70 years after Brown v. Board of Education and desegregation in California

By Jeremy Anderson, CSBA Principal Research Manager, Research and Education Policy Development

On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the idea of “separate but equal” schooling was not only detrimental to the education of all students, but unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Before Brown, racial segregation was legally required in 17 states, legally permitted in four states, legally forbidden in 17 states, and the remaining states had no legislation that addressed school composition. While the ruling from this case did not immediately cause schools to desegregate, it was a seismic federal departure from years of legal precedent set forth by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Though conversation about integration tends to center around students of color, decades of educational research demonstrate that integration benefits all students. These benefits extend beyond academic achievement into social areas such as being more likely to enhance leadership skills, reduce racial bias and better prepare to participate in a diverse, democratic society.

Some of the greatest education scholars of the past 70 years have written extensively about Brown’s legacy. As we reach this milestone anniversary, it is important to reflect on California’s contribution to K-12 integration law and jurisprudence and what trends K-12 education is experiencing in regard to racial and socioeconomic integration.

Desegregation in California 

The path to desegregation in California began nearly a decade before Brown v. Board. In 1946, five families of Mexican descent sued the Westminster School District of Orange County for requiring their students to attend remedial “schools for Mexicans.” In the 1940s, many California districts required students of Mexican descent to attend remedial schools regardless of their English language proficiency. Many prominent organizations, such as the NAACP (represented by attorney Thurgood Marshall), joined the appellate case.

The Ninth Federal Circuit Court upheld a lower court ruling that these remedial schools did violate the equal protection of the families in question. While this finding was encouraging, it was narrowly tailored to the students impacted by these separate schools. Neither the case’s attorneys nor the court went as far as to challenge the legality of racial segregation overall. Following this decision, Gov. Earl Warren signed the Anderson Bill of 1947, which repealed California’s last remaining segregation laws.

Warren and Marshall would make history with their roles in Brown v. Board. Warren was the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who authored the unanimous decision in 1954. Marshall (also a future Supreme Court justice) famously argued on behalf of the five separate cases that became Brown.

In 1968, Berkeley Unified School District became one of the first large school districts in the country to integrate its elementary schools voluntarily. In 2018, Berkeley USD marked the 50th anniversary of its two-way busing plan, meaning they not only bused Black students to predominantly white schools, but they also bused white students to predominantly Black schools. Berkeley continues to use a novel student assignment plan that considers a wide range of community factors for student placement. In 2023, the district expanded its student assignment plan to encompass not just its elementary schools, but also middle schools.

As of 2021, at least four California school districts were still under court-ordered desegregation plans. Several more, acknowledging the benefits of a racially and/or socioeconomically diverse education, are pursuing integration voluntarily.

Where does the legacy of Brown stand today? 

In 2014, CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy commemorated the 60th anniversary of Brown in a statement and explained the work that remains:

“Since Brown, many things have changed in our educational system and society, but unfortunately some things are still the same. Many of our schools and communities remain segregated … some in our society continue to struggle with the issue of race, and the idea of investing in students of color to provide them with an equal opportunity to learn. As such, the equity dreams manifested in the Brown decision are still just that — dreams — and require much more effort from us all if they are to be realized.”

Billy’s message is just as relevant 10 years later. In recent decades, desegregation efforts have been eroded by state and federal court decisions that have sent legal chills throughout public education. Alarmingly, racial and socioeconomic segregation has grown considerably in the past four decades, particularly in some of the country’s largest cities. In the 100 largest districts in the nation, racial segregation has grown 64 percent since 1988, and socioeconomic segregation has grown 50 percent since 1990. A study from UCLA also found that the number of “intensely segregated” school districts (where 90-100 percent of students are non-white) nearly tripled over the past 34 years from 7 to 20 percent. Though not at pre-Brown levels, these trends threaten to diminish the educational opportunity of millions of students.

Even though Brown‘s legacy lives on in many school districts across the country, certain social and legal trends now pose an even greater threat to it. As we mark the 70th anniversary, it’s important to reflect on California’s role in school desegregation and the ongoing educational opportunities it offers to many students.

CSBA will publish a follow-up article on the benefits of integration for students.