Image displaying the cover of Radical Brown

It’s Time for Radical Equality 

By Margaret Beale Spencer and Nancy E. Dowd 

Brown v. Board of Education famously stands for the principle of the equality of all. Yet on the seventieth anniversary of Brown, we are far from equality. This contradiction between the embrace of equality and the reality of inequality rests upon a limited, conservative reading and implementation of Brown. In Radical Brown, we argue that Brown stands for a mandate for comprehensive equality grounded in shared, common, equal humanity.  Four hundred years of systems, structures, and culture grounded in inhumanity and hierarchy centered on the assumed inferiority of Blacks and the supremacy of Whites were declared unconstitutional in Brown as violative of equality. This radical declaration required an equally radical full-scale replacement, a system of equality. For each child, it means the full support of foundational developmental needs. Those needs are interconnected with the accomplishment of developmental tasks essential to successful life course competence, healthy identity formation, and motivation. Linked successes include lifelong personal growth and development, physical and psychological health, and full societal and civic participation.  Supporting every child’s humanity and development requires dismantling embedded structural and cultural racism to build a system of equality for all children. 

Brown commands not only radical change in education, but comprehensive radical change. The full scope of four hundred years of embedded inequality must be addressed.  Despite affirmation of the radical meaning of Brown, comprehensive equality was resisted, its meaning distorted, denied, and undermined.   

Brown was a monumental decision considering the comprehensive practice of segregation North, South, East, and West in every aspect of life. The overturning of “separate but equal” in education triggered the immediate dismantling of segregation in other areas. In education, however, the Court signaled that the remedy would not be immediate, by setting for argument the issue of implementation of its decision. A year later in Brown II, the Court affirmed the courts’ broad equity powers to enforce comprehensive remedies but opened the door to delay and limitation by finding that the remedy could be implemented “with all deliberate speed” and that localized conditions prevented setting a single set of remedial guideposts.  Brown provoked widespread, long-term resistance that morphed from violent defiance and constitutional crisis to persistent racially coded policies and neutral policies with disproportionate racial impact.    

The denial of Brown’s radical mandate continues to this day. This profound contradiction generates nothing short of developmental chaos and lifelong needs at the individual and collective levels. The deep chronosystem of historical and contextual underpinning defines the scope of what Radical Brown requires as well as exposing the challenge for every person in a continuing racialized system of hierarchy based in inhumanity.  

Central to this radical mandate is “rereading” of the Brown to expose its radical meaning. “Rereading” is a process common to lawyers by which constitutional cases are explored, dissected, and examined to understand their meaning in the context in which they were decided, as well as their contemporary application. Rereading is also critical to focusing social science research and strategies for remediation—particularly considered from a context-sensitive and human development perspective—based upon the realities of current conditions and a reframed goal of comprehensive change. Rereading includes legal, philosophical, psychological, physical/structural, and cultural contexts that impact the meaning of equality that Brown represents. We reread with particular and careful attention to the social science so critical to the decision in Brown, as well as post-Brown developmental science and contemporary theorizing.    

The failure to fully embrace Blacks’ humanity in the wake of Brown and what the full recognition of Blacks’ humanity means for successful practice and policy is central.  Foundational, operational, and substantive is an acknowledged shared humanity across groups and the implications of a failure to do so, including the mental health challenge of “inequality presence denial.”  

How might Radical Brown be applied in a complex, sophisticated, and sustained process of change to achieve the radical goal of common humanity? A comprehensive framework is essential, guided by the vision of a system that equally supports and values the common humanity of all children.  Implementation might also be adopted bottom up, community by community, without waiting for political actors to engage to achieve Radical Brown.   

What is inescapable is the mandate:  implementing, living–in all respects–our common equal humanity.  It is past time; the time is now. 

About the Authors

Margaret Beale Spencer and Nancy E. Dowd are the authors of Radical Brown: Keeping the Promise to America’s Children published by Harvard Education Press.