Professor Waterhouse Offers Commentary on Anniversary of "Brown v. Board of Education"


Professor Carlton WaterhouseSixty years ago May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which said racially segregated schools violated the Constitution. IU McKinney Professor Carlton Waterhouse was one of several IU faculty members to offer their perspectives on the decision and its legacy.

Professor Waterhouse noted the decision created a tremendous sense of expectation. Many believed the nation's schools would no longer be segregated, either by law or in fact.

But that hasn't happened. De jure, or legally sanctioned, segregation came to an end. But de facto segregation continued as many whites moved to the suburbs or transferred their children to private schools. Schools grew less segregated for 20 years, but progress stalled.

"Today we find that schools in many places are more segregated than they were in the '70s," Professor Waterhouse said. "That is, I think, discouraging to people. We tend to view ourselves as a less biased society today. But these consequences and outcomes suggest there are still ways in which race is affecting the education of our children."

Looking back, he said, the fact that many schools in Northern cities were mostly white or mostly black should have suggested Brown v. Board of Education, "without a deeper commitment by America's white majority," wouldn't lead to full integration.

"Looking at housing policies, with discrimination in both government loan procedures and redlining practices, it was almost foreseeable that segregation was going to grow and expand as suburbs were developed and occupied by primarily white middle-class and upper-class residents," he said.

Another factor, he said, was that the court decision left intact social dominance factors that divided American society on racial lines. Declaring an end to legally mandated school segregation didn't address social dominance in employment, housing, finance and other areas -- as well as in education.

Today, it's common to hear that Brown accomplished its sole purpose by ending legally mandated school segregation. But that claim, Waterhouse said, misses the endorsement of justice and equality that was central to the court's written opinion.

"It robs Brown of the sense of hopefulness and idealism that the justices were expressing," he said. "They were aiming higher than that."

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