious process whereby negative thoughts and feelings are associated with characteristics like race, ethnicity, age, or appearance. Unlike explicit bias, implicit bias often goes undetected, until qualitative and quantitative data show the story of disproportionality along racial lines.
African American children pushed out of classrooms lose valuable instruction time, are stigmatized, and are at increased risk for involvement with the juvenile justice system. Outside the classroom, in the most salient instances, we see over-policing and racial profiling of African American children, with no benefit of the doubt given to 12-year-old Tamir Rice or 18-year-old Michael Brown before they are gunned down. At the bottom of racial bias is the lie of Black inferiority and inhumanity upon which the institution of slavery and the justification of Black second-class citizenship was predicated.
The response to recent police killings of African Americans has been a telling echo of massive resistance to this lie—at once a cry for justice and a cry for humanity. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a declaration of personhood, the same declaration that Homer Plessy made as he purchased his first-class ticket and boarded the “whites only” train of the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy’s ill-fated legal battle, culminating in the upholding of the “separate, but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, would lay the groundwork for Brown over a half century later.
Although the Brown decision invalidated the “separate, but equal” doctrine, it would take decades until racial desegregation became a widespread reality in many facets of everyday life, including public facilities. What has been much harder to eradicate is the deeply-entrenched systemic and institutionalized racism that served as the infrastructure of de jure segregation.
Its vestiges are evidenced in racially isolated housing patterns, efforts to erode African American political participation, and African American economic disenfranchisement. No wonder that these factors, all endemic in communities like Ferguson and Baltimore, are accompanied by racially divided education systems—in which predominantly African American schools suffer from inferior resources and poor academic outcomes. Brown’s admonition was that racially segregated education harmed children—and these communities affirm that assertion.
It took the strength of the federal government—particularly with the Civil Rights Act of 1964—to urge desegregation when states and localities failed to act “with all deliberate speed.” In fact, Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act remain the main mechanisms to challenge persistent racial discrimination in America’s public schools.
In its 75th year, LDF continues to litigate to eradicate racial discrimination at all levels of education under these provisions of the Civil Rights Act and other civil rights laws. These legal challenges are accompanied by LDF’s ongoing public education and community organizing efforts to highlight existing racial disparities and to help develop community-based solutions to eliminate inequality. Engagement in public policy is also an essential part of LDF’s work to formulate tools to address racial disparities in education, and includes engagement in the development of legislation to promote equal educational opportunity.
For instance, as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there is momentum to pass a bill that would constrain the Secretary of Education’s authority to intervene when states fail to provide certain groups of children with quality education. LDF recognizes that, without the ability of the Secretary to intervene—with services and supports—to address disparities, including racial disparities, there is little recourse for those persistently marginalized in education by state and local authorities.
Maintaining a federal role in education is consistent with the promise of Brown to ensure that all children have access to quality education, regardless of where they live. While we have made some progress since Brown, recent events show that we have far to go to. We can ensure that we get there by honoring the legacy of Brown, and ensuring that the ESEA is consistent with Brown’s promise of action in the face of state failure to act on behalf of those denied access to equal educational opportunity.
Janel George is Senior Education Policy Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. where she works to advance access to equal educational opportunities and dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline.