On Brown v. Board of Education's 50th Anniversary: To Integrate or Separate Is Not the Question


By ending official apartheid, Brown represented a great victory in the struggle for racial justice in the United States. Following more than a decade of inaction as a result of its “all deliberate speed” formulation, and in response to the then prevailing sentiment among the proponents of Brown, the Supreme Court began to push for the integration of school districts that engaged in segregation by law or practice. This integrationist push lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Beginning in the mid-1970s the Court began to limit the remedies for segregation by law or practice, and beginning in the early 1990s the Court began to relieve previously segregated districts of any further obligation to desegregate. The result has been a substantial resegregation in fact of the public schools over the past decade and a half. In addition, beginning in the mid-1970s the Court refused to intervene in cases challenging the exclusionary zoning tactics of suburban communities to which many whites have fled to avoid integration; and in cases challenging states’ substantial reliance on local funding of public schools, the impact of which has been to leave the poorer, disproportionately minority school districts unable to provide an education of comparable quality to the richer, largely white suburbs.

The paper argues that the United States remains a highly racialized and racist society with gross disparities and inequalities based on race, that focusing on adequate funding for segregated schools rather than on integration would not likely have made a substantial difference in the current status of the black community, and that through its decisions the Supreme Court has sanctioned the institutionalization of a system that is now “separate and unequal.” The paper then argues that both an integrationist and a more separatist approach are consistent in theory with what a non-racist society entails, but that under either approach in the context of an inegalitarian and hierarchical society the black community will likely continue to bear disproportionately the hardships of American life; and that the achievement of racial justice, while not reducible to a class struggle, requires an inter-racial and inter-ethnic struggle for racial and social justice of all who suffer from the institutionalized inequality of this society.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law

Date of this Version

August 2004