Race, schools, and citizenship: The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

professor sits in front of plant and explains
Melissa Beattie-Moss

Cary Fraser

"Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, American education is regressing to the state that it was before the Supreme Court ruling," said Cary Fraser, Penn State associate professor of African and African American studies.

Fraser's stimulating conversation, "Race, schools, and citizenship: The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education," drew a large crowd to the Penn State Downtown Theatre last Wednesday as the second event in Research Unplugged's spring season.

Fraser began his talk by citing the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racially segregated public schools. Though many seem to think that Brown ended segregation, he said, "it settled the legal issues, but it did not settle the practical issues."

"Over the course of the 20th century, the barriers to race have been slowly eroded because of education," Fraser said. However, our country today is failing to provide equitable education to all its children, he suggested, noting that inner-city schools are notably disadvantaged to their wealthier suburban counterparts in quality of curriculum, standards, and the overall structure of education.

This inequity, he claimed, is not simply an issue of funding. "The problem is not money, but the approach to education," Fraser explained. "I spent the first 18 years of my life in Guyana and received a quality education. If that level of education is available in a relatively poor society, why isn't it here?"

One reason, he argued, is an overwhelming lack of diversity in education. "Diversity does not need to imply an abandonment of individual excellence," Fraser said emphatically. As a child, he said, he attended a school with six different ethnic groups, providing for a diverse classroom experience in which students were considered by their "intellectual potential."

In today's America, by contrast, schools suffer from what Fraser called a "high level of residential segregation." Because public education falls under local control, he said, schools in the poorest cities are far from equal to those in wealthier suburbs, so much so that "the notion of the public school as a definable entity" does not exist today, as one audience member suggested.

Fraser sees this inequality first-hand in his own university students, he said. "Within the first two weeks of class, I can tell the kids who come from middle-class school systems and those who come from rural schools systems in Pennsylvania or minority school systems in the cities," he said.

Those coming from inferior schools, he argued, may not be able to reach their full potential as active citizens. "If one is not well-educated, one cannot make good decisions," he said. And, in a world where "education is the very foundation of good citizenship," this is a serious issue.

As an advocate of federal funding for education, Fraser suggested that if the national government steps in, equal opportunities for all students can be achieved, regardless of their race or geographical location. This position sparked some audience members to cite current debate over the "No Child Left Behind" act—a 2001 law enacted to increase accountability for states and school districts—and other dangers of centralized control.

Regardless of political persuasion, Fraser concluded, we, as a society, need to pressure those in power to address persistent problems of inequality within our current public school system. "The evolution of American society," he said, "has transformed education into both an attribute of citizenship and a right that is used as a yardstick for measuring equality in American life."

Cary Fraser, Ph.D., is associate professor of African and African American studies and history in the College of the Liberal Arts. He can be reached at cff2@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 07, 2007