The Exponent is continuing our interview series to cover the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. This was a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices unanimously ruled that the racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. It was one of the cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement, helping to abolish the precedent of “separate but equal.”
Dr. Edina Haslauer grew up in Hungary and came to America in 1995. She is an assistant professor in the School of Education at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Her research and teaching interests focus on the implementation of multicultural education throughout teacher training programs, culturally responsive pedagogy, social justice in education and teaching English language learners.
She shared that Europe used to be a little bit more homogenous. However, she admits that she might not have been as aware of racism in Europe because she was white. Looking back, she can identify racism, but when she was younger classism was the more largely-discussed problem. She studied sociology as a major. At first, she focused on classism, however, once she got to graduate school, race began to pull to the forefront of her focus.
What do you believe to be the Brown v. Board of Education decision’s legacy?
This was for sure one of the major accomplishments in our history because it ended legal racial segregation in schools. Just as “separate but equal” had no place in education 65 years ago, it should not be the case today either. However, the relevance of Brown v. Board sadly remains strong. Our schools continue to be segregated based on racial and socioeconomic lines. We also have to remember that a Supreme Court decision alone cannot change the educational landscape at once. The fight for Brown v. Board was long; there were several lawsuits before 1954 as parents from a variety of racial backgrounds were fighting for their children to attend the better white schools. It took decades until school integration peeked – not until the 1980s. Unfortunately, this fight for equitable education through integration continues today.
When did you first learn about this court case?
Growing up in Europe, I don’t think that I have heard about the case until attending college in the U.S. It must have been during my undergraduate studies taking a history course. Honestly, I cannot remember. I do have to say though, that it took me a while to understand how racism works. In my upbringing, I was much more aware of the class divide. To me, inequality boiled down to socioeconomic differences. It was only in graduate school when I completed my PhD that I understood just how important this case is, and how much racism has contributed to educational inequalities.
How do you think the court case affected the Civil Rights Movement?
I think that this is a very important question. For sure the connection is there. Although I am not a historian (my research is focusing primarily on social justice in education) what I do see is that when we think about the fight against racial inequalities, we typically think about landmark cases. Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, then Plessy v. Fergusson, Brown v. Board of Education, Civil Rights Movement, Obama as the first Black President and done. However, your question does imply that these cases did not simply happen in a vacuum. For example, there was a long fight so that Brown v. Board could become law. Brown v. Board also triggered backlashes and resistances from the mainstream population. Many schools simply refused to integrate, and often white parents sent their children to private schools. Thus, I think that Brown v. Board was a step forward to the Civil Rights Movement, but, then again, we cannot forget about the rocky road that led to it.
What can students, staff and faculty do to live out the legacy of this case?
First, we have to learn about the educational inequalities that are still very much prevalent in today’s schools. While all groups’ school achievement has increased over the last few decades, a gap continues to remain based on the children’s racial and socioeconomic background. Then, we also have students who are marginalized because of their religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or immigration status. Bullying is still an issue compromising many students’ academic achievement. I believe that before we can strive for equal education for all, we have to be diligent in understanding the present-day root causes of inequalities, such as the remaining residential racial and socioeconomic segregation, the unfair funding of our educational system, and our lack of understanding of those who are different from us. Only then, we can create a fairer society in which the zip code or racial and social background does not determine a child’s educational accomplishments.