Segregated Knowledge: Curriculum Revision in Reform Contexts from Pre-Brown to Now

The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education set a new legal precedent in the United States that dismantled the “strange career” (Woodward, 2001 [1966]) of Jim Crow. The purpose of this law, from the standpoint of the social engineers of this Civil Rights Movement, was to change to the social, economic, and educational opportunities for African Americans and other racially marginalized groups in this nation (Guinier, 2004). In the context of schools, this new legal precedent sought to open new opportunities for schooling that would have a direct impact on the life chances of historically underserved communities. The philosophical idea of desegregation was to break down the barriers of legalized segregation in schools and integrate non-White students into White schools that had better facilities, a greater amount of school resources, and a wealth of structural opportunities to increase historically underserved communities’ chances to learn and thrive in a democratic society. In other words, Brown pursued a radical egalitarian (Dawson, 2001) approach that sought to have America live up to the highest ideals of democratic theory—which suggested that each individual live to their highest potential.

Warren Court

Warren Court

Legal scholars (Bell, 1980; Dudziak, 1988; Guinier, 2004) and educational scholars (Grant, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2004; Hess, 2005), however, have outlined the gaps between the intentions and the realities of Brown. Some have even considered whether Brown was a good idea for African Americans—particularly when looking at the case retrospectively (Brown, 2004; Guiner, 2004; Grant, 1995). A growing and significant body of literature about the resegregation of schools (Clotfeller, 2006; Eckes, 2003; Orfield & Eaton, 1997) has come out of these considerations of Brown. This body of work has convincingly shown that what was achieved through Brown in the dismantling of the de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools has all been lost to de facto racist policies and practices that have thwarted the overall impact of the case. The striking data to come from this work plainly illustrates the failures of Brown in helping to desegregate schools.

Although much of this work has shown the problematic ways in which school policies helped to create a racially segregated schooling context across the United States (Clotfeller, 2006; Eckes, 2003; Orfield & Eaton, 1997), some of this work has also looked at the context of schools before Brown and asked questions about the quality of schooling for Black children in segregated schooling context (Kelly, 2010; Siddle Walker, 1996). The retelling of the pre- and post-Brown narrative raises a question that W. E. B. DuBois posed in 1935 (b): “Does the Negro need separate schools?” Although the intent of this new chapter is not to explore the historical and contemporary implications of this question, we draw from this question as a historical guidepost for our analysis. We maintain that implicit in this question are additional questions about who should teach the African American child and what the African American child should be taught. In keeping with DuBois’ question, we explore the contours of African American curricular critiques and revisions from the 1930s to the present.

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918

It is not our intent to provide an exhaustive review or in-depth history of this topic, but to highlight some of the common tensions around curriculum in a pre- and post-Brown era and show how curriculum for African Americans followed a similar path of inclusion and exclusion as the historical trajectory of schools in a pre- and post-Brown era (Brown & Brown, 2010b). In this new chapter we highlight a similar narrative to the one told about school resegregation, with specific attention to what we call the resegregation of knowledge. By knowledge we are specifically talking about the school curriculum. In examining the pre-Brown and post-Brown discourse of school curriculum one can find a similar historical trajectory as outlined by the previous scholarship found in pre-Brown and post-Brown educational context for African Americans.

We first outline the early 20th century critiques and challenges to school curriculum from the perspective of African American scholars living within a segregated schooling context—what we call the era of “segregated knowledge.” Then we draw the readers’ attention to the post-Brown era that sought to make sense of curriculum within the efforts of integration—what we call the era of “multicultural and integrated knowledge.” We follow with a discussion about curriculum revisions and the neoliberal and neoconservative assault on Black curriculum inclusions in the 1990s and in the present. We conclude with an extensive discussion about the intersection of a narrowed curriculum with high-stakes testing and NCLB-inspired policies around teacher quality. 

President Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio.

President Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio.

What do we conclude relative to this history and present milieu of curriculum mean in relation to the context of resegregated schools for African Americans? What the history of curriculum and African Americans illustrates is a dominant trope of marginalized knowledge (King, 2004). However, as this chapter illustrates, this marginalization was situated within the racialized time and space of which curriculum questions were addressed— the reform context has mattered. Looking at the master narrative of African Americans and curriculum as a whole within a pre- and post-Brown era reveals the continuities and discontinuities with respect to the historical context of the ongoing knowledge debate about African American imagery. The continuities seem obvious, in that the conditions of African Americans have remained marginalized whether they were informed by a racial ideology of inferiority, or drew from social-psychological theories of self-concept or neoliberal policies designed to remove and diminish the placement of African American multicultural histories and experiences. In the end the results were the same—African Americans were problematically rendered and access to quality curriculum restricted across historical reform contexts.

Brown, A.L., Vasquez Heilig, J. & Brown, K. D. (2013). From segregated, to integrated, to narrowed knowledge. In J. K. Donnor and A. D. Dixson (Eds.), The resegregation of schools: Race and education in the twenty-first century. New York: Routledge.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 3.58.32 PM

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on segregation click here.

Also, check out the post “Illusion of Inclusion,” Article about Race and Standards in Harvard Educational Review for another piece that I co-authored with Dr. Anothony Brown and Dr. Keff Brown.

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  • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

    This is political!

    In 1970, sixteen years after Brown v. Board of Education and seven years after the Governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace stood in the doorway of the admissions office at the University of Alabama and proclaimed, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he invited Dr. Robert Brown to stand behind him for a public photo opportunity in his Montgomery, Alabama governor’s office. Professor Brown, an African American educator, civil rights activist and leader, stood alongside the four most distinguished white Superintendents in Alabama behind Wallace sitting at his executive desk. The photo opportunity was political!

    There were a couple of hundred superintendents at the conference, all white, except Brown. When he sat in a middle seat in the auditorium before the picture ceremony virtually none of the other superintendents were willing even to sit in the row where he sat, let alone next to him. Finally, the state superintendent cajoled a number of late comers to move into the first row with Brown. Governor Wallace had a new political wrinkle for this superintendent’s meeting. He had $10,000 checks to be used as discretionary funds for each district. This was a first! It was clearly for political purposes as he’d assured full media coverage. When they called for Greene County it was silent in the auditorium, Professor Brown, told me in an interview:

    “You could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet in the auditorium. When I went up to get my check for Greene County, kind of like a diploma ceremony, I went to reach for it and the Governor grabbed my hand and then he wouldn’t let it go. He kept shaking my hand and I kept reaching for the check. He wouldn’t let my hand go! It was so the papers could get pictures.”

    Professor Robert Brown now in his 90s was nominated and inducted into a “Hall of Fame” in Alabama and a plaque in his name reads:

    “Born in Greene County, Ala., Dr. Robert Brown has lived in the Black Belt his entire life, except for his service in the US Army in WWII. As part of the 389th Engineering Regiment, and then the 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion, which General George Patton noted was the first group of “Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army,” Brown landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. After graduating from Alabama A&M, Brown returned to Greene County to serve as principal at his former high school. He also began work for the advancement of the Civil Rights struggle. In, 1970, he became one of the first African Americans in the nation to be hired as a school superintendent. He served in this capacity until 1980.”

    Robert was the second son of Charles and Minnie Brown of the Mantua Community in Greene County, born in 1922. The Brown family had eight brothers and two sisters and he was closest to his older brother, Roosevelt, who he followed into the US Army during WWII by lying about his age, he was 17. Robert’s grandfather, Charlie, walked to Greene County from South Carolina as a slave before the Civil War. It’s ironic that one of our WWII heroes, and a man who exemplifies American idealism in character, should have had to fight for his freedom in the U.S.A. after fighting for the freedom for all Americans against the Nazi. Now we see the “Cloaking of Equity” i.e., “Equal terms” as stated by Chief Justice Warren, being thwarted politically using economic ideology.

    In 1954, the Warren Court with a strong 9-0 decision, not a weak 5-4 decision as with Robert’s Court with the Shelby v. Holder decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, was based on the following by Earl Warren who wrote the decision for the unanimous court.

    “Today, education is perhaps the most important function 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.”
    By: Chief Justice Earl Warren.

    When Robert Brown became Superintendent of Schools in Greene County, Alabama neither he, nor most educators could have imagined the “tectonic” shift toward “privatization” that would occur in education over the next several decades. That movement was begun in the 70s by George C. Wallace and others like him.
    “Private” and “choice” and the freedom of parents to choose schools, suddenly became the mantra of Dixie Democrats like Wallace and many Dixie Democrats then turned to the Republican Party as advocates of “choice” in education. Today, the “red state” South is the backbone of the Republican Party and even in national politics “privatization” is strongly advocated for by that party.

    Ironically, Earl Warren a former Republican Governor from California wouldn’t be accepted in the Republican Party of today. Impeach Earl Warren signs were common place in the South during Robert Brown’s era as a Superintendent of Schools in Alabama.

    This is political!

    This information is based on a paper presented last week at the History of Education society conference. By: Thornburg and Terrar, (2013). Title: “Professor Robert Brown. Social Justice, Voting Rights, Inspiration, and Legacy: A history of educational leadership – Missed, Hidden and Denied.”


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