Listen: Cooper Series Begins with Exploration of Brown v. Board of Education Legacy

Lani Guinier and Kenneth Mack

The 2014-15 Cooper Series kicked off this month with a two-day commemorative event that brought regional scholars together to consider the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. Organized through the efforts of Assistant Professor of Sociology & Anthropology Nina Johnson, the lecture and subsequent panel discussions adopted different disciplinary lenses to analyze the successes — and failures — of the Supreme Court ruling 60 years later.

“I think it’s really important for us to think about how we address social inequality, especially in terms of policy and legislation,” Johnson says. “That ruling had many effects and many legacies, but we find ourselves 60 years later with segregated schools, so the question is, ‘where are we, what do we need to do from here?’”

A symposium featuring Harvard Law professors Lani Guinier and Kenneth Mack opened the two-day commemoration. Speaking to a packed house in the Lang Performing Arts Center, the scholars acknowledged that depending on the narrative context, the story of Brown v. Board can be viewed as a greater part success or a greater part failure. Guinier and Mack additionally encouraged audience members to challenge dominant historical narratives by considering the effects of socioeconomic status in what is typically viewed as a strictly racial story.

While Mack argued that the case was seen as a victory for activists who later used the legal precedent to combat segregation in other areas of national life, Guinier challenged the idea that integration for integration’s sake provided better educational opportunities for black students immediately following the ruling.

“What stood out to me was realizing just how protracted policies have been and still are after Brown,” said Matthew Goldman '15, an honors sociology/anthropology major from New York City. “It’s amazing to me that within a Civil Rights law, there’s still so much room for inaction.”

Following Thursday’s symposium, four panel discussions were held which focused on education, media and culture, housing and health, and politics in the wake of the decision. Moderated by Swarthmore professors involved in the Black Studies Program, the talks featured guest speakers from a variety of regional institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.

Johnson hopes that bringing together scholars from different disciplines would model good discursive practices for students in attendance.

“Not only do we care about the theoretical and analytical underpinnings of the phenomena we study, questions we ask, and arguments we make, but also the lived experiences of populations,” Johnson says. “For students to see a historian in conversation with a legal scholar, and a documentarian in conversation with an English professor – these are really important intersections and cross disciplinary discussions when we’re trying to think about, ‘how we solve social problems.’”