Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Nicolais: Michael Bennet’s “equal is not equal” highlighted a tragic legacy in public schools

Sixty-five years removed from Brown v. Education, the racial divide it meant to eradicate still permeates many school districts

Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate featured exactly one moment of profound import. 

When Colorado’s own Sen. Michael Bennet proclaimed “equal is not equal,” he highlighted the tragic legacy left in the shadow of one of our country’s most celebrated court cases, Brown v. Board of Education

Sixty-five years after the Supreme Court ordered public schools desegregated, the underlying problem continues to plague us today, both in Colorado and across the country.

Mario Nicolais

To be clear, Brown v. Board is rightly venerated. It overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine announced by Plessy v. Ferguson.

In its history, no other court decision scarred our country as deeply as Plessy v. Ferguson. It both eradicated the progress African Americans had made toward equality in post-Civil War America and laid a judicially approved foundation for systemic racism.

Much of the racial division we see in 2019 can be traced back to that 19th century atrocity.

By the time Brown v. Board of Education belatedly rejected the Plessy v Ferguson abomination of American jurisprudence, much of the damage had already been done. Systems and institutions developed under the separate-but-equal doctrine created their own racially unjust inertia. 

The public school system, and its post-Brown v. Board struggles, exemplify that history.

Despite its historic legal and political significance, the Supreme Court decision had almost no practical effect. A year after its initial decision, resistance to its dictate forced the court to hear Brown v. Board of Education II.

In an outcome almost Shakespearean in nature, the Supreme Court’s order to implement its prior ruling “with all deliberate speed” allowed school districts across the country to grind integration to a halt.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Contemporaneously, the phenomena of “white flight” to the suburbs ensured that even when the gears of justice broke lose, the racial composition of many school districts changed so fundamentally that even forced integration was destined to fail.

Introduction of policies such as “open enrollment” further exasperated the racial divide to the point that Linda Brown — the namesake of the seminal case — joined other plaintiffs to file a third lawsuit in 1976, only this time no longer a schoolgirl, but rather a parent herself. 

Traveling through Denver’s own 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before the Supreme Court denied further review, the case didn’t fully conclude until almost the turn of the new millennium.

 And that brings us to Bennet and his impassioned speech

I don’t know if Bennet knew the full legal history of Brown v. Board of Education, but he certainly got a crash course in scholastic racial divides as superintendent for Denver Public Schools before he became a U.S. senator.

His first-hand experience during the conflict surrounding the closure of Manual High School obviously engrained deep-seated beliefs in Bennet. 

Bennet is not known for an abundance of charisma; he even appeared to surprise himself when he rose to chastise Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate earlier this year. But he certainly pulled no punches on Wednesday night.

It takes incredible courage to step between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden on the issue of busing. It takes even more to note that “our schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago.” 

I doubt Bennet’s astute and elegant point will win him enough support to make the next Democratic debate, much less win his party’s presidential nomination. But he did us all a service, Democrat, Republican, Unaffiliated or other, just by raising the issue.

We are now more distant in years from Brown v. Board of Education than that decision was from Plessy v. Ferguson, but we have little practical effect to show for it.

If we don’t heed Bennet’s call, the same inertia that has undercut our most revered court case for decades will surely continue to undermine any chance our country has to heal the racial divisions still rippling through it today.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.