On May 17, 1954, the United State Supreme Court decided a case that changed the course of American history. In Brown v. Board of Education, which was litigated by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a unanimous Court declared segregated education systems unconstitutional, marking the beginning of the end of America’s racial caste system.
As we mark the fifty-ninth anniversary of that landmark decision, it is appropriate to reflect on the progress of civil rights efforts since Brown was decided. But some are now questioning whether American institutions should still use race-conscious tools to promote diversity and inclusion in education and beyond. That issue is being played out in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the latest challenge to higher education affirmative action programs.
But what we have learned since Brown suggests that we should be asking an entirely different question: In light of significant progress through mighty struggles, and with American society becoming increasingly diverse, can we afford at this point to allow our institutions to go in the opposite direction?
The closing doors of opportunity in states that have banned affirmative action programs have made the stakes clear. After Proposition 209 in California banned race-conscious admissions, the selective institutions with the University of California system became more segregated. And Texas’ own history provides another reminder. During the most recent years when UT-Austin did not consider race in admissions and instead used only race-neutral efforts, the percentage of African-American students never comprised more than 4.5% of enrollment, despite making up 12-13% of high school graduates in Texas and over 10% of the state’s workforce.
The stakes are high not just for those who seek admission to college; all Americans stand to lose. For example, colleges and universities realize that declining enrollment of African-American students limits their ability to realize the educational benefits of diversity and is not conducive to training the leaders of tomorrow who must be able to navigate diverse workplaces and environments. The issues in play in the Fisher case could also impact K-12 education, where waning political will has led in part to a significant re-segregation of America’s public schools. These trends exacerbate ongoing problems such as gaps in fiscal and human resources, access to college-preparatory curriculum and student achievement, as well as racial disparities in school discipline—what we have come to refer to as the School to Prison Pipeline.
Ironically, these are the very types of problems that the litigation effort behind Brown was designed to address. And many of these issues are evident in the nearly one hundred K-12 school desegregation cases that the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund continues to litigate.
The persistence of these issues nearly sixty years later reminds us of the work left to be done. And it points to the need for America to do more –not less—to promote equity, inclusion and opportunity. This is especially true in higher education and the continued need for affirmative action programs. With the changing landscape of higher education institutions, and the perverse impact of the “new economy” on college access and affordability for all, especially children of color, the nation finds itself at a critical juncture when it can ill afford to lose a vital tool to opening pathways to opportunity. Doing so now would not only mean a change in policy – it would mean turning our back on the unfulfilled promise of Brown.