Success and Failure: How Systemic Racism Trumped the Brown v. Board of Education Decision
Joe R. Feagin & Bernice McNair Barnett   |   2004 U. Ill. L. Rev. 1099
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Despite the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, legal segregation nevertheless remained pervasive throughout the United States in the following nine decades due to various state statutes and federal and state court decisions. Nowhere was the existence of legal segregation more prevalent than in school systems throughout the United States. Segregated schools were common because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson. Finally, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” With that language, the Supreme Court effectively rejected the legality of school segregation.

The implications of the Court’s Brown decision extended beyond the educational system. Professors Feagin and Barnett note that the Court’s Brown decision marked the first time it recognized African Americans as first-class citizens. Additionally, they state that the decision had an important psychological impact on African Americans and provided moral encouragement to people active in the civil rights movement. Further, Brown supplied the legal precedent necessary to dismantle state-created segregation in other areas. Finally, Professors Feagin and Barnett remark that Brown remains a “beacon of liberty” for people throughout the United States and the world seeking to end discrimination in myriad other areas.

Professors Feagin and Barnett argue, however, that despite the positive effects in education and other areas resulting from the Court’s Brown decision, the decision has by no means been successful in dismantling institutionalized racism in American education. They note that although schools may be officially desegregated, they nevertheless remain effectively segregated due to the following: discrimination in schools by administrators, teachers, and students; racial bias in school curriculum; the separation of students into different ability tracks reflecting racial, class, and gender stratification; and the use of standardized testing that contains significant racial and class bias.

While emphasizing linkages to class stratification and income-based housing segregation, Professors Feagin and Barnett argue that the failures in desegregation since Brown are primarily the result of systemic racism, which they define as the “racialized exploitation and subordination of Americans of color by white Americans” that “encompasses the racial stereotyping, prejudices, and emotions of whites, as well as the discriminatory practices and racialized institutions generated for the long-term domination of African Americans and other people of color.” They note that a clear indication of systemic racism has been the unwillingness by both federal courts and presidential administrations to ensure that Brown’s ideals are fully implemented. The authors also argue that recent presidential administrations have failed to develop educational policies that remove the burdens placed on many children by an ineffective, and still segregated, educational system.