The Heart of Equal Protection: Education and Race


Today, education is perhaps the most importantfunction of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

To separate [children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

Brown vs. Board of Education established more than the unconstitutionality of the separate but equal doctrine in public education. Brown also gave the importance of education a constitutional dimension. Involuntary racial segregation creates a stigma wherever it exists which indisputably affects a child’s self-esteem and standing as an equal citizen. Yet, as NAACP strategists understood, the U.S. Supreme Court probably would not have dismantled Plessy v. Ferguson because Black children felt stigmatized by having to swim in separate pools or drink from separate water fountains. Although segregation in those contexts, as well as all the other areas covered by Jim Crow, promoted the social and political subordination of Blacks and concomitant feelings of inferiority, segregated education provided a unique type of harm.

NAACP strategists also understood that integrating public schools was essential to achieving racial equality in America. While most Whites disagreed about the value of integration in public schools, they agreed with most Blacks that education was important to all children, Black and White. This is suggested by the general consensus that Black children were entitled to an education even if they were separate from White children. This general consensus among Whites and Blacks about the importance of education to all children undoubtedly provided some legitimacy and impetus for the Brown Court’s willingness to overrule Plessy in public education.

Brown also acknowledges qualitative aspects to the importance of education, which is evident from the Court’s rejection of purely procedural definitions of equality under the Fourteenth Amendment. For example, the Brown Court held that equality meant more than ensuring the State spend equal amounts of money on Black and White schools. Otherwise, there would have been no need to overrule Plessy on the question of whether segregation in public schools is constitutional; the Court could merely have ordered the state to spend more money on the Black schools.

Further, the Court’s decision in Brown implicitly foreclosed the possibility of procedural definitions of equality that would have allowed Black children access to White schools merely to avoid the stigma of feeling inferior by being excluded without also ensuring their integration within the school. Specifically, if Brown is read in conjunction with McLaurin v.Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, decided four years earlier, it is clear that the Court understood equality was tied to quality in intangible ways that extended beyond the blatant existence of Jim Crow in public education. The McLaurin Court held that a state may not segregate students within a public school on the basis of race because isolating a Black graduate student from his White classmates interfered with “his ability to study, to engage in discussion, and exchange views with other students, and in general, to learn his profession.” Involuntary racial segregation, even within an “integrated” public school, affects a child’s ability to learn, jeopardizing the overall quality of the child’s education. Merely allowing Black children into the White schools as a procedural matter would not obviate this type of harm.

Some scholars have criticized Brown and its progeny for developing a concept of integration that calls for admitting Black students to White schools and otherwise expecting the Black students to assimilate to White culture.’ 6 Assimilation, however, is dramatically at odds with the goal of racial equality, which is the heart of Brown‘s mandate. Thus, just as McLaurin and Brown together define integration to mean more than the mere physical presence of Black students in White schools, I want to clarify that I do not conceive of “integration” as a synonym for “assimilation.” On the contrary, an integrated environment is one in which people of all races share equal power and have equal voices in shaping policies and making decisions about how the environment will be structured.

By rejecting possible procedural definitions of equality, the Brown Court gave substantive content to the equal protection guarantee under the Fourteenth Amendment. Consistent with McLaurin, the Brown Court envisioned full integration of Black and White students in the curriculum and everyday activities. Brown is premised on the principles that educational equality is essential to achieving racial equality, that a quality education for children of all races is essential to educational equality, and that racial integration in public schools is essential to providing a quality education. Thus, the Brown Court was only willing to abolish segregation in public schools because a quality education is important to every child. In addition to protecting and promoting racial equality by its holding, the Brown Court was also making a profound statement about the importance of a quality education to a child’s welfare. Certainly, both principles were essential to the case.

Unfortunately, more recent cases that raise questions about the right to a public education seem less willing to acknowledge the importance of education and the importance of integration in public education. Since Brown, the Court has held repeatedly that education is not a fundamental right. Ironically, the educational equality aspect of Brown seems to be diminishing in importance in cases quite similar to it–cases where the children being denied equal educational opportunities are disproportionately children of color and poor children. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Missouri v. Jenkins sends the resounding message that integrating public schools is no longer a priority. Jenkins and the other post-Brown decisions seriously undermine our commitment to both racial equality and educational equality as announced in Brown.

As I read Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, I thought about the importance of emotional intelligence in the education of our children. I also thought about how Goleman could have been one of the psychological experts for the petitioners in Brown, helping to present evidence that a policy of involuntary segregation harms students by emotionally assaulting their hearts and by socially, economically, and politically isolating them from the power structure dominated by White America. Simultaneously, I thought about how heavily criticized the Brown Court was for relying–at least, ostensibly–on such “soft” scientific research to reach the profound conclusion that separate is inherently unequal. This criticism has been so extreme that in Jenkins, Justice Thomas argued that racial classifications are constitutional only if they serve compelling state interests regardless of any evidence from “questionable social science research” that a classification harms or does not harm a particular racial group.

However “soft” the evidence was at the time of Brown that children, especially Black children, are demoralized by racist policies like de jure school segregation, recent data support similar findings, including that involuntary de facto segregation also harms children. Still, some people continue to be skeptical about the validity of psychological data and this skepticism may affect their opinions about the usefulness of a concept like emotional intelligence. Even for these skeptics, however, Goleman’s book can be seen as offering further support for the moral principles that almost everyone now agrees are at the heart of Brown: that involuntary racial segregation (de jure and de facto) is inconsistent with equality principles and is harmful to children, especially children of color, and that education isv itally important to children.

As a White law professor and mother of a Black little girl, I am particularly inspired by the concept of emotional intelligence as it relates to reviving the principle in Brown that a quality education is essential to the equality concept embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment. Without educational equality, racial equality is an empty promise.

Part I of this article briefly presents several major U.S. Supreme Court decisions since Brown that raise the issue of the importance of educational opportunity, especially for students of color. The cases illustrate a waning commitment to racial and educational equality by denying that a quality education is important to children, by denying that all children are entitled to a free public education, and by denying the importance of racial integration in public schools. Part H describes major skills that are characteristic of people with high emotional intelligence and briefly relates the importance of those skills to developing a deeper understanding of the dynamics of racism. Specifically, it explores how emotional intelligence skills are relevant to constitutional claims that children are entitled to equal educational opportunities and attempts to demonstrate that employment of high emotional intelligence skills to the more recent cases would have promoted the values announced in Brown. Finally, Part III suggests specific ways wecan renew our commitment to racial and educational equality by assuming leadership roles that promote these goals.

My goal in this article is modest, but my message is urgent. I want to inspire a discussion about emotional intelligence, integrated schools, and the connections between these two goals, especially with regard to promoting racial equality and eliminating racism. I do not suggest that the concept of emotional intelligence is the antidote for all of society’s ills or that school integration alone will dismantle White hegemony. What I do suggest is that a “quality education,” informed by Brown, is not possible without integration. Education teaches more than math and verbal skills; it fosters emotional skills as well. Furthermore, a full set of emotional talents cannot be gained in the context of involuntary segregation. These insights into the connections between education and emotional intelligence can be helpful in understanding and healing racial divisions in our society, and in providing a means to eliminate some of the forces that contribute to social, economic, and racial inequality.

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