On the Bookshelves

A Life’s Project and a Project’s Life

What Brown v. Board of Education awakened—in a future dean, in this country and abroad

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“As long as this country stands for the ideals of equal opportunity and tolerance, schooling is one of the most important settings for promoting not just these ideals, but the practices that support and reflect them.”

Dean Martha Minow answers seven questions about her new book, “In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark” (Oxford University Press, 2010).

What prompted you to write this book?

In some ways it’s been a life’s project. After graduate work and research in education during the Boston desegregation struggles, I pursued law school in hopes of advancing the efforts for equal education opportunity. I had the privilege of clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall and discussing with him the unfinished business of Brown v. Board of Education. I lived through fights over the treatments of gender, class, religion, disability, and sexual orientation in schools and elsewhere. When the 50th anniversary of Brown came around, I was dismayed by how much of the public discussion and scholarly debate stressed the failures of the decision. I decided to write a book acknowledging disappointments while tracking the unexpected legacies of the decision.

What are some unexpected legacies?

Litigation and legislation pursuing equal education for girls, and then for boys; for kids with disabilities; for children learning English—maybe these efforts are not so surprising. More surprising may be the litigation movement for school choice and for equal treatment of religious schools and the challenge to the treatment of Roma children, who have largely been assigned to schools for children with disabilities in the Czech Republic.

What about racial equality—what are the prospects for achieving that in schools?

Martha Minow
Harvard News Office

Martha Minow explores Brown’s wide-ranging impact—on everything from school choice in the U.S. to legal challenges to the treatment of Roma children in the Czech Republic.

The relative success of schools run by the U.S. military in closing the racial gap in achievement is instructive. The high expectations coupled with flexible teaching methods adapted to different students contribute; so do the context of a racially integrated world in which African-Americans routinely hold positions of authority—and the requirement of parental involvement, enforced by commanding officers. Here we have both high achievement and racial mixing in schools. Much of the country has given up on racial integration, and closing the achievement gap is the remnant of the Brown v. Board spirit.

Is there a cautionary tale here or a road not taken?

The current increase in school choice—notably with charter schools—could be a new occasion for racial integration, or instead, a time for further separation by race or ethnicity. Schools can identify a special mission, such as teaching African-American history or conveying Hispanic cultures. These can be great topics, but if they foreseeably attract homogeneous student bodies, there’s a choice to be made by parents and by school systems. School systems could instead promote the creation of schools that attract students from diverse backgrounds and offer a shared mission that helps bridge racial, ethnic and other differences. Ironically, after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Seattle and Louisville schools cases [Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007); Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (2007)], the one constraint on school choice plans is assignment of students by race—even when it’s intended to produce integrated schools. But choice plans can use socioeconomic class and residence as factors in student assignment—and these factors can often be used to produce racially mixed schools. As long as this country stands for the ideals of equal opportunity and tolerance, schooling is one of the most important settings for promoting not just these ideals, but the practices that support and reflect them.

Are there legal arguments against integration other than avoiding classification of individuals by race?

Book jacket

In some circumstances, preservation of culture may justify separate schools. One fascinating but perhaps sui generis situation involves the Kamehameha Schools in Hawai’i. Funded by a private trust created by the last royalty in Hawai’i, these schools have been restricted to Native Hawai’ians. Yet they are really good schools, so other kids want to attend. Several court challenges have attacked the admission criterion, raising questions over whether Native Hawai’ian is a racial, ethnic or political category. The trust in turn has contributed support to public charter schools conveying Native Hawai’ian culture—and although enrollment is by choice, the vast majority of the students in these schools are Native Hawai’ians. They are doing somewhat better academically than other Native Hawai’ians who stayed in the regular schools. There are other subcommunities that do or could benefit from schools devoted to their culture and traditions. The fascinating and challenging fact about schooling is that it is at once a focal point for individuals and their life chances while it is also an understandable preoccupation of groups—ethnic, racial, religious—in passing on their commitments. Defining and ensuring equality might focus on individuals or groups—and equal protection and religious freedom can both be evoked in this context.

How does this work relate to your other research on mass conflict and genocide?

The risk of intergroup distrust or hatred, I fear, increases when schooling communicates sharp differences between people; the promise of schooling, in contrast, could break cycles of hatred and forge ties among people with different backgrounds. The success of schools is crucial not just for the careers and life chances of individual students but also for expanding social networks, and hence opportunities for mutual help and respect for everyone.

How did Harvard Law School, and Harvard generally, affect your work on the book?

African-American mother and child on the steps of the Supreme Court
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“In the field of public education, … ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Brown v. Board of Education, 1954

I had tremendous help from students in class discussions and as research assistants, editors and interlocutors as I worked on the book over the past 10 years. Colleagues on the faculty and in the clinics gave advice and criticism. The Harvard Law School library was extraordinarily helpful—and that’s one reason I have donated my research materials, including the many books I consulted for the project, to its collections. I was delighted that the library and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute sponsored a discussion of “In Brown’s Wake.” The Harvard Graduate School of Education has offered me encouragement and assistance since my student days—and will also host a discussion of the book. And the Humanities Center at the university has organized a daylong conference around it. I am honored by each of these occasions and grateful to everyone at Harvard who helps me pursue this work while doing professor and dean work as well.

Watch a discussion of Minow’s book.


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