Richard Ruiz: Education Milestone
May 16, 2004
Promise of landmark ruling on segregation has yet to be fulfilled
By Richard Ruiz
On May 17, 1954 - 50 years ago Monday - the Supreme Court of the United States issued the landmark decision we know as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. This was actually a conflation of four cases from four different jurisdictions: South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Kansas.
The court considered that, while obviously different in specific facts and context, the four cases were characterized by a common legal question: Does segregation in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other, tangible, factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?
The justices concluded, unanimously, that it did.
In all of those cases, black children had been denied access to the public schools in their communities, schools attended by white children, under penalty of state laws that either permitted or required segregation by race.
Previous Supreme Court decisions had upheld the right of states to such denials based on the principle that substantially equal facilities for black and white children were sufficient to provide equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment. The court explicitly rejected that argument in the Brown case, concluding that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Thus did the course of U.S. public policy with respect to race and education change. Or did it?
On the positive side, Brown annulled the pernicious "separate but equal" doctrine of the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, and started the country on a path toward the formal elimination of race discrimination in all areas of public life - not only schooling, but transportation, public accommodation, funding, health and welfare, and all other dimensions of our society.
And yet, there are still indications that the promise of Brown has yet to be fulfilled.
Consider, first, that Brown was a rejection of segregation in public education, but it did not establish any positive law nor did it say anything about how the decision was to be implemented. That was to come a year later on reargument, in the so-called Brown II decision, in which the court stated that remedies should come "with all deliberate speed." But resistance to the decision was widespread, often violent. Do we remember Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (1957)? Ross Barnett, governor of Mississippi, blocking the door to the registrar's office so that James Meredith could not enter the University of Mississippi (1962)? The civil rights movement of the 1960s?
We also should be clear that Brown was about black and white. This was the salient distinction of the day, but it was, and remains, an illusion. Homer Plessy, the center of the 1896 case mentioned above, which Brown overturned, was one-eighth black - for most purposes indistinguishable as a black person. Gong Lum v. Rice, a 1927 case that Chief Justice Earl Warren also referred to in his Brown decision, declared a Chinese girl to be legally a "negro" for the purposes of the court. Similarly, Indian and Mexican-American children have been treated differentially by the schools because of their status as not-white.
These and many other cases demonstrate that race is a convention, a social construction that has been used for the convenience of social majorities and bureaucrats. Beyond that, the fact is that none of us is black or white; we are all different shades. But nothing in the Brown decision itself brought other groups closer to the principles it promulgated.
How are other groups affected by the principles espoused in Brown? As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown, we also need to recognize another major anniversary, one that provides at least a partial answer to our question.
Lau v. Nichols was decided by the Supreme Court 30 years ago in 1974. It relied on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (yet another anniversary) to reverse a practice by San Francisco schools that provided no educational services to Chinese children that would allow them to understand the language of instruction. While Lau is often seen as mandating bilingual education, it did not; it did, however, say this: "There is no equality of treatment merely by providing the students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education."
This is a remarkable statement, a major modification of Brown, and one that should be instructive to us today with respect to the education of all children, of all shades and language groups. Do we foreclose meaningful educational opportunities for children whose language is not English by denying them access to the curriculum in a language that they understand? Are we acting in the spirit of Brown when we pass legislation and initiatives that effectively do just that?
Even as we celebrate Brown, we should pause to ask ourselves these questions.
Richard Ruiz is a professor of language, reading and culture and interim head of the department of teaching and teacher education in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. He is also the director of social justice of the American Educational Research Association.