Elusive justice: Plessy & Brown
The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspires reflection on the concept of justice in our society; an abstract concept with divergent connotations depending on circumstances. For represented groups, justice is the tangible righting of a wrong, but for the marginalized, it is an elusive pursuit of inclusion and equity.
Some landmark cases have delivered that elusive justice. Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954) is a perfect example. Not only did the decision right an odious wrong, it also recognized the plight of an historically marginalized and oppressed group.
In stark contrast, Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), the precedent Brown overturned, literally and figuratively mocked justice by sanctioning Jim Crow laws and casting African Americans as inferior. It didn’t have to be that way. After Reconstruction, Southern states began to test the waters by passing laws similar to Black Codes that separated Blacks and whites in public, ironically taking their lead from the Northern states.
The Citizens Committee, a civil rights organization in New Orleans, sought to prevent further erosion of African-American rights by challenging these laws on constitutional grounds. Homer Plessy, a light-skinned man of mixed descent, agreed to spearhead the effort by defying Louisiana’s Separate Car Act through civil disobedience. Unfortunately, Lady Justice removed her blindfold on May 18, 1896 as the Court established the separate but equal doctrine.
The misunderstanding of Brown
Watershed events are oftentimes misunderstood in the mainstream, partly because of their poor coverage in history books. In the case of Brown, it is simplified to a story of one young girl, Linda Brown, who traversed dangerous railroad tracks to attend an all-Black school in her hometown of Topeka, until her father, Oliver Brown, became fed up and sued. The Court agreed, case closed.
Overlooked is the political engineering by the opposing sides. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had been chipping away at Jim Crow and school segregation since the 1930s but lacked a far-reaching victory. The federal government was concerned about its international image on human rights and believed a legal denouncement of racist policy would improve its Cold War status.
Oliver Brown, and his daughter Linda, were tapped because they were viewed as upstanding community members who would generate support. Black schools in Topeka, Kansas were also comparable to the white schools, even better equipped with transportation, thus the legal question pivoted squarely on the constitutionality of segregation rather than disparities. Thurgood Marshall argued the final death blow to Plessy on December 8, 1953
The ironic legacy of Brown
Fittingly, RBG has been dubbed the Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights. In fact, RBG employed Marshall’s legal strategy when she successfully argued Frontiero vs. Richardson (1973) before the Supreme Court expanding the equal protection clause to women.
Despite these wins, justice still remains elusive for both women and African Americans. Even worse, 66 years after Brown, racial segregation in public schools is worsening leaving an ironic legacy in its wake. Modern segregation is in some ways more insidious than Jim Crow because it is rationalized as de facto--the consequence of intangible circumstances that cannot be remedied by government. This is false. Racial segregation across the nation is de jure--the result of federal, state, and private discriminatory practices such as redlining.
What's the problem?
Racial segregation and poverty are inextricably connected.
Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend racially segregated schools.
The number of Black students attending schools that are 90% nonwhite is increasing.
Poverty discriminates; nonwhite students attend high-poverty schools with greater frequency.
Black students are more likely to attend public schools where 60% of the population is low-income.
The gains African-American children made in Southern states following Brown have faded.
What’s the damage?
Racially segregated, low-income schools remain separate and unequal in all measures; funding, teacher quality, curriculum, resources, extra-curricular programs.
Academic achievement, social outcomes, and long-term economic vitality for Black students, are stunted
Not only is it immoral, it’s costly; the residual effects of segregation and poverty cost America upwards of $500 billion due to foregone earnings, healthcare, and crime.
What must we do?
Honor Brown. Subsequent court rulings have released states from integration mandates under the guise of permanent reforms. Courts have also allowed smaller districts to secede from larger, more diverse ones perpetuating racial isolation. The cherry on top came in 2007 when the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Brown in the Parents Involved in Community Schools case ruling that states could not use race for zoning. RBG dissented.
Advance desegregation, it works. Rucker Johnson, an economist, demonstrated that integration efforts in the 1960s-1980s led to improved outcomes such as higher graduation rates, higher wages, and decreased poverty for Black students.
Teach the truth. Students across the country learn about the struggle to integrate schools as a Southern phenomenon with Brown as the final bookend. Instead, segregation and race should be examined in the present, even in the early grades. An honest narrative can promote more inclusive perspectives.