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Mother and Daughter at U.S. Supreme Court

Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nettie explains to her daughter the meaning of the high court’s ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

“Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can with confidence charter a course for our future.” – Malcolm X

On Friday, the White House announced that it would support a range of fiscal and other reforms in education, noting that the hope of Brown v. Board of Education had yet to be realized. As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, we are reminded of the bold promise it made: to end racial segregation in American schools and ensure equal educational opportunities for all children.

Decided on May 17, 1954, the historic ruling, in a surprising 9-0 unanimous decision, was hailed as a pivotal step towards dismantling institutionalized racism and fostering a more equitable society. However, in consideration of the state of education, the discriminations that result in Black children exponentially more likely to be harmed by school than helped by it — and considering the many democratic failures in American societies overall — it is painfully clear that the vision of Brown remains far from realized. Today, American schools are segregated at a level that hasn’t been seen since 1968, according to the Know Your Rights Camp.

But in a discussion Wednesday with NewsOne Senior Editor asha bandele, legal scholar, professor, and primary architect of Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, argued that Brown worked exactly as it was allowed to work by the Court.

PBS 'Reconstruction: America After the Civil War' TV Show Panel, TCA Winter Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 02 Feb 2019

Kimberle W. Crenshaw. | Source: Variety / Getty

Brown did overturn the long-standing outright institutionalization of white supremacy legally codified by the infamous 1896 case, Plessy vs. Ferguson. That case, which coined the infamous phrase and ideology of “separate but equal,” advanced and enshrined in American jurisprudence three generations of deadly Jim Crow laws across, in particular, the American South. Even still, redlining, social economics and other government legislations have continued to affect education for Black children and families at rates wildly disproportionate to white American families.

When it comes to education specifically, U.S. News and World Report were among the many outlets that disclosed that schools in which the majority of the students were Black or Brown, received $23 billion less in funding than schools where the majority of students were white. To unpack why we are where we are more than two generations after the Civil Rights Movement, Professor Crenshaw generously agreed to a two-part interview about Brown, white supremacy, Critical Race Theory and what our call to action is.

asha bandele: There’s so much at stake educationally right now that I didn’t want to simply acknowledge the 70th anniversary of the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board as a watershed moment. There was an incredible strategy in Thurgood Marshall’s presentation to the Court, not to mention Linda Brown’s courage. I don’t want to minimize either but I do want to consider the limitations in the decision and how that shows up today.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: My perspective on that piece is that the courts were going to give us only what they wanted to. And so the genius of Thurgood Marshall who worked at the NAACP Legal Defence and Education Fund (LDF) — and had been taught and mentored by the great Charles Hamilton Houston, was figuring out how to get what was there to be gotten. We always knew there needed to be much more. Even still, the resistance to Brown, despite its only surface-level repudiation of segregation, was deep and intense and abiding. And that resistance was across the political spectrum which is likely why no meaningful desegregation happened in the first decade after Brown.

ab: And we see that white resistance today…

KC: Yes. The resistance to Brown fueled the contemporary right-wing movement. So however minimalist the Court’s ruling was, it did amplify how deep the connection to white supremacy and segregation we had in this country was. But we cannot lose sight that the weakness of the commitment to Brown  was and is not simply a conservative issue. It’s a liberal one too.

Liberals from the very beginning were ambivalent about the legacy of Brown, whether it was really good law, whether it was a principled decision, whether you could find some justification for choosing Black children’s desire for integrated education over white children’s rights to segregated education. And that liberal framing is what we’re seeing right now when people say that educating for racial justice violates white children’s rights.

There’s always been this difficulty in actually confronting how deeply white supremacy shapes our country. We’ve resisted it, sought ways to leverage the demonstration of white supremacy to create real interventions. But the moment we start doing that is the moment when white supremacy coalesces to resist any change at all. That’s been the cycle that Brown has been a part of, one it was initially Brown could transcend. Now we know that not only couldn’t Brown transcend it, but worse, it actually has been contained and disciplined by white supremacy.

ab: Are we saying then, that two-and-a-half, the center hasn’t held — that the intention of Brown never had muscularity in practical application even though it was 9-0 ruling in favor?

KC: Brown could be fairly said to be a case that granted Black people the right against racial subordination, the right against the implications of being a second-class citizen, the right against the stigma of being an enslaving population. All these might be said to have been the injury that the court recognized in Brown, the most significant one of them being the fact that you can’t achieve, let alone maintain, a functioning democracy when segregation is the law of the land. That was the key connection that Brown made between unrepentant white supremacy and the fantasy of us living in a democracy.

A successful American democracy was the one place where there was a convergence between masses of Black folk and also elites who understood the contradiction between the U.S. representing itself as the so-called leader of the free world while simultaneously being a deeply white supremacist segregationist society. There was recognition that that tension was unsustainable.

It’s what Derek Bell caused the interest convergence theory. Different stakeholders align around a basic principle–and that alignment lasts for a short period, it lasts. But what’s happened every decade since Brown, is an intentional deterioration of that convergence. Today the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Brown — the way they’ve reframed it — creates a false equivalency between the Black American experience and the white American one.  It’s absurd. Using today’s Court’’s reasoning, Linda Brown was harmed in exactly the same way all the little white children who were playing in the schoolyard she had to walk by on the way to her underfunded school miles away, were “harmed.” Them seeing her was injury itself because it showed white children there was segregation.

Monroe School, Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site.

The Monroe School in Topeka, Kansas, is the historic site of Brown v. Board of Education. | Source: Mark Reinstein / Getty

ab: If you were born in another time period and were working alongside Thurgood Marshall and LDF in the 1950s–but you had the benefit of knowing the future–are there protections that you would have fought for that weren’t fought for then?

KC: There was a conversation, then and now, about how Brown should have been more expressive about what school districts had to do to achieve the spirit of the law when it came to Black teachers and administrators when they went about desegregating the schools. Desegregating schools doesn’t desegregate teachers or administrations — all the architectures of the educational system.

I would also say that there was perhaps an assumption that the resources would flow to Black children who were going into white schools. And there was perhaps less anticipation that you could have segregation within desegregated schools, which is effectively what happened in a lot of places. Black children were aggregated into less academically, competitive programs, disproportionately and more harshly punished—and then pushed out of school. But I go back to what I said earlier. The law is going to give you what it thinks your claim warrants and no more than that. Could the lawyers have made all of these arguments to a court that barely gave desegregation? I doubt it.

The good news was that the Court ruled that segregation does injure Black people and it wasn’t a figment of our imagination–which is what the Court at the end of the 19th century concluded in Plessy v Ferguson.

The bad news was that unlike other Supreme Court cases where they say, “You have been Constitutionally injured, and here is your remedy,” in Brown they basically said, “We’ll get back to you on whether there’s really a remedy for this injury. In fact, here’s what we’re going to do. You guys just come back to us and tell us what the remedy should be for this injury?”

In other words, even on the thing that they were willing to call an injury, they relegated even that to second-class status.


Part II of asha’s discussion with Professor Crenshaw will post on Tuesday, May 21st. 


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