Brown and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): A Paradox of Desegregation Policy

By Richardson, Jeanita W.; Harris, J. John, III | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Brown and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): A Paradox of Desegregation Policy


Richardson, Jeanita W., Harris, J. John, III, The Journal of Negro Education


This article explores the idea that at its 50th anniversary, Brown provides proof that despite its landmark significance, based on relief in the courts, its principles can create a backlash of unintended consequences. Stated differently, battles won can be revoked. To highlight the fact that the war for equitable educational opportunity persists, we examine here various litigious and legislative assaults upon historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Why of all the multitudinous groups of people in this country [do] you have to single out Negroes and give them this separate treatment? The only thing [it] can be is an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible; and now is the time, we submit, that this Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.

Thurgood Marshall, 1953

(From Friedman, 1969, pp. 239-240)

INTRODUCTION

Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP colleagues understood the role of educational opportunity in perpetuating systemic disadvantage and they chose the U.S. Supreme Court as the battleground to challenge the separate and discriminatory treatment African Americans endured. In 2004, five decades later, the 1954 Brown decision has long since taken on a life of its own superseding the legal questions it sought then to redress, yet, the fundamental conviction relative to the importance of schooling in American society has intensified (Bell, 2004a). Educational institutions represent the gatekeepers of social and economic mobility and quality of life more in the 21st century than they did on May 17, 1954 when the Supreme Court rendered its epochal Brown v. Board of Education decision. Escalating significance associated with performance at all levels of schooling is due in large measure to heavy reliance upon technological innovation, demographic shifts, and the competitive pressures of a globalized economy.

Colleges and universities were not the specific the focus of the Brown decision; however, arguments in favor of equitable access to publicly funded educational venues by inference and extension included all aspects of higher educational policy. In the post-Brown era, the courts have continued to play a significant role in defining policies and practices that, by design, provide or narrow the treatment for all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other minority group memberships. But in contrast to the progressive stance of the Warren Court, contemporary judicial decisions and legislative mandates have begun to attack, undermine, and dismantle the tenets of Brown in lower schools and in colleges and universities.

This article explores the idea that at its 50th anniversary, Brown provides proof that despite its landmark significance, basing relief in the courts and its principles can create a backlash of unintended consequences. Stated differently, battles won can be revoked. To highlight the fact that the war for equitable educational opportunity persists, we examine here various litigious and legislative assaults upon historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

There are both fundamental similarities and differences between public K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions as they pertain to Brown. All public educational institutions are funded primarily by state and federal dollars. Like the lower schools in 1954, HBCUs have never been unded on par with their traditionally White institution (TWI) counterparts. Governance of public primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools resides mostly in the states through provisions articulated in the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and federal influence over these institutions has largely been exercised by enactments that enhance or diminish financial support. Still many of our citizens assume that the Brown ruling definitively singled out lower schools as separate educational systems because they were the plaintiffs at hand. …

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