“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
– Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
It’s been over 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka forced America to recognize the injustice of segregation. But despite that landmark ruling, the perils of segregation are far from behind us.
That’s the message we were left with after listening to “The Problem We All Live With,” the recent two-part radio series by the always insightful team over at This American Life. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, do so, now.
It might be difficult to realize what the development world can learn from the persistent challenge of segregation in the U.S. But if we look close enough, we can see that the question of segregation forces us to look beyond the stated beliefs of individuals, and instead hold them to account for their actual behavior.
Take for instance, this 1979 case in which the Supreme Court ruled out a bid by New York City for $3.5 million in special school funds from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). The court cited statistics, provided by HEW, which showed that black teachers were assigned in disproportionately high numbers to largely black schools, and low numbers to largely white schools. So what did NYC do?
They cried “no fair!” In fact, when faced with the statistics, their argument was that the government “should have had to prove that they engaged in purposeful discrimination.”
The Supreme Court wasn’t buying it, though.
Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun analyzed the history of Emergency School Aid Act, the program through which the funds would have been dispersed, and which was enacted in 1972 to help reimburse school districts for the costs of eliminating ‘segregation and discrimination among students and faculty.’ He concluded, thankfully, that the focus of the program was “clearly on actual effect not on discriminatory intent.”
Given the research that shows how prevalent implicit biases against African-Americans are even today, it’s quite remarkable that in 1979 the Supreme Court was mindful enough to focus on eliminating both the overt structures of segregation, and the subtle manifestations of bias that can often be just as damning.