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Success of Brown v. Board of Education Debated at Askwith Forum

Issues raised by the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education case -- such as racial equality, integration, and quality education -- are still alive and being debated today, said panelists at the recent Askwith Forum, "In Brown's Wake."

"It takes work to undo racial hierarchy and we haven't done that work in this country," said moderator Martha Minow, Ed.M.'76, dean of Harvard Law School. "But to give up on that as an aspiration is tragic, particularly in a moment when diversities are more complicated than they ever have been."

Minow, who wrote her latest book, In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark, in part because of people, disheartened by the feeling that the case had failed, pointed out that the law had repercussions in- and outside of education.

Along with panelists Associate Professor John Diamond, Professor Fernando Reimers, Lecturer Rick Weissbourd, Assistant Professors Marty West and Meira Levinson, and the Honorable Nancy Gertner, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Massachusetts, Minow addressed questions about the use of integration in equality, different contexts of inequality, and pressing issues facing equality in schools.

There is no magic in integration, said Diamond, paraphrasing W.E.B. DuBois. "Putting people in the same context doesn't mean they will get the same education. The question isn't about integration as a goal it's about the quality of education...."

What made Brown such a genius decision, Gertner said, was that it linked educational equality to a Constitutional right. If you delink it, she added, then you lose this conversation.

As the conversation amongst the panelists shifted to the value of integration, Minow questioned how we got to a point of wondering whether it's even worthwhile. "[Brown] failed -- it was an effort to have court-ordered integration," she said, but instead it resulted in white flight, movement to suburbs, and a change in Constitutional interpretation.

As a result of Brown, the creation of schools geared toward specific genders, disabilities, and sexual orientations increased. The panelists contemplated the value of these segregated schools and when you draw the line on such developments.

When speaking of a recently opened school in New York that is specific to sexual orientation, Minow raised some concerns. "What worries me is that it excuses the other schools [from having] an obligation to become a safe place for all students. That's unacceptable," she said.

The question remains, said Minow, as to whether law is ultimately a good tool for dealing with issues of equality and integration.

"The book presents a very nuanced account of what court rulings can achieve and what they cannot achieve," Reimers said. "Court rulings are good to change legal precedents...but don't change based on account or what people think or how people behave unless they violate the law."