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How to Read Brown v. Board at a Women's College

Mar 27, 2008 • Karen

As you might guess, we're reading Brown (along with historical background, Plessy, Green, and other crap) right now in my Civil Liberties and Fundamental Rights. While not everyone in the class is a Scripps student (there's even one guy!), most of them are. So, among other issues, a major topic of discussion today was: if you think Brown's choice of a strategy of integration over the Plessy-enabled strategy of equalization was the right one, how do you square that with your choice to attend a women's-only college?

The professor is trying to save this issue for when we cover affirmative action. Fair enough. But I think talking about the gendered elephant in the room in relation to Brown is useful just because, unlike any of the affirmative action decisions, it holds such a canonized place in our society. Brown is just. Brown is wonderful. Brown saved this country from the ignorant, scary Jim Crow people. Read Brown. Love Brown. Or something. I'm cheating, because I happened to see Derrick Bell speak at Mudd frosh year. But most of the students in the class--and myself before I heard Bell--came in with the assumption that Brown was an unquestionably Good Thing.

Which it most certainly isn't. Unquestionably good, that is. While the doll studies demonstrated the pernicious effects of a racist society on black kids, it's unclear that overturning racist educational policy and force-integrating schools benefited them. Attending a previously-white school would give a black student access to much better academic facilities and resources. However, it also would put him in an extremely hostile environment. Instead of having a black teacher who could serve as a potential mentor, he would be taught--and graded--by a likely-racist white prof. Instead of learning with his peers, he would be surrounded by a sneering, bullying mob of strangers. Would these factors fully offset the benefits of attending a better-funded school? It's not clear. But in the last fifty years there have been a number of studies giving credence to the idea that minority kids tend to learn better in single-minority classes (and women learn better in single-gender classes--studies that women's college advocates like to cite).

Given these studies, then, it may have been a better strategy to, instead of pursuing school integration, force states to fund the "equal" part of Plessy's "separate but equal" mandate. It'd be a hard fight, no doubt. Southern states would fight it tooth and nail. But enforcing desegregation was a long, bloody fight, too. It's hard to imagine a segregated equality decision, or indeed *any* Supreme Court decision, that would be harder to implement than Brown.

But, as I said before, Brown is as close as we get to holy writ when it comes to contemporary civic diversity. Lots of people want to hold onto it. Some of them attend women's colleges. Which results in interestingness.

So. The first attempted distinction between segregated (by race) schools and segregated (by gender) schools in class today was based on choice and consent. If women were forced to go to women's-only schools, we would feel oppressed and made to feel inferior--even if the women's-only college options were perfectly good institutions in and of themselves. But because we can choose either to go to Scripps or to Yale, the fact of Scripps being a gender-segregated institution doesn't have that stigma attached.

The problem is, when you move that back over to the case of race--"if black kids can choose to go to either the "white" school or the "black" school, that will remove the "black" school's stigma and make everything better!"--it just doesn't work. In fact, after Brown most Southern school districts adopted the strategy of simply giving all students a choice as to which school to attend. Guess what happened? A couple courageous black students chose to attend the "formerly" white school. But the vast, vast majority of black students, whether out of comfort or fear of retribution, "chose" the "formerly" black school. And, of course, no white student ever chose (no need for scare quotes because it was) the black school--why would you, the textbooks were forty years old and the building was rotten! So you've got one 100% black school and one ever-so-slightly browner-than-white school. And the black school still has no funding. And worse, by the logic of the Scripps apologists, the black students were choosing, consenting to, this state of affairs!

As you might hope, this system didn't hold up to judicial scrutiny. Subsequent decisions found that simply giving students a choice as to which school to attend did not adequately implement Brown. For obvious reasons. This resulted in court-ordered busing and minority percentage targets. So the fact that there is a choice to enter a mixed environment does not by itself justify a segregated institution.

The other argument that was made was that there's a difference between the government/public schools segregating and private schools segregating. I'm hoping that the student who made this argument didn't think this through. (To be fair, that's what class discussion is for.) Otherwise, we'd have no quarrel with privately-owned lunch counters (ahem) or schools (BJU, I'm looking at you) who discriminated based on race. Whether or not this changes the *legal* grounds, I find it hard to believe it makes a major difference in the perceived *stigma*. I might care more if the government segregates by gender because the government can do more bad things to me. But in terms of making me feel like less of a person, I'm also gonna be pissed off when I have to, say, travel in the cramped, smoky "women's" section of the train.

So what is the difference that makes attending Scripps a privilege and attending an all-black high school an inherent stigma?

First, unlike most of the segregated (by race) schools of the 1950s, Scripps is as good or better than most of its co-ed counterparts. There is actual equality of resources and opportunities here. So that additional measure of moral outrage at segregation because of the tangible inequalities involved isn't present here.

Second, there are so few all-men's colleges left in the US. I have no idea how many there actually are--three? four? In any case, I don't know about you, but I don't have a particular desire to attend any of them. If (as the argument goes) a minority group school gains its stigma not inherently but rather in relation to the majority-group school, then, there aren't really any men's colleges left to be envious of or humbled by. There's no thesis for our antithesis. We're simply free to ask hard questions in math class while wearing sweatpants and no makeup in our idyllic walled garden. We're free to just reap the supposed benefits of single-sex education.

However, insofar that Scripps is a privilege, it is also discriminatory. If a Scripps education is really so awesome, it would make sense that a man would want to obtain one. We haven't been sued yet...but what happens when we are? And how do we resolve that opinion with our garden-variety liberal ideas about race and dominant-narrative understanding of Brown?

Man, I can't wait for the affirmative action cases...