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Perspective | On its 68th anniversary, Brown v. Board remains relevant

On May 17, North Carolina voters will finish casting ballots in party primaries, an important intermediate political step in selecting state lawmakers who will vote on education budgets and policies over the next two years. May 17 also marks the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down laws across the South that segregated white and Black students into separate and unequal schools.

The Brown decision, followed by federal laws and court rulings on civil and voting rights, knocked down the region’s Jim Crow legal structures, profoundly influencing the society, economy, and politics of the South. A backlash resulted in a realignment of state and national politics that still plays out in campaigns today. To move forward requires comprehending successes and shortcomings in the aftermath of Brown.

A new study on the long-run effects of court-ordered desegregation found that it worked — that “this effort was not merely symbolic in nature, but was rather a generational achievement that tangibly improved the long-term well-being of southern African American children.”

Three scholars, two at the University of Wisconsin, one at Williams College, published their findings in a working paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research. They tracked 5.1 million individuals, born between 1945 and 1985, who went to schools in the 1970s. Southern white resistance had delayed widespread desegregation for more than a decade until post-Brown rulings, such as the Charlotte busing decision, forced school systems to go beyond mere tokenism.

“Our primary finding was that court-ordered integration did indeed have positive impacts for southern African American students, and that these effects were qualitatively quite large,” the scholars wrote. “For instance, full exposure was estimated to have increased high school graduation rates by approximately 15 percentage points, increased employment rates by approximately 10 percentage points, and increased hourly wages by approximately 30%.”

The scholars found that similar gains did not occur in the North, where states did not have Southern-style Jim Crow laws. They also pointed out that educational gains among Southern Black students “did not come at the expense of their white peers.”

Until courts ordered Brown implemented, Black students had been concentrated in sorely under-resourced schools. As previous research has shown, desegregation not only exposed Black students to more white, middle-to-upper income peers but also put both whites and Blacks in schools with smaller classes and with higher per-pupil spending. What’s more, several Southern states had growth spurts and political leaders who saw improved public schools as an asset to attract business investment.

Drawing on other sources of research and data, especially NAEP test scores, David Leonhardt, a senior writer for The New York Times, published a commentary this week under the headline: “Why did U.S. schools make so much progress in the 1990s and early 2000s?” He pointed both to rising math and reading scores and to a narrowing of the gap between white and Black students.

“First, many states began to emphasize school accountability starting in the 1990s,” Leonhardt wrote. “Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas and other states more rigorously measured student learning and pushed struggling schools to adopt approaches that were working elsewhere … A second major cause of increased learning seems to have been school funding: It rose during the 1990s and early 2000s.”

Of course, judicial, political, and educational trends and policies have ebbed and flowed since 1954. For two decades or so, the South actually led the nation in the level of racial integration in its schools. But as a new generation of Southerners appealed to federal courts to lift desegregation orders, a process of resegregation spread across the region.

And, as the COVID pandemic made manifest, American public education remains burdened by inequalities along the lines of race and ethnicity, of geography, and of wealth. Gaps may have narrowed but not completely closed. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the E(race)ing Inequities report, published in EdNC in 2019, provided extensive documentation in arguing that North Carolina should emphasize equitable access to rigorous courses, eliminate “racialized patterns of school discipline,” and develop and sustain a high-quality, diverse corps of teachers.

During this election year, such is the polarization of the times, it may be politically unrealistic to expect a renewed commitment to school desegregation to emerge as a central, driving issue. And yet, it is not too much to expect — or at least to hope — that state and local elected officials summon the political will to build upon the “generational achievement” that flowed out of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in that May of 68 years ago.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.