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A Stride Toward Freedom: Reflecting on Education 70 Years After Brown

Updated: May 28


Black boys walking hand in hand.
"A stride toward freedom" by forwardED, 2024. All rights reserved.

In the summer of 1954, an era-defining verdict pierced the chambers of the highest court in the United States, signaling hope for millions yet unwittingly laying the groundwork for a protracted struggle that continues today.

 

Seventy years ago, Brown v. Board of Education shattered the brittle, unjust doctrine of “separate but equal” that had legitimized racial segregation across the U.S. since Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896. The landmark Brown decision poised itself to mend the fabric of a nation torn by racial inequities and other social injustices that severed its core. The aspiration for an integrated educational system, where children of all races could learn together in harmony and equity about each other and themselves, would, however, prove to be more difficult than improbable—a dream deferred continually beleaguered by resistance, dilatory tactics, and systemic obstructions. As we mark the anniversary of Brown, it is important that we take this opportunity to reflect not only on a legal victory but on the enduring challenge of transforming judicial pronouncements into lived reality—a journey from the courtrooms to classrooms that remains incomplete.

 

The struggle for true integration has been about not just people occupying the same spaces but the dismantling of deep-seated barriers to equity while ensuring that every child can not only dream of a future filled with liberty, joy, and opportunity but actually live it. Brown’s declaration that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional was to be the death knell for segregation. A year later, the country began its now-predictable backsliding on racial justice promises with Brown II’s mandate for desegregation to proceed with ‘all deliberate speed,’ opening the floodgates for resistance. Brown II’s vague temporal directive allowed local jurisdictions to drag their feet, fostering a breeding ground for defiance and legislative pushback against integration that inspired new forms of legalized segregation to take shape. This phase of resistance set a troubling tone for decades to follow.

 

In the 1970s, the Milliken v. Bradley decisions further crippled the potential of Brown. The rulings significantly limited desegregation across district lines, essentially sanctioning segregation in cities like Detroit, Michigan, with large African American populations, surrounded by predominantly white suburban districts. This containment strategy was compounded by the advent of school vouchers, conceived initially to sidestep integration by redirecting public funds to support private schooling predominantly for whites.

 

The persistence of segregation combined with the failure of desegregation policies underscored a harsh reality within American life: Segregation was here to stay not merely as a defunct policy from a bygone era but as a continuing struggle over power, privilege, and erasure. It was about who got to move freely as full citizens, endowed with privileges guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This battle was not just over physical spaces or the physical bodies who occupied them but the dreams of lives defined by those liberties and joys expressed in the uniquely American pursuit of happiness.

 

Throughout U.S. history, segregation has represented a gross contradiction— about not merely people living separately and unequally but the manifestation of imbalances of power and systemic inequities, ones that amplify the disparities and vast and growing distances between privilege and vulnerability. In the context of U.S. history, segregation has meant a state of internment for those defined by their poverty, race, or other social identities—marked distinctly from more dominant identities.

 

By contrast, integration, often misunderstood as the opposite of segregation, represents not merely the physical coming together of diverse groups but the embodiment of the principles of democracy—freedom, equality, and shared power. Integration implies the presence of a choice: a dynamic process of engaging with and transforming our societal structures to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their identity, can move freely between multiple worlds to access the opportunities necessary to fully enjoy all of society’s promises. Integration necessitates policies, conditions, and motivations that bring people together. It upholds a bidirectionality of movement that makes porous the vast limits of human possibility.

 

There has been a growing chorus of critics who label integration as racist. They suggest that transit integration implies for vulnerable people is almost always one-sided and one-way, about outward migration or the abandoning of oneself and one’s community for what they see as assimilation into whiteness and the full erasure of anything outside it. For them, integration is a sad and unforgiving ruse, another instantiation of the hegemony of so-called dominant groups to establish themselves as the center of the social universe and the desired high points of a fixed social hierarchy.

 

Of course, these critics are not entirely wrong in their more granular assessment of power and the politics of diversity (which is not integration). Diversity is about how something looks; integration is about how it feels. Thus, it is not enough to bring people together, especially if coming together reinforces asymmetries in human relationships. The goal of integration is not for the vulnerable to be saved or civilized by the privileged. Neither is it for the privileged to remain in place, discouraged from movement or the sharing of power that integration implies. The true goal of integration is change and by no means a reinforcement of the status quo.

 

The term integration, borrowed from the Latin integrātus, meaning “to make whole or renew” (i.e., to begin again), implies a process where different things come together to form something greater, new, and better. It suggests not merely the joining of parts but a rebirth of the whole—a fusion that breathes new life into the very thing it occupies.

 

Change, as in renewal, is pivotal when considering integration. Thus, integration isn’t just about coexistence but the creation of something vibrant, dynamic, and better than before. It is a journey toward collective completeness, where each individual and community adds unique and necessary threads to the larger quilt of human history. Integration is a process that enhances the whole, enriching it with the strengths of diversity and the salience of belonging. Through integration, we don’t just patch old rifts; we weave a new narrative of unity and resilience, celebrating each contribution as essential to our collective rebirth and flourishing.

 

Integration absent change is not integration at all. Critics often miss or simply overlook this crucial point—that the essence of integration is not merely the dismantling of the linear vertical hierarchies that segregation perpetuates but the creation of circles and other non-linear shapes and structures that inspire a change world strengthened by our togetherness.

 

The task before us, thus, requires a transformative vision that reimagines integration not just as a physical mixing but as a deep, meaningful exchange of ideas and a shared sense of belonging. It’s about recognizing the reflections of ourselves in others to see how human experience is fundamentally interconnected. Drawing inspiration from pioneering thought leaders in social justice and education reform, here are my ten best strategies for bringing us closer to fulfilling the promises of Brown:

 

1.     Integration of Knowledge and Narrative: Schools must become epicenters where multiple narratives and histories converge, not just through textbooks but through the lived experiences and voices they amplify. This involves redesigning curricula to include a broader spectrum of cultural histories and perspectives, thus fostering a more inclusive educational environment. It’s about creating “mirrors” and “windows” in educational content—mirrors where students see their own experiences and identities reflected and windows where they gain insights into the lives and histories of others. This kind of curriculum integration educates, empowers, and connects, building the human capital necessary for a truly integrated society.

 

2.     Redesigning Spaces of Belonging: Integration must occur not only in schools but in all public and communal spaces. This involves rethinking the planning of public spaces to encourage community interaction and engagement. By designing cities and neighborhoods that mix income levels, races, and cultural backgrounds—through mixed-use developments, diversified public schools, and community centers—we create physical and social infrastructures that support diverse interactions and dismantle systemic segregations.

 

3.     Institutionalizing Equity: Move beyond policy reform to institutionalize equity in every facet of societal functioning. This means embedding equity in legal, economic, and social structures to ensure that every policy enacted is filtered through a lens of its impact on integration and equality. From healthcare to housing, employment to education, every system must be audited for biases and restructured to prevent the concentration of power and privilege against that of voicelessness and vulnerability. Such a holistic approach ensures that integration is not an isolated phenomenon but a foundational principle of how the world works.

 

4.     Creating Collaborative Intellectual Ecosystems: Encourage the establishment of collaborative networks across schools, universities, and community organizations. These ecosystems would not only share resources but also ideas, fostering an environment where diverse intellectual contributions are valued and exchanged. This strategy promotes a deeper integration, one that is rooted in the sharing of knowledge and cultural capital, thereby enriching the educational experience and broadening perspectives.

 

5.     Systemic Empathy Building: Develop and integrate curricula explicitly designed to build empathy and understanding across different racial, cultural, and socio-economic groups. This could involve immersive experiences, storytelling projects, and partnership programs that connect students from diverse backgrounds, encouraging them to explore and understand each other’s lives and challenges. The aim is to cultivate a generation that sees the humanity in all, reducing biases and systemic inequalities while promoting joy and justice.

 

6.     Equitable Resource Allocation: Implement a more equitable system of funding and resources that ensures all communities, especially historically vulnerable communities, have access to high-quality education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. This involves redistributing existing resources and expanding the pool through innovative policies and investments that target under-served and/or high-needs areas.

 

7.     Promote Intercultural Competence: Develop educational programs and community initiatives that enhance intercultural competence. Such programs would provide skills for effective communication across cultures and foster an understanding and appreciation of diverse perspectives.

 

8.     Incentivize Collaborative Community Projects: Encourage collaboration by offering grants or tax benefits for projects that bring together schools, businesses, and community groups from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These projects could range from community gardens to tech incubators, all designed to solve local challenges while building bonds among participants.

 

9.     Normalize Equity Audits for Public Institutions: Require regular equity audits for all public institutions to identify and address systemic biases in areas such as hiring, promotion, funding, and service provision. These audits would be a crucial step in ensuring that integration is about co-location and equal access to opportunities.

 

10.  Create ‘Unity Zones’: Designate areas as ‘Unity Zones’ where geo-spatial planning supports diverse communities through mixed-income housing, multicultural centers, and integrated schools. These zones would serve as models for integration, showcasing the economic and social benefits of a truly integrated society.

 

By embracing these expansive and innovative strategies, we not only strive for the integration of bodies in classrooms but also the integration of intellects, identities, and investments across all dimensions of our schools and society. This is the shift needed to make the promises of Brown a living reality.

 

So, as we stand in the long shadow of Brown, let us draw from its spirit to rekindle our efforts towards something greater than shared spaces but shared dreams, responsibilities, and destinies. Let us strive to build a world where every individual, irrespective of background, can wield the power to bind those dreams to a shared reality.

 

This is Brown's unfulfilled yet unwavering promise: that change and new life are possible. Let us move toward it, guided by a future hope where equity is not an ideal but a premium—the minimum price we must pay as we stride toward freedom.


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David E. Kirkland, PhD, is the founder and CEO of forwardED. He is a nationally renowned scholar of education equity. He can be reached via email at: david@forward-ed.com.

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