Earl Warren: The Fall And Rise of School Segregation


I’m currently in the process of obtaining a Masters in Education. For a class on the history of pedagogy, I was asked to write about someone who had a significant impact on the field. I picked Earl Warren.

Earl Warren is going to be different from many of the individuals written about in Education course because he did not work in the education field. From the first sixty years of his life, there wasn’t much of an indication that he would have a tremendous impact on education in the United States, but that’s what ended up happening. Born to Northern European immigrants, he spent most of his career in elected office. He was District Attorney of Almeda County from 1925 to 1939, Attorney General of California from 1939 to 1943 (securing the nominations of all the major parties), and Governor of California from 1943 to 1953. He was the Republican nominee for Vice President in 1948, and would receive 17.3% of the popular vote as a candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 1952. He backed the party’s eventual nominee General Eisenhower, who would return the favor within a year of his inauguration by nominating Warren for the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The first major decision in the Warren Court was Brown V. Board of Education.

The arguments against segregation predated Warren’s tenure on the court; the NAACP had started this particular class action suit in 1951. They sued the Board of Education of Topeka County, Kansas on behalf of 13 families and 20 children who argued that they had been harmed by the policy of racial segregation in schools. There were several strategies the NAACP used in the lawsuit. They sued in Kansas to avoid the appearance of a legal fight be about northern values versus southern values. They chose a man as the named plaintiff: Oliver L. Brown, an assistant pastor and blue-collar worker.

Before Warren joined the court, it was generally understood that the Supreme Court would vote against segregation. Warren’s impact was still significant in several ways. As the Chief Justice, he was able to write the majority opinion, so he determined the nuances of the decision. He also worked within the court to convince reluctant justices to go along with the majority. When it was an announced that the Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous, opponents of the decision were given no hope or legal rationale for a reversal. The thrust of the court’s decision was that it didn’t matter if the teachers and facilities in racially segregated schools were equivalent, or whether African American students received educations that were arguably on par with white students: Separate but equal is inherently unequal.

While there have been improvements from the days when less than ten percent of African-American students in the South went to schools with white children, there are still problems with racial equality today. As Jamelle Bouie noted “minority students across the country are more likely to attend majority-minority schools than they were a generation ago.” The statistics for minority students are problematic, as “the average black student attends a school that’s 49 percent black, 17 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian-American, and 28 percent white. And the average Latino student attends a school that’s 57 percent Latino, 11 percent black, 25 percent white, and 5 percent Asian-American.” There are further implications for the state I live in. “Today in New York, for instance, 64.6 percent of black students attend hyper-segregated schools.” This isn’t the result—as was the case generations ago—of conscious decisions to exclude minority students from schools with white students. It’s the result of generations of housing policy, and other factors (geographic sorting, white flight, opposition to busing, economic segregation that is difficult to legally dispute, etc.)

Earl Warren probably had more of an impact on American education than every student who ever graduated from an education program in certain states combined. Some might think it’s a problem that someone who had no background in education would have such an impact, but I don’t really see any alternative, since it is up to judges to consider the statutory and constitutional implications of laws, and elected officials to implement those.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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