What Brown v. Board can still teach us

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As we commemorate the 67th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Americans have much to learn about the legacy and unrealized promise that Brown represents.

The opinion famously relies on social science evidence submitted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark and other eminent scholars establishing that segregation harms the psychological development of Black children, and that official segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

This always struck me as necessary but not sufficient. The ruling talks about the harm of segregation to African American children, but I also wondered: Why weren’t we also addressing the toll racism takes on the psychological and moral development of white Americans?

Only recently, reading Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us, I learned that this argument was presented directly to the Supreme Court. The pivotal social science brief in that case explicitly speaks to the damage to the moral character development of those who are ostensibly privileged by segregation.

As white children were “taught to gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way,” the social scientists warned, they “often develop patterns of guilt feelings, rationalizations, and other mechanisms, which they must use in an attempt to protect themselves from recognizing the essential injustice” and feeling “moral cynicism” at the contrast between what they are taught about America and what they observe.

The justices ignored this rationale, leading desegregation remedies to be conceptualized exclusively as doing something for Black children.

There can be no doubt that segregated schools and the whole edifice of Jim Crow hurt
African Americans most. However, the legal, social and psychological structures that sustain systemic racism stunt the moral development of white Americans, imbuing this country with a racial hierarchy at odds with our professed ideals.

Where would we be today if the justices had been willing to name the harm segregation does to the psychological and moral development of white children, too?

White Americans must own up to the ongoing injury racism creates and the broken society it bequeaths to our children; we cannot frame the work only by what is owed to African Americans.

Soon, it will be a year since George Floyd’s murder, a century since the Tulsa race massacre, 156 years since Juneteenth — all within a month of Brown v. Board’s anniversary.

Grappling with racism’s enduring harm on our moral and ethical development can move us toward the just and equitable society to which we aspire, but which has painfully eluded us.

Ross Wiener is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program and a former trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.