The road toward equity began with the road toward equality. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (“Brown I”), the Supreme Court held that separate schools divided along racial lines were inherently unequal, overturning the “separate but equal” precedent enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). The decision set the movement toward equality in the school system. Some argue that Brown I fell short of achieving true change in providing students equality within the school system. The argument has merit. But although Brown I was not sufficient to achieve equality, it certainly was necessary. One only has to ask what would have happened if the Supreme Court would have upheld the principle of “separate but equal” when deciding Brown I.
After Brown I, schools across the nation understood the new principle but failed to adhere to it. To the frustration of many, Brown I told the nation that separate schooling would not be tolerated but did not tell the schools how to merge the dichotomy in the school system. The lack of guidance prompted the Supreme Court to issue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294 (1955) (“Brown II”). While the Court held that the primary responsibility for creating unitary school systems rested upon the local school authorities and that the lower courts would oversee such efforts, the schools remained largely dissident. Schools across the nation began to desegregate at snail-speed, to put it mildly. Texas led the way in the South with 2% of school systems operating as unitary systems. The majority of the states in the South fell right behind with less than 1%.
Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968) (“Green”) served as the next judicial cornerstone toward equality in schools in an incrementally, slowly-changing society. By the time the Court reached Green, the Court was growing impatient with the lack of follow-through with Brown I and II. In Green the Court held that Virginia’s New Kent County’s “freedom-of-choice” plan in theory could offer the possibility of creating a unitary system but in reality the plan maintained the status quo, a school system divided along racial lines. The Court further provided six factors to help future courts determine whether a desegregation plan is in accordance with the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
Meanwhile, others continued to fight for their right to receive equal treatment under the law. Students walked-out of their classrooms and marched, in a metaphoric walk toward equality. Marches continued even after the resistance from those who adamantly opposed integration. The U.S. Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, providing safeguards against discrimination and giving claimants alleging discrimination some sort of recourse, such as the establishment of the Commission on Civil Rights and its power to investigate citizens’ allegations of discrimination based on race or color.
Some label the movement toward equity as drawn-out and frustrating but we have come a long way since the founding pillars enunciated in Brown I and II. We continue to see the same issues surfacing over and over again-for example, students of color continue to achieve at lower levels. While no one solution will resolve all equity issues in this large nation, we should continue making marks along the road. With every step, we make incremental changes. Perhaps we can go from Brown to Green to Golden opportunities for all.
Raquel Muñiz is currently pursuing a joint doctorate and law degree at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research agenda relates to the intended and unintended consequences of education policies on vulnerable youth in our school systems. She is interested in exploring how shifts in current practices might propel underrepresented populations into safer and more successful futures. Upon graduation, she intends to become a child advocate to improve the life chances of vulnerable youth and derail the school-to-prison pipeline.