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Keeping Our Promise: Brown, 60 Years Later

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May 16, 2014

Sixty years ago this Saturday, the Supreme Court handed down their decision in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education. This decision, which ruled state-sanctioned public school segregation unconstitutional, was a tremendous victory in the long-fought battle for civil rights in this country. The unanimous decision affirmed what civil rights leaders had always understood to be the “inherently unequal” state of segregated schools.

In their Brown v. Board amicus brief, the ACLU, along with others, wrote that “segregation and equality cannot co-exist. That which is unequal in fact cannot be equal in law.” While the Brown decision set in motion tremendous integration efforts and stands still as an incredible moment in our civil rights timeline, the course of history has found itself again bent towards injustice.

In the 60 years since this brave decision, segregated school systems have been kept alive through the implementation of various systems and structures. While far less immediately visible than state-sanctioned segregation, these systems operate in an equally destructive manner and continue to disadvantage students of color in this country. Though many of our public school systems today have largely strayed from the principles set forth by the Brown decision, the ACLU continues to hold close the words of Justice Earl Warren when he wrote:

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

The ACLU continues to fight for what was at the heart of this decision – an equal, just, and fair system of integrated education for all children. There are a number of ways this is being achieved:

  • We and the ACLU of Delaware will file a complaint this summer with the Department of Education that takes aim at the use of charter schools in resegregating the Delaware public school system. Charter schools came into existence in 1996, the same year Delaware came out from underneath desegregation orders. Since then, charter schools have disproportionately excluded students of color and students with disabilities in favor of their white and wealthier peers. Poor students of color have been left to inhabit the poorly funded, poorly resourced neighborhood schools and have been denied access to quality, integrated education.
  • The ACLU is taking unfair testing practices – which leave poor students of color excluded from the nation’s highest performing high schools – to task. We have partnered with students from the New York Law School in drafting a report that criticizes high school exam policies in a number of U.S. cities which lead to schools disproportionately admitting, and subsequently offer opportunity to, white students. In Chicago, one of the five cities the ACLU has chosen to focus on, these schools have been called “gated communities for children of privilege.” The report is in its final stages and will be published shortly.
  • We have long been fighting the unfair application of school discipline policies on students of color. Even in schools that have achieved integration, students of color are subject to suspension and expulsion at incredible rates. Such is the case in Salt Lake City’s West High School, where students of color were collected, questioned, and falsely accused of gang activity – all in the name of “school safety.” We are currently arguing on behalf of one of these students, Kaleb Winston, in a class-action lawsuit against the Salt Lake City Police Department. Disproportionate criminalization in integrated schools is yet another way in which an inferior system of education is being maintained for students of color.

In a time when poor students of color are largely excluded from high quality educational opportunities, a time when students are criminalized for trying to learn while black, a time 60 years after it was decided that “‘separate but equal’ has no place,” the above are just a few examples of how the ACLU is working to see fulfilled the promises of Brown.

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