On May 17, 1954, 7-year-old Linda Brown became the successful plaintiff in perhaps the most significant civil rights ruling in Supreme Court history — Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. It was a decision that would desegregate schools. But instead of simply commemorating the 65th anniversary of Brown this month, we should measure our progress to an equal society today.
And the progress is incomplete.
There were actually two Brown cases. Brown II (1955) focused on the mechanisms for integration, including the phrase “with all deliberate speed.” This introduced the imperative of immediacy, but its vagueness and lack of timeline allowed states to resist integration for decades.
Public opinion was against integration as well: Two years after Brown, only 49 percent of Americans supported integration — 61 percent of Northerners and 15 percent of Southerners. The years that followed presented some of America’s most shameful moments, such as mobs attempting to intimidate black students into abandoning their right to attend an integrated school or college. Despite these disgraceful events, between 1954 and 1988 the percentage of black children attending majority white schools in the South increased from 0 percent to 43 percent.
If we were to celebrate the high point of integration, it would be 31 years ago, in 1988. Since then, two cases accelerated the decline of school integration. Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991) and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) actually weakened district desegregation plans by releasing districts from court orders and declaring some integration plans unconstitutional.
Although residential segregation in American cities has been on the decline since 2000, most metro areas with populations of more than 1 million and more than 3 percent black populations have black-white segregation indices over 50, which is considered highly segregated. Without mechanisms to create racially diverse schools, neighborhood schools and districts by default tend to be racially segregated. A 2019 report found that more than half of American schoolchildren attended “racially concentrated districts,” where 75 percent of students are white or of color. It also found that non-white districts received $2,200 less per student. These data should make us ask : How committed are we to integrated schools?
This is an open question that is very relevant today: Ten Trump judicial nominees have refused to endorse the Brown decision, something scholars consider a settled legal question. We know that integrated schools do not reduce achievement. Students in diverse schools benefit from greater empathy, less prejudice and a broader array of abilities for work in an increasingly diverse world. But two-thirds of black and Latino students are in schools where the majority of their classmates are low-income, isolating them from opportunities that wealthier peers can access.
Additionally, inaccurate stereotypes about schools with low-income children of color quickly emerge, such as concerns about school safety and drug use. And it is no guarantee that federal policy at this time will reinforce efforts toward integration. Instead, the motivation to meet the promise of Brown will come from white, black and Latino parents alike. We need more parents to hear what celebrated writer and speaker Abby Norman says: “White people get to be comfortable in most of American society. It took me until I was an adult to be somewhere white feelings were not centered…. My kids already know what that is like.”
On this 65th anniversary of one of the most important civil rights cases of the past 100 years, we have an opportunity for critical reassessment of our progress toward an integrated, not simply desegregated, society. Instead of a surface analysis, we need to look closely at how we make housing choices, how we fund schools equitably and how we provide resources for low-income communities. May 17, 1954, marked a high point for American morality, but to realize its potential we must be committed to individual and collective action to meet the legacy of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.