The state of Louisiana enacted a law that required separate railway cars for blacks and whites. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessey--who was seven-eighths Caucasian--took a seat in a "whites only" car of a Louisiana train. He refused to move to the car reserved for blacks and was arrested.
Is Louisiana's law mandating racial segregation on its trains an unconstitutional infringement on both the privileges and immunities and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?
No, the state law is within constitutional boundaries. The majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown, upheld state-imposed racial segregation. The justices based their decision on the separate-but-equal doctrine, that separate facilities for blacks and whites satisfied the Fourteenth Amendment so long as they were equal. (The phrase, "separate but equal" was not part of the opinion.) Justice Brown conceded that the 14th amendment intended to establish absolute equality for the races before the law. But Brown noted that "in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races unsatisfactory to either." In short, segregation does not in itself constitute unlawful discrimination.
Decision: 7 votes for Ferguson, 1 vote(s) against
Legal provision: US Const. Amend 14, Section 1
Brown vs. Board of Education (I) 1952
Black children were denied admission to public schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to the races. The white and black schools approached equality in terms of buildings, curricula, qualifications, and teacher salaries. This case was decided together with Briggs v. Elliott and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County.
Does the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprive the minority children of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment?
Yes. Despite the equalization of the schools by "objective" factors, intangible issues foster and maintain inequality. Racial segregation in public education has a detrimental effect on minority children because it is interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The long-held doctrine that separate facilities were permissible provided they were equal was rejected. Separate but equal is inherently unequal in the context of public education. The unanimous opinion sounded the death-knell for all forms of state-maintained racial separation.
Decision: 9 votes for Brown, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Equal Protection
IF there is a sacred text in the American legal canon, it is the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It is the court’s one undisputed triumph, and no Supreme Court nominee who expressed doubt about the decision would ever be confirmed. Who can argue, after all, with the wisdom of putting an end to state-sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools?
But, as an extraordinary two-hour Supreme Court argument last week demonstrated, the meaning and legacy of Brown remain up for grabs. The court was considering whether school systems in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., could take account of students’ races to ensure racial balance.
During the argument, two sets of justices managed, with equal vehemence, to invoke Brown — while understanding it to require precisely opposite things.
One side relied on the logic of the case: Brown, these justices said, forbids racial classifications by the government, period, even when the goal has changed from segregation to integration.
The other side relied on its music, saying that the real point of Brown was to achieve and maintain integrated public schools, whether through social progress or through government action that takes account of race.
The disagreement was, in short, whether the meaning of Brown can be found in what it said or what it did.
How could the justices be so far apart? It turns out that you can read the 52-year-old precedent in two entirely different ways.
The formal logic of Brown concerned only one sort of segregation, the kind caused by government policies that had separated students by race. In 1954, 17 states required racial segregation in the public schools and four more allowed it. The Brown decision said those laws were constitutionally intolerable.
“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in his decision. And separating black children “from others of similar age and qualifications because of their race,” he continued, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone.”
Those policies violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, Chief Justice Warren said, because they used the power of the state to classify people by the color of their skin.
But the decision did not address whether the Constitution had anything to say about unofficial segregation caused by, say, voluntary housing patterns. And in the long line of school desegregation cases that followed, from the Warren to the Burger to the Rehnquist courts, the justices in the majority always insisted on a limiting principle. They said they were only addressing the aftermath of state-sanctioned segregation.
The point of Brown, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote for a unanimous court in 1971, was to remedy “legally imposed segregation,” not to address the “myriad factors of human existence which can cause discrimination.” But that same 1971 case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, demonstrates that the school desegregation cases had a sort of split personality. In an aside in that decision, Justice Burger seemed to approve of precisely what the Seattle and Louisville schools are doing today.
“School authorities,” he wrote, “might well conclude, for example, that in order to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society each school should have a prescribed ratio of Negro to white students reflecting the proportion for the district as a whole.”
So, on the one hand, the decisions in these cases all say that their goal was to undo legally enforced segregation.
On the other, the measures the court used to combat the legacy of segregation could be sweeping, only loosely rooted in historical wrongs and seemingly aimed directly at achieving integrated schools. Among the tools the court endorsed was pairing black and white schools in distant neighborhoods and busing students between them.
That uneasy fit between theory and practice may have been a compromise brokered by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who was never able to find five votes to require school integration where there had been no official discrimination.
The compromise, said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan, “enabled Brennan and the liberals to win tactical victories at the time but left themselves open to retrenchment.”
The two interpretations of Brown collided on Monday in an argument that the legal historian David J. Garrow called the most focused and energetic in years, if not decades. “Oral arguments before the Warren Court didn’t have 15 percent of the intensity of the argument on Monday,” Professor Garrow said.
Students in both the Seattle and Louisville systems are offered a choice of schools, but can be denied admission based on their race if enrolling in a given school would upset what local school boards had determined was a desirable racial balance.
The student-assignment plans are not meant to address past government discrimination but rather to provide the benefits of diversity to all students.
The Louisville case illustrates best the double, colliding mission of Brown. The federal courts there had supervised the school district for 25 years in an effort to undo the legacy of state-sanctioned school segregation. But the school district emerged from that supervision and adopted a plan to maintain integrated schools in 2000, one that required all schools to have a black student enrollment of no lower than 15 percent and no greater than 50 percent. Suddenly, the constitutional calculus may have changed.
“What’s constitutionally required one day gets constitutionally prohibited the next day,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of the situation on Monday. “That’s very odd.”
As Justice Ginsburg’s remark suggested, something profound is at stake here. When the court decides the two cases, probably in the late spring, it may address not only the legacy of Brown but also its theory of legal interpretation generally.
One conception of the law involves the rigorous application of neutral principles. Under that view, the plans are probably unconstitutional.
“Doctrine counts and doctrine constrains,” Professor Garrow said, “even if the doctrine was created at a time when the people who created it were not clear about the real-world consequences.”
Another conception of the law tries to take account of something fuzzier: the purposes behind the doctrine and the consequences of following it. That view could save the plans.
“If Brown stands for anything,” said Wendy Parker, a law professor at Wake Forest University, “Brown stands for integration.”
Questions: Answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper.
Ultimately, what was the legal explanation for Plessey vs. Ferguson?
What was the legal explanation for Brown vs. Board of Education?
Briefly summarize that court case Brown vs. Board of Education.
How is Brown vs. Board of Education related to the Supreme Court Case in the New York Times article from 2006?
What are the 2 arguments on how to interpret Brown vs. Board of Education today?
If you were on the Supreme Court today, how would you vote on the New York Times case? Why?
What are other possible alternatives to fixing the situations in Seattle and Louisville?