In 1954, the Supreme Court overruled Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate-but-equal doctrine in K-12 education through Brown v. Board of Education.[1] Brown was beneficial in many ways. For schools that did integrate, it gave those black children the educational resources that were not available in their previous segregated schools. Some scholars even believe that Brown was the starting force that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, and other key statutes that removed many barriers to black people in employment, public accommodations, housing and more.[2] Unfortunately, although Brown’s decision did have some benefits for black children, it did not help much with integration and it still negatively impacts the education of black children today.[3] In Brown, the Supreme Court stated that segregation had a detrimental effect on black children, but it was not school segregation by itself that had a detrimental effect. Unequal resources and unequal schools had a detrimental effect on black children. Instead of overturning Plessy’s separate-but-equal doctrine for education, Brown should have instead enforced the doctrine with strict oversight and made an effective plan for schools to become equal.[4]

The Supreme Court ruled Brown using the theory of formal equality. It would have been more beneficial to black schools for the court to reach its decision under the substantive equality theory. Formal equality requires the government to treat everyone equal by giving everyone the same rights, privileges and obligations which is what was attempted in Brown.[5] On-the-other-hand, substantive equality looks to see “whether an individual can actually do what the right allows him to do in theory.”[6] So, although black children “legally” had the right to attend white schools post-Brown, many still were not able to attend due to resistance from communities and other reasons beyond their control. In order for substantive equality to work, dissimilar individuals must receive dissimilar treatment.[7] Black schools were dissimilar from white schools in terms of physical conditions, teacher salaries, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate number of schools, and resources. In order to make black and white schools equal in practice rather than in theory, dissimilar treatment had to occur. Among other things, dissimilar treatment for black schools would have entailed providing black schools with more funding than white schools in order to remedy the deficiencies that made them unequal. Of course during the Brown era, and likely today, the thought of black schools receiving more funding than white schools would have been met with resistance and confrontation. But, because black schools had been underfunded for so long, making them dissimilar, the only way black schools could have been equal was though substantive equality which could have still been beneficial to black schools today.[8]  At the very least, the Supreme Court could have ordered for districts to adhere, truly adhere, to the separate-but-equal doctrine.

Looking at the effects of Brown, the opinion, limited to a functional equality framework, hurt black children more than it helped them. When black students integrated into white schools, this led black students from an environment of all black teachers and peers to all-white teachers and majority white peers. Although Brown ruled against racial segregation in schools, it did not protect black educators.[9]  Due to integration, black teachers and principals lost their jobs by the thousands.[10] Because many black schools closed, black teachers and principals no longer had a place to work as they were refused jobs at white schools, and white superintendents refused to have them teach white children or be in a position over a white teacher.[11]

It was beneficial to black students that they had black teachers who understood their struggles and who cared about their educational success.[12] Pre-Brown, around 35-50% of teachers in the states that had segregated schools were black.[13] Post-Brown, this figure dropped drastically.[14] This affected black children as they were no longer being taught by people who looked like them and understood their upbringings. The personal relationships between black students and black teachers that once existed did not exist anymore.[15] The problem was that black students benefited greatly from having black teachers, even today.[16] In comparison to white students, black students who have white teachers have a greater chance of being expelled or suspended, are less likely to be placed in programs that are deemed for gifted children, and their teachers have lower expectations for them.[17] When black students do not have black teachers, those students can suffer from disparities beyond their control. In regards to the decrease of black teachers, black children are still suffering presently from inadequate black teacher representation, and unfortunately, the low percentages of black educators have been traced back to Brown.[18]

According to the Supreme Court Justices in Brown and testimony given, segregation made black children feel inferior. If this is accepted as true, unfortunately integration did not work. Three out of ten studies published by 1978 found that desegregation negatively affected black children’s self-esteem while the remaining seven studies showed that desegregation either had no-effect or mixed effects on self-esteem.[19]

Although Brown was ruled to end segregation in schools, black children were still segregated from white children in every other aspect of life. Even if integration in schools was beneficial to the self-esteem of black children, once they left school, they still went home to segregated neighborhoods, attended segregated stores and churches, and walked through a different entrance into stores because of the color of their skin. This could have left black children with the feelings of inferiority discussed by the Brown court because they had the benefit of integrated schooling, yet still did not have the benefits and access to other things white children did.

Most importantly, the Supreme Court erred in Brown because there was no clear resolution of how schools should integrate. Brown only determined that because separate educational facilities were unequal, schools had to integrate. When the Supreme Court had another chance to fix this mistake in Brown II[20] and Milliken[21], they failed again.

In Brown II, the Supreme Court held that lower courts should also adhere to the holding of Brown and start the process of integration “with all deliberate speed.”[22] Because there was no clear resolution of how schools should have integrated in Brown, and Brown II did not give further insight, there were many other cases that came before the Supreme Court and other courts on the issue of integration.[23] When thinking about resolutions, the Court should have taken into consideration how cities and towns that had a majority black population could achieve integration. When this problem occurred in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court turned away from any advances of Brown.

In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. Of Educ., although the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina had desegregated, it was found that a majority of the black children still attended all-black schools located in the neighborhoods of the black families.[24] The Board’s plan included ways to desegregate the school system more to have higher percentages of black children attend white schools to racially balance the schools to adhere to Brown.[25] One of the ways the school board would do this was to use busing to transport black children to desegregate the schools.[26] The Supreme Court affirmed the school board’s plan in in 1971.[27]

Although the Supreme Court agreed with the school board’s plan in Swann, in 1974, the Supreme Court quickly ruled differently in Milliken.[28] In Milliken, schools in Detroit, a predominantly black city, were ordered to desegregate their schools through busing children to different schools, which is what the Supreme Court affirmed in Swann.[29] Although white families had already moved to the suburbs for their children to attend different school districts, more white families began moving to the suburbs so their children would not have to ride buses for the benefit of black children receiving an education.[30] Because the citizens of Detroit were majority black, in order to achieve desegregation through Brown, the lower court “ordered the school board to construct an inter-district, metropolitan-wide desegregation plan” which would have resulted in white children that lived in the suburbs attending school with black children that lived in the city.[31] The Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision stating that it could not order the 53 outlying suburban school districts to desegregate with the schools in Detroit.[32] According to the Supreme Court, the Court could not give a multidistrict remedy, because of Detroit’s segregation problem, without showing that the suburban schools had participated in willful segregation.[33] Even though Brown called for desegregation in 1954, by 1974 the Supreme Court in Milliken opened the door for white families and communities to disregard Brown’s decision. Instead of setting precedent in the Milliken case when the Court was presented with a majority black city that had no white schools to integrate with, the Court backtracked and upheld segregation, thereby retreating to the pre-Brown era again without a resolution.

Brown’s decision was wrong due to the effects on black children. Over 60 years have passed since the decision of Brown and schools are more segregated now than pre-Brown.[34] In 2014, data showed that 40% of black children and over 43% of Latino children attend segregated schools or schools where minorities make up around 90% of the student body.[35] Frankly, Brown did not accomplish equal education or equal educational opportunities for black children. If Brown had either enforced the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy by demanding equitable funding, resources, and schools for black children or embraced a substantive equality framework of desegregation plus remedying the lack of equal resources, then it is possible that education for black children would be better today.

[1]Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954) (“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment”).

[2] Frank Brown, The First Serious Implementation of Brown: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and Beyond, 73 The Journal of Negro Education 182 (2004), (last visited Nov. 2, 2020).

[3] Nathan D. Grawe & Jenny B. Wahl, Blacks, Whites, and Brown: Effects on the Earnings of Men and Their Sons, 13 Journal of African American Studies 455, 456 (2009), (last visited Nov. 2, 2020).



[6] Id at 45.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Madeline Will, 65 Years after ‘Brown v. Board,’ Where are All the Black Educators?, EDUCATION WEEK (May 14, 2019), (last visited Nov. 23, 2020).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Diana D’Amico et al., Where are All the Black Teachers? Discrimination in the Teacher Labor Market, 87 HARVARD EDUC. REV. 26, 28 (2017), (last visited Nov. 19, 2020).

[17] Kirsten Weir, Inequality at School, 47 AM. PSYCHOL. ASS’N 42 (2016), (last visited Nov. 16, 2020). Some of these actions from teachers are intentional, while some are through cultural differences or implicit biases.

[18] D’Amico, supra note 16, at 28.

[19] Walter G. Stephan, School Desegregation: An Evaluation of Predictions Made in Brown v. Board of Education, 85 AM. PSYCHOL. ASS’N 217, 227 (1978), (last visited Nov. 17, 2020).

[20] Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 349 U.S. 294 (1955).

[21] Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974).

[22] Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 349 U.S. 294, 301 (1955).

[23] Brown v. Board: Timeline of School Integration in the U.S., 25 TEACHING TOLERANCE MAGAZINE (2004), (last visited Nov. 16, 2020).

[24] Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1 (1971).

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974).

[29] Bridges, supra note 5, at 442.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Bell, supra note 4, at 111.

[33] Id.

[34] Bridges, supra note 5, at 439.

[35] Erica Frankenberg, Assessing the Status of School Desegregation Sixty Years after Brown, 2014 MICH. ST. L. REV. 677, 678 (2014), (last visited Nov. 23, 2020).



Ashley is from Laurel, MS and is a member of the University of Mississippi School of Law Class of 2021. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Rust College in 2014, and her Master’s of Criminal Justice from the University of Mississippi in 2016. Ashley will sit for the Mississippi Bar Exam after graduation.