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The Questionable Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education: Du Bois’ Iconoclastic Critique

Prologue

The public education of African-American youth had been the most significant problem for African-American adults, outside of the issue of voting rights, since the end of the Civil War. From the 1860’s through the 1940’s, the problem stemmed from the paucity of resources dedicated toward their education and the indifference of the American public and its legislatures to it as well as to the supposed deficiency of the quality of public education obtained by African-American youth.

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This state of affairs fueled racial segregation by design or de jure racial segregation in public education, since single race schools, consisting of black student populations in sheer preponderance, were public schools sanctioned under local ordinance. The legal approach of the law professor and dean of the School of Law at Howard University, Charles Hamilton Houston, successfully challenged in the courts the racial segregation that wrought the paucity, if not absence, of resources legislatively earmarked for the tertiary (collegiate, university, post-graduate), level of public education for young African Americans. Still public education for African-American youth at the primary and secondary levels remained subject to the aforementioned paucity and to the indifference racial segregation induced.

Nevertheless 90 years after the Civil War, a successful legal challenge in the Supreme Court against de jure racial segregation in public education was brought to bear. Thurgood Marshall, a protégé of Houston, followed in the footsteps of his mentor bringing the challenge. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education had established as unconstitutional racial segregation by design in public schools and as harmful the de facto effects such segregation produced, which required remedy to address them “with all deliberate speed.” Its decision led and has lead in the American public mind that the remedy not only addressed the harms of de jure racial segregation in the public schools, but also expanded into areas outside of public education tackling the harms such segregation manufactured there.

W.E.B. Du Bois, however, expressed skepticism over the Supreme Court decision. Single race schools, consisting exclusively of black student populations, were deemed by the Supreme Court’s decision to be the harm resulting from racial segregation by design and allegedly engendering inadequate education and low self-esteem as a consequence. The remedy therefore was racial integration in the schools. Du Bois’ skepticism to the Court’s remedy has led many to believe he was unconditionally for single race schools and unconditionally against racial integration therein. In what follows, I give a different picture of Du Bois’ views to show how he was quite prescient concerning Brown’s impact and how his views are strongly pertinent to the current scene regarding the public education of African-American youth.

Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education (Brown) is usually regarded as the most important Supreme Court decision regarding racial desegregation, educational opportunity, and so-called race relations. It is divided into two parts: Brown I (1954) and Brown II (1955). Most believe that Brown I regarded de jure racial segregation in the schools as unconstitutional and that Brown II supplied the remedy to what was regarded as unconstitutional in Brown I  by eliminating all single race schools. But the Brown I decision has both its supporters and its critics. This divergence in opinion affects how Brown I is to be read and how Brown II is to be read as a consequence of Brown I. Most supporters extol Brown I for removing de jure racial segregation in the schools and for making it possible to engender equal opportunity for all people. Critics usually support Brown I’s intentions, but challenge the cogency of its legal reasoning and oppose the philosophy on which it stands. Critics also regard Brown I as wrong because it deemed that all black schools necessarily triggered inferiority and low self-esteem in black children. The deeper question for the critics remains: is what has been deemed harmful (all single-race black schools) an outcome of de jure (i.e., intentionally coerced) or de facto (i.e., unintentional) segregation of the races? Furthermore, critics dispute the assumption on which the Court is entitled to mandate a remedy using race (Brown II) to address de jure racial segregation.

The issue around Brown II’s validity speaks to the unclear and hazy character of what is deemed unconstitutional in Brown I. There are various interpretations of Brown I among its supporters. Some supporters of Brown I embrace the view that the Constitution is color-blind. Individuals are to be judged by their words, deeds, and character, not by so-called dubious qualities such as race. The Constitution is used to end de jure racial segregation in the schools, but cannot use race to remedy past harm or its effects triggered by segregation. Brown II is hence invalid. This is a position that is taken, for example, by Chief Justice John Roberts. A second group of supporters of Brown I argues that de jure racial segregation is unconstitutional and agree that the remedy for the harm triggered by such segregation is constitutional, regardless of whether inferior education is an outcome for any racial group. (Race may or may not be legally relevant in the remedy. The remedy extends beyond educational institutions.) This view was held by Thurgood Marshall. Other supporters of Brown I agree to the remedy for the harm triggered by de jure racial segregation, but only if the remedy supports better educational measures. (Race may or may not be legally relevant in the remedy. The remedy is restricted to and within educational institutions.) Justice Sonia Sotomayor holds this view. Finally, a fourth group of supporters of Brown I agree that both de jure and de facto racial segregation are unlawful in both educational and other public institutions. (In this case, the remedy extends beyond educational institutions for both forms of racial segregation.) Clearly the gist and ambit of Brown I and Brown II cannot be squared away, given the myriad interpretations of them stemming from the ambiguity of Brown I. Do Du Bois’ views regarding Brown I and Brown II fall within this landscape? I argue that he takes a different position.

To understand both the reasoning in Brown I and Du Bois’ view on black education, a single question has to be kept in mind: Does the affirmation that de jure racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional signify that all single race schools are unlawful, unjust, unjustifiable? How does the Court address this question? How does Du Bois address it? The Court addresses it legally, answering ‘yes.’ Du Bois does so historically, answering ‘no.’

Legal Reasoning in Brown I on the Education of Black Children

The Court’s reasoning in Brown I seems to take the following syllogistic form: 1) On the authority of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, the court reasoned, all citizens regardless of race should be granted equal protection under the law and due process. 2) Legally de jure racial segregation of school children is a breach of the 14th Amendement. Consequently, 3), legally de jure racial segregation of school children is unconstitutional. But the Court’s reasoning did not take this form. The Court could not rely on the validity of the claim that the racial segregation of school children is a breach of the 14th Amendment without making recourse to experience. The validity of that premise had to be in accord with past legal precedents, especially with Plessy v. Ferguson, and supported by empirical research. Brown I never gainsaid the doctrine of “separate, but equal” established by Plessy. It declared rather that educational institutions were special, because of their mission and task to shape the minds and character of youth and to protect youths’ intellectual and emotional growth from harm. Brown I never legally dismantled and invalidated Plessy. Further, the legal reasoning in Brown I entailed a silent, fundamental yet disparaging presumption, namely, that blacks were incapacitated in esteem and in intellect due to enslavement and racial discrimination. In Brown I, this presumption was operative by virtue of the Court’s appeal to a body of empirically psychological research affirming, first, the damaging mental/emotional effects of racial segregation and isolation and, second, purporting to show that black school children have low self-esteem as a result of their racial isolation in racially segregated schools.

Even on the hypothesis that two racially segregated schools, one black and one white, with educationally identical resources and services, were in play, only black children would be debilitated by this racial isolation, never white children. Hence, in Brown I, ruling out de jure racial segregation in the schools was equivalent to outlawing all or predominantly single race educational institutions. This was because they were seen as harmful to black children in generating sentiments of inferiority and, ultimately, as impractical, since they were not and would not be earmarked for public funds. Yet, in Brown I, ruling out de jure racial segregation in the schools was not equivalent to ruling out or outlawing all single-race institutions in non-educational settings. Brown I failed to claim that ruling out de jure racial segregation in the schools was right, because such segregation directly violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, even if disavowing the protection did not precipitate sentiments of inferiority among black children in single-race educational settings.

Du Bois’ Views on the Education of Black Children

As far as I can see, Du Bois never repudiated Brown I in wholesale fashion or on this point. His critique of Brown I appeared to be rather more allusive than pointed. Still black critics of Brown I are quite reliant on Du Bois’ thesis that there was a need for racially segregated schools for black children and that such schools did not necessarily breed low self-esteem among black children. Rather such schools were established to insulate black children from it and raise self-esteem among them. This was a thesis Du Bois promulgated throughout his lifetime when he addressed the matter of education and black youth. His thesis was also reliant on social science research, but not psychology. Rather, it was reliant on history. So critics of Brown I claimed that the Court’s reliance on research concerning the deteriorating impact of low self-esteem among black children in all black schools was both wrong on the social science and unnecessary to the argument that racially segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

We should be mindful that Du Bois’ thesis was a conditional one, not categorical. Ideally what black youth – at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels – needed, in his eyes, was quality education, period, regardless of whether it was carried out in segregated or integrated schools. But, as long as the “sort of public education, creating the intelligent basis of democracy, was lacking in America,” Du Bois argued for the necessity of single-race schools for black children. This quote is taken from his essay “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” published in the Journal of Negro Education in 1935, nearly 20 years prior to Brown I. Although Du Bois was not explicit on this point, the “sort of public education” he had in mind operates on two different tracks, each with its own aim.

One track guides a black child toward being a citizen, instilling in her the character traits needed to endorse freely the good of her nation as her own, that is, to regard herself freely and fully as part of the national unity. Here the public school serves a political, in this case, democratic purpose and, ideally, would be integrated. In short, this track leads to producing a citizen, who enters the political world already formed. But, as already formed, a citizen brings with her beliefs, aspirations, and self-conceptions that are the results of long and complex learning processes undergone in her ‘formative’ years. It is this other educational track, so to speak, that Du Bois takes as the focus of his thesis, setting down his position regarding the importance of separate schools for black children, a position from which he never wavered.

Du Bois’ thesis attends to the striving for esteem in schools, wherein the esteem striven for can be had only comparatively, i.e., only in relation to the esteem bestowed on one by others and measured only through the eyes and opinions of others. There is nothing wrong with this per se. But, aligned with segregation, the bestowal of esteem on black children would entail a malignant propensity to fuel with passionate intensity the incentive for forms of inequality, even with political support, since the esteem sought in relation to others would be measured by those taking themselves as superior or indifferent to black children.

Outside of single-race schools, most black children at the time would, Du Bois states, receive an education “worse than pitiable” or would be “crucified rather than educated.” The estimations they receive there for achievements or competences would not be deemed valuable or worthy, would not be defined in relation to the worthiness accorded others, and would not be worthy in the eyes/judgments of others. In short, schools outside of single-race ones would deny or mitigate a black child’s esteem by not relying on actual matters as the basis for deserving, at least, commensurate esteem from others. Separate schools for black children would have the opposite and, hence, beneficial effect. In this vein, Du Bois is also critical of the NAACP in his 1935 essay for its stance against separate single-race schools for black children. He claims that its stance would lead to legal decisions that would be unable to distinguish “blatant and impudent” racial segregation against Negro education from separate black schools that were conditionally necessary for safeguarding the esteem of black children from such segregation. How prescient was Du Bois?

20 years after his 1935 essay, Du Bois delivered a speech entitled “Two Hundred Years of Segregation,” in which he broadly laid out a history of public education as racially segregated, despite brief and infrequent periods of integration. Although he lightly touches on the history of the public educational track discussed in “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?”, Du Bois’ emphasis in this speech is on the history of the public schools in their numerous attempts to serve a democratic purpose in the context of racial segregation. I believe this is why he holds out hope for Negro education in the incremental advance of the black vote, securing gradual increase in the curbing of segregation by race in public schools, rather than in safeguarding the esteem of black children in Negro schools from it. Finally Du Bois’ 1957 article “What is the Meaning of ‘All Deliberate Speed’?” again is broadly a history, but not a history of the phrase’s meaning. Rather, it is a history of the times and context in which the phrase was used. The phrase signifies the governmental promise to remedy the harms black people have undergone from state-approved racial segregation. And, for black people, the history refers to the repetition of the promise rather than to the implementation of the remedy.

Du Bois interprets Brown II as falling within the history of repeated promises to legislate against racial segregation since, according to Du Bois, the promises to legislate against said offense and to enforce such legislation have been neutralized by the customs and sentiments of segregation’s perpetrators. In effect, outlawing de jure racial segregation in the schools – because such segregation directly violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and harmed black youth – was insufficient for generating the political and social will necessary to end legally racial segregation in the school. So Brown II was needed, promised and, eventually, ignored. If Brown I were correct, Brown II would, in effect, be saying, given Du Bois’ article, that black children would have to continue experiencing sub-standard education and sentiments of inferiority until an avenue could be fashioned that would eliminate these problems without jeopardizing white students. Some 60 years later, we still await the remedy.

Conclusions

Several conclusions can be drawn from the points I have laid out. The first is that Brown I compels us to attend to the meaning of racial equality and equal educational opportunity. Read through Du Bois’ critique, it challenges us to come to grips with the value of both striving and esteem for our identities in a pluralistic society. Further, Brown I ought not be read as granting legal authority to bring about racial integration. It should be read as merely prohibiting compulsory racial segregation in public schools. With respect to this point, Du Bois can be taken as being critical of Brown I, but never as repudiating it, since he read it in terms of prohibiting compulsory racial segregation in public schools. Du Bois’ thesis does not commit him to the view that single-race schools should be wittingly and willingly created and embraced. It does commit him to that view only if other schools violate rights and single-race schools do not. Moreover, Du Bois vehemently disagreed with the thesis that black children developed sentiments of inferiority in all black schools. Finally, Du Bois neither provided a comprehensive account nor a detailed analysis of the issue surrounding sentiments of inferiority in black children in terms of striving and esteem. Rather he gave a capacious description of it in a number of his writings, a description of the experience of those exposed to the estimation of others when engaged in the quest for esteem. Human beings engage in this quest from a young age, which involves an ineliminable comparison with others. The comparison is unavoidable. It is not just that the estimation can be inegalitarian, but that it can also be inflamed and inflated or deflated. Du Bois knew, however, that fostering an egalitarian form of the sentiment in black children – that is, by educating black children to conceive of themselves as equal in moral standing to all others while seeking excellence and the concomitant esteem that comes in achieving it – could come, during his long life, from a black school without succumbing to de jure racial segregation.

Epilogue

The social movement “Black Lives Matter” has gained major attention in this current setting. The attention to it has been justified, because it brings to the forefront the following curious position. If “all lives matter” can be widely and automatically presumed, then the routine killing of black men and women at the hands of the police under the color of law and the administration of justice would have to fall outside of or be irrelevant to the scope of that presumption. As a consequence, black lives either would not matter or it could be safely presumed that they do not matter. This peculiar stance is what that social movement rightly counters and protests against. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement whose daily rounds journalists ought to cover.

Despite Brown, the problem of the education of African-American youth has now been with us for at least 150 years. The parental pushback against “Common Core” and the local school boards’ dampening of curricula with creationism or sanitized versions of American history still dominate the daily rounds which journalism covers. But they are not as longstanding as the problem Du Bois addressed and which only history can report. The nature and impact of de jure racial segregation have changed since Du Bois’ time. But the de facto racial segregation of public schools and the inadequate education received by African-American youth therein remain dependent on the ability of local residential arrangements to sustain a prosperous (rather than a meager) tax base for a school’s resources. Economically thriving residential arrangements do not abound in African-American neighborhoods where de facto single race black schools exist. Concomitant with that appears to be the presumption that the quality of education for African-American youth does not matter, despite the need for such education to fuel American democracy. This is the point that Du Bois tried to hammer home, recognizing Brown’s limits.

Frank Kirkland is Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. This essay is based on a presentation given at Brooklyn Public Philosophers. 

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