NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund president calls for change in how we remember Brown
Landmark decision should be an opportunity to talk about how segregation harms white children, she says
Editor’s Note: Sherrilyn Ifill is the President & Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., the organization that litigated Brown v. Board of Education. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.
May 17 marks the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. And every year when we commemorate this groundbreaking litigation, we unwittingly reinforce a narrow understanding of the evil that the parents and lawyers in Brown opposed. That is because much of what we understand about Brown, what we teach and learn about Brown, is focused tightly on the decision itself, not the issue of integration overall.
Everyone knows that the court in Brown declared racially segregated education unconstitutional. But the court also squarely identified segregation as an insidious form of racial subordination. The high court’s decision identified education as perhaps the most important function of state government and powerfully affirmed the right of black children to the dignity inherent in full citizenship.
But when we talk about Brown, we too often mark the impact of the decision on black children, without taking stock of the damaging effects of segregated education on white children. And yet the harm segregation does to white children is also part of Brown’s history. We should remember that lawyers for the black students in Brown presented strong evidence of the damaging effects of segregation on white children, too.
In a now-famous Appendix to our Supreme Court brief in Brown, 30 social scientists included their powerful conclusions about how segregation impairs white children. They warned that segregation teaches white children to “gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way.” They further warned that white children who ingest the steady diet of segregation and racial subordination suffer from “confusion, conflict [and] moral cynicism…. as a consequence of being taught the moral, religious and democratic principles of the brotherhood of man and the importance of justice and fair play by the same persons and institutions, who in their support of racial segregation and related practices… seem to be acting in a prejudiced and discriminatory manner.”
Despite this evidence, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown only identified the harm of segregation on black children and that omission has shaped our understanding of integration. We have never addressed segregation’s effects on white children. How white children, for example, process the contrast between what they are taught about equality, justice and opportunity, and what they see in their segregated world.
Nearly 50 years after the stand-off at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, sociologist Beth Roy movingly described in her book “Bitters in the Honey” an interview with a white former student at Central. The student recalled reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with her classmates in 1957 while she watched through a classroom window as a black northern reporter covering the integration was chased by a white mob. How is a teenager to process this incongruity? And today, how are white children’s understandings of citizenship shaped by the silence within their own segregated communities while they watch online videos showing the killing of unarmed black men by police in 2016?
Surely these toxic inconsistencies, left unresolved, erode white children’s understandings of what it means to be an American.
Rather than grapple with these contradictions, our culture discusses and commemorates school desegregation since Brown almost entirely as a project to help black people. To reinforce the self-esteem and to improve education outcomes for black children. But it has never been understood, as it should be, as critically important for the intellectual and social development of white children as American citizens, and as critical to our collective future as a nation.
Sixty years later we are still living with the fruits of this omission. Segregated education remains deeply entrenched in American life. Today it is driven by even more firmly rooted segregation in housing, which is itself driven by stark racial wealth disparities, persistent white flight from integrated neighborhoods, the withdrawal of support for public infrastructure that would increase transportation mobility in our cities, and the stubborn persistence of discriminatory credit and housing practices.
Yet studies show that white students develop better critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a diverse environment. Diverse learning environments also prepare white and non-white children to work in the diverse workplaces they will encounter as adults in 21st century America. Currently, U.S. employers reportedly spend up to $300 million a year on “diversity training” to help their unprepared employees learn the critical skills needed to succeed in diverse work environment.
But despite the fact that segregated education denies these benefits to white and black children, integration efforts continue to be regarded as measures designed solely to help blacks. This view has entirely overtaken our debate about affirmative action – a matter before the Supreme Court again this year. Rather than view affirmative action measures at our nation’s universities as “gifts” for black students, they should properly be regarded as a means of ensuring that our nation’s future leaders are equipped to manage and engage in our increasingly diverse and pluralistic society. That is why so many universities across the nation regard student diversity as a critical component of a successful and dynamic learning environment.
For an increasing number of students of all racial backgrounds in the United States, the university may well be their first opportunity for sustained cross-racial engagement in an integrated setting. Given the breakdown of integration efforts in K-12 education – largely as a result of early, violent resistance to Brown, white flight from our cities, and the Supreme Court’s increasingly cramped interpretation of Brown’s mandate – integration and inclusion have become rarer and rarer in secondary school settings – undercutting the very intention of Brown in the first place.
More than 60 years since the Supreme Court abolished state-sanctioned segregation in education, I believe that we must have a public reckoning with the history of the full record presented to the court in Brown, which predicted with devastating clarity the mind-warping harm of segregation on white children. If we are to truly celebrate Brown and empower all children to navigate the dangers of entrenched segregation in our society, then we must finally confront this truth.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the President & Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., the organization that litigated Brown v. Board of Education. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.