This campaign to end segregation, which involved a number of cases, came to a head with Brown v. Board of Education, when the Court finally and overtly decided against separate but equal formulations. Relying on the work of psychologists and sociologists, the Court concluded that the segregation of children in schools on the basis of race deprived those children of equal educational opportunities, even when the physical facilities and other tangible factors were equal. This was the case, according to the Court, because the separation of black children on the basis of race alone narrowed their opportunities to learn by association with others in the community. A feeling of inferior status resulted which would affect them throughout their lives. As a result of this line of reasoning, the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal institutions are inherently unequal, and thus violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
One consequence of this was a revolution in constitutional law. Subsequent decisions extended the Brown principle to other segregation laws. State laws that perpetuated this racial caste system were invalidated, and their enforcement at the state level gradually ended. The 14th Amendment addresses only acts undertaken by the government. “Nor shall any state deny…the equal protection of the laws,” is how the text reads. But new doctrines were developed which served to extend this constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination to private activities specifically encouraged or supported by the states. New federal statutes were enacted in order to deal with acts and practices depriving black citizens of the right to vote, and to secure for them equal treatment in places of public accommodation, equal employment opportunities, and equal access to housing among other things.
The impact of Brown and related desegregation cases goes well beyond racial issues. Cases arose in which the central logic of Brown was brought to bear on gender, age, sexual orientation and a host of other concerns. In the final analysis, this case represented a wholesale shift in the way Americans understood race generally, and civil rights specifically in the United States. …
- The case Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruled that separate but equal schools were not, in fact, equal. And it argued that even if they were, the stigma attached to being in separate facilities caused irreparable harm. Do you agree that drawing attention to differences between groups of people only causes them to be stigmatized? If so, in what areas of our society today do we accentuate differences, rather than try to blur them? What are the consequences of this?
- Recent Supreme Court Cases have begun to address the question of whether there are any limits to requiring equal treatment. Issues such as the religious rights of business owners to provide services to gay weddings, for instance, are being tried. Do you believe there can be any constitutional limits on the right to equal treatment?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense Government eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for use by students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense Government materials.
Gina Yang1/Flickr/CC. 9, Mar. 2018, Brown vs. Board of Education [Digital photograph]. Retrieved from <kcur.org>.