An Historical Analysis of the United States Supreme Court and Its Adjudication of Gong Lum V. Rice (1927) and Keyes V. Denver School District No. 1 (1973)

Article excerpt

The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education helped dismantle de jure segregation in the South and for a time the dream of creating racially integrated schools via mandatory busing became a reality. Now we find that segregation is making a come-back (Orfield, 2001). Currently, there are public schools where the student population is predominantly poor minority. It is imperative, therefore, that all citizens scrutinize closely the actions and decisions rendered by the Justices of today's United States Supreme Court because historically, the Court has either served to improve the quality of life afforded to people of color, or it has hampered the struggle of minorities to eradicate racial and ethnic disparities.

Despite the Court's decision to support affirmative action, we need to remind the Court that its role is to help improve the quality of all people living in this country and that it cannot afford to forget the difficulties that minority groups have encountered in the past when cases of racial and ethnic disparities in education were first reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. If we allow today's Court to forget the educational and economic disparities that exist in our society, the Justices may deliver racially and ethnically insensitive decisions that some of their predecessors rendered in previous decades, notably the Taft Court. In short, history may repeat itself. Therefore, it is prudent that we examine earlier cases that first brought the issue of racial and ethnic disparities in education to light before the Court. Doing so may assist us as we seek to remain focused on the efforts to keep the struggle for racial and ethnic equality alive.

Consequently, this article examines Gong Lum v. Rice and Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1, two cases in which the plaintiffs challenged school systems practicing racial and ethnic discrimination (275 U.S. 78, [1927]; 413 U.S. 189 [1973]).1 The goals of this article are to: (1) show that minority groups have encountered prejudice and discrimination in education; (2) to provide a comparative analysis of the decisions rendered by the Court in both cases; and (3) to describe the effects of later U.S. Supreme Court decisions on American education. Before a description and analysis of these two cases begins, however, a review of the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson is warranted in order to provide the historical background underpinning the origins of the "separate but equal" doctrine which was used by the plaintiffs in both cases.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

The landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the legitimacy of racial segregation was Plessy v. Ferguson rendered in 1896 (163 U.S. 537, 1896). The task before the Court was to determine the legality of a Louisiana statute that mandated railway companies transporting commuters within the state to provide equal but separate accommodations for White and Black passengers and prohibited people of either race to sit in areas other than those designated to that race. In Plessy v. Ferguson the U.S. Supreme Court based its decision regarding the validity of segregation on two key issues. First, the Court held that since the practice of separating the races had been in long-standing usage, there was no need to question the status quo. Second, the Court held that racial separation was a "response to social conditions which the law could not dismantle and to which law must yield" (Hyneman, 1963, p. 9).

By granting the state legislatures the power to allow separate facilities for Blacks and Whites in public transportation, the Court implied that this power could then be broadened to allow for separate but equal facilities for both Whites and Blacks regarding all matters of social interaction including education. After Plessy v. Ferguson became law, the Southern states were quick to seize this inferred power in order to preserve the statutes that already existed pertaining to education. …