Stanford Law Faculty on Justice Breyer's Retirment

Brown v. Board of Education is one of the most celebrated decisions in the history of the United States Supreme Court. In 1954, the Court famously declared that segregated education is “inherently unequal” and “generates a feeling of inferiority as to [Black students’] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The Court’s unanimous decision in Brown was momentous. In rejecting the reasoning of Plessy v. Ferguson and the separate-but-equal regime it legitimated, the decision facilitated the dismantlement of what was then the legal infrastructure of white supremacy. It helped to spur a civil rights movement that culminated in the historic legislation of the 1960s: Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. One might see in Brown and the changes it wrought the realization of the aspiration embodied in the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .

Stanford’s Rick Banks on Race and the Rittenhouse Case
Stanford Law Professor Ralph Richard Banks

Yet, Brown at 70 is not aging well. The shortcomings of the decision—necessary to secure unanimity—are becoming ever more apparent. One problem is the narrowness of the decision. The Court merely prohibited the deliberate segregation of the schools by the government. The Court neither required that the government provide integrated schools nor an adequate education. While it is common for courts to issue a ruling no broader than is necessary to resolve the controversy (an approach that some commentators view as a virtue), the narrowness of the ruling in Brown contributes to its having had painfully little effect in the field of education. American schools remained segregated by race and, amid growing economic inequality, socioeconomic status. Even if the quality of education a child receives now depends more on zip code than on race per se, it is still the case that Black children do not have the educational opportunities of their more advantaged peers. The prospect of the Supreme Court relying on Brown and the United States Constitution to bolster the promise of equal education is dim indeed. Brown has even been invoked by members of the Supreme Court to justify the prohibition of efforts that use race to promote racially integrated schooling. When conservatives now equate Brown with colorblindness and liberals with governmental efforts to promote integration, both sides are reaching beyond the contours of an opinion that declined to comment upon anything but the very narrowest formulation of the question before it.

Another of the decision’s compromises concerns its treatment of the Jim Crow system it struck down. In order to attain unanimity, the Court studiously focused on the supposed harms of segregation and avoided mention of the motives and social functions that animated the system of de jure segregation. While the case concerned the practice of so-called “separate but equal,” the reality is Jim Crow was less about separation than degradation. Had the Court discussed segregation honestly—as an instrument of white supremacy and an expression of the same notions of Black inferiority invoked to justify slavery—then the Southern members of the Supreme Court would not have signed on to the majority opinion.

This compromise might have seemed justifiable at the time. Yet here it is, 70 years later, and our nation still struggles to grapple with its history. We lack a shared understanding of what happened and of how our past may reverberate through society today. We are like a family that finds it difficult to talk to one another about the things that are most important and becomes accusatory or defensive when sensitive topics do arise.

These are not the characteristics of a healthy democracy. It’s more than a bit ironic that the fight over the meaning of Brown is a focal point of such societal polarization.

Ralph Richard Banks (BA ’87, MA ’87) is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, the co-founder and Faculty Director of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice, and Professor, by courtesy, at the School of Education. He teaches and writes about family law, employment discrimination law, and race and the law. He is the author of Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.