Academic journal article Journal of Appellate Practice and Process

Back to Basics: Returning to the Matter of Black Inferiority and White Supremacy in the Post-Brown Era

Academic journal article Journal of Appellate Practice and Process

Back to Basics: Returning to the Matter of Black Inferiority and White Supremacy in the Post-Brown Era

Article excerpt

Except among recent law students, Brown v. Board of Education (1) is better remembered for what it did (namely reject Plessy v. Ferguson's (2) doctrine of "separate but equal") than the grounds on which it did it. The Court in Brown considered whether racial segregation deprived minority children of "equal educational opportunities" (3) even if it were assumed that school facilities and "other tangible factors" were substantially the same for blacks and whites. (4) The Court concluded that there were "intangible considerations" that made "separate but equal" inherently invidious. Said the Court, "To separate [black children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone." (5) The Court went on to quote with approval a finding of the district court in Brown which had ruled against the plaintiffs:

   Segregation of white and colored children in public schools
   has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The
   impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the
   policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as
   denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of
   inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.
   Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a
   tendency to [retard] the educational and mental
   development of negro children and to deprive them of some
   of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated
   school system. (6)

"Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson (regarding whether segregation invariably stamped blacks with 'a badge of inferiority')," the Court in Brown reasoned that there was ample "modern [social science] authority," which it cited in footnote 11 of the opinion, to support its conclusion that segregation imposed grave social psychological harm on black children. (7)

Commentators at the time did not completely accept the Court's reasoning that school segregation was unconstitutional because it caused black children to suffer the pangs of inferiority. General social psychological studies such as that of Kenneth Clark involving the reactions of black children to white dolls were slender reeds on which to justify the dismantling of dual school systems. (8) Moreover, the invocation of social science research suggested that the decision might be vulnerable to reversal because it rested on facts that might later be revised. (9) Instead, it was argued that the ruling was based on common knowledge that segregation had an adverse emotional and material impact on the well-being of black children. (10) Black inferiority and its complementary ideology, white supremacy, were very much at the heart of the matter of black political, social, and economic inequality as it existed in 1954. They supported not only segregated public schools, but also the entire system of Jim Crow laws which stigmatized and subordinated the entire black population. If black children did not feel branded and insulted because the law said that they could not go to school with white children, they were certainly supposed to. If black children did not feel branded and insulted by segregation, it was either because they stubbornly resisted internalizing the message white supremacy intended them to get (for which they should not be penalized) or they had so thoroughly absorbed its portent that they were incapable of recognizing the affront.

Given the reasoning of the Brown decision, the anniversary of the case should be the occasion for an examination into whether notions of black inferiority and white supremacy continue to be embodied in the structures and practices of the contemporary public educational system in ways that have an adverse impact on the psychological and material well-being of black children today. …

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