Decades Later, Public Schools Remain Segregated Despite Brown vs. Board of Education

Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that deemed school segregation unconstitutional, reaches its 70th anniversary on May 17, 2024.

During the time of the 1954 decision, 17 U.S. states had laws that either permitted or required racially segregated schools. The Brown ruling declared that segregation in public schools was inherently unequal. This was partially due to the court’s argument that access to fair, nonsegregated education played a crucial role in creating well-informed citizens – a matter of utmost concern for the political establishment amidst the Cold War. Through Brown, the justices overturned years of legal precedent that enforced separate and unequal schools for Black Americans.

As a professor of education and demography at Penn State University, I specialize in researching racial desegregation and inequality in K-12 schools. I am well aware that, after several decades of retreat in desegregation progress, the upcoming 70th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education arrives at an uncertain moment for public education and the ongoing efforts to make America’s schools mirror the diverse composition of the nation.

Recent setbacks

In June 2023, the Supreme Court curtailed race-conscious college admissions initiatives. This decision was made in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated racial disparities in the United States.

In the meantime, politicians and school boards have implemented bans or removals of books written by authors from diverse backgrounds within school libraries and have imposed restrictions on teaching about racism in U.S. history. In my view, these legal setbacks, occurring in the current political climate, underscore the urgent need to fully realize the promise of Brown.

Resistance to Brown ruling

Despite the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, there were initial challenges in changing the landscape of the nation’s public schools, particularly in the heavily segregated South, where there was widespread opposition to desegregation. In the first decade following Brown, resistance was so strong that compliance with desegregation orders often required federal troops to accompany Black students as they enrolled in formerly all-white schools.

It took another decade after Brown for federal courts, along with the passage of a