School segregation and the system of Jim Crow writ-large were not simply legal mandates which everyday people in the South were obligated to follow. To the contrary, policies of racial exclusion were created and policed, often violently, “from the bottom” by ordinary white citizens across the United States. In this article, I argue that a simple legal understanding of Brown v. Board of Education is often deployed to position segregation as an error is policy and not as indicative of the United States’ racist character. Going beyond legal discourse allows us to better understand how white supremacy is imposed on the ground level and how everyday people make history for better or worse.
Early-to-mid twentieth century Kansas operated under a quasilegal tri-racial segregation system of color lines where white, Black, and Mexican people were defined as three separate races despite the fact Kansas law only decreed legal segregation along the Black/white binary. The often-violent policing of the color line(s) by white people in segregated Kansas provides us with examples of how white supremacy operates outside the law. The dominant narrative of school segregation told through the lens of Brown does not account for how ordinary white people, often parents, organized to establish and maintain school segregation for not only Black children, but other racialized children as well. I argue Kansas’ lack of official state policy on Mexican segregation allowed white people, especially white parents, to often act with violent impunity to enforce segregation in the form of so-called “Mexican schools.”
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