Brown’s Legacy: Race-Conscious, not Colorblind, Policies Can Fix Systemic Inequities

By India Heckstall

In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, marking a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. While this decision was a crucial step toward equality in education, its promise remains unfulfilled.

Despite significant progress in expanding opportunity to Black Americans since Brown, K-12 school districts remain deeply segregated and unequally resourced. Racial disparities in access to college preparatory coursework and discriminatory admissions practices persist. Black and Latino students’ college completion rates are behind those of white students. And segregation remains a reality in higher education, with declining representation of Black students at selective universities even before the 2023 Supreme Court decision banning affirmative action in college admissions.

On the 70th anniversary of the Brown decision, it is important to consider its legacy in the aftermath of last year’s Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina. The SFFA ruling declared that holistic admission policies explicitly considering race were a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The litigation was the culmination of a decades-long battle fought in both the courts and the ballot box to dismantle race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.

Notably, both sides in the debate over the constitutionality of affirmative action and school integration evoke Brown to justify their positions, but to very different ends. Brown itself hinged upon the 14th Amendment. NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers built their case on proving that segregation of Black children into separate and inferior schools, a requirement of the Jim Crow era, violated their rights to equal protection.

Unfortunately, affirmative action opponents—including SFFA and the court’s conservative majority—have weaponized Brown to support their view that the Constitution will only allow race-neutral policies to undo past racial harm. Advocates call this a perverse reading of Brown, which catalyzed the broader effort to desegregate housing, employment, and public accommodations. Alongside major civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination and efforts by colleges to diversify and integrate their campuses, Brown kicked open the door to postsecondary education for Black Americans, who had been systemically excluded for more than two centuries.

Yet paying homage to Brown should not prevent us from acknowledging its limitations. Despite his optimism, NAACP lawyer who argued the case and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s prediction that schools would desegregate within five years never came to pass. Efforts to racially integrate schools encountered massive resistance in the South and in Northern cities that attempted busing. What advocates may not have fully grasped at the time were the systemic discrimination and racial biases embedded in K-12 and higher education that would play out over the decades and blunt Brown’s impact.

The Johnson Administration realized that desegregation and other policies built on the principle of equality under the law would be insufficient to produce racial equality. As President Johnson noted in his 1965 Howard University commencement speech, affirmative action recognizes that “it is not enough to open the gates or opportunity”—it was necessary to ensure “all citizens…have the ability to walk through those gates.” True racial justice was not just “equality as a right…but equality as a result.” As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her SFFA dissent, “[d]eeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

As a race-conscious policy, affirmative action in college admissions worked. By equalizing access to education and upward mobility, these programs more than doubled the share of Black undergraduates from 1965 to 1998, better reflecting America’s racial diversity. Data has also shown what happens when affirmative action ends: Black student enrollment plummets, as it did in California and Michigan after state bans went into effect.

Since the 2020 racial justice protests and the SFFA decision, advocates and researchers have become more vocal about articulating a view Johnson expressed so many years ago: policies that are race-neutral in theory are rarely so in practice. They fail to account for the structural inequities built into our institutions and the compounded disadvantages experienced by communities of color. From the New Deal to the Great Society, race-neutral policies led to worse outcomes for Black people in either their design or implementation.

Predictably, the SFFA ruling has also unleashed an ugly backlash against all programs intended to level the playing field between Black and white Americans, including initiatives to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments in K-12, higher education, and the workplace. Research has shown that diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and racially integrated schools not only boost outcomes for students of color, but also prepare all students to compete in a multicultural, globalized economy.

The headwinds facing racial justice advocates will grow stronger during this election year in our historically polarized country. As we reflect on Brown’s legacy, we must confront the reality that educational equity remains an elusive goal. Race-conscious policies and programs must be essential tools in our fight. To deliver on Brown’s moral vision, we must redouble our efforts to dismantle systemic barriers by acknowledging and honoring our racial differences—not pretending they don’t exist.