Linda Brown Thompson of Brown v. Board of Education died this week. In 1954, the decision was supposed to desegregate schools. Now, 64 years later, NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with Georgetown University law professor Sheryll Cashin about the effects.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Linda Brown Thompson died this week. As a child, she was at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that outlawed segregated public schools. Our next guest says that her death represents a loss on two levels.
SHERYLL CASHIN: I kind of felt the sadness about both her death, but also our nation’s failure to live up to the true vision of Brown by the time she died – the idea that she didn’t get to see that.
CORNISH: That’s Sheryll Cashin. She’s a law professor at Georgetown University. She’s also a former Supreme Court clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall. And she’s written and thought a lot about school integration. I asked her in what way the promise of Brown remains unfulfilled.
CASHIN: In 1954, 0 percent of black children in this country attended a majority white school. By 1988, 43 percent of black kids did. So we were fulfilling the promise of Brown. We were increasing in integration every year from the mid-’60s to the late ’80s. We were closing the achievement gap between black and white kids.
And then, in 1988, we begin to retreat. And in the ’90s, the Supreme Court threw three opinions – signaled to lower courts that it was time for federal courts to get out of the business of policing schools’ desegregation. And school segregation levels are about where they were in 1968. So we kind of lost 50 years of progress.
CORNISH: So at this point, when you look at school segregation, is this something that you’re looking at in terms of race, or is this something where economics and class have come to play a larger role?
CASHIN: So what – we have replaced the old Jim Crow caste system, which was solely based on race, with a new caste system at the intersection of geography, race and poverty – right? So the average black or Latino child in public school today tends to attend a school that is racially segregated, and there’s a lot of exposure to poor kids at school. Meanwhile, for Asian and white kids, they tend to be in schools that are middle class. Public education is a facilitator of inequality in a way that I think is very unfortunate.
But I want to make this clear. Meanwhile, where integration is achieved – where communities choose better public policies that encourage rather than discourage integration, you get the benefits of integration. Children of all colors tend to be better. Social mobility for poor children is higher. Levels of racism and prejudice are lower.
CORNISH: So what do you see as the legacy of Linda Brown?
CASHIN: The biggest legacy is that the case transformed the consciousness of the country, right? For the first time in American jurisprudence, the court puts forth a vision of a public institution that’s open to all. Because of Brown, the next generation of young people were willing to march. You know, the children of Birmingham were willing to march and fill the jails for this idea that, I should not be limited in anything based on my race. And that is a profound legacy. There are – each generation, there are people who were willing to get up and continue to fight for that.
CORNISH: Sheryll Cashin, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CASHIN: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Sheryll Cashin is a law professor at Georgetown, and her newest book is called “Loving: Interracial Intimacy In America And The Threat To White Supremacy.”
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