Saturday, May 17, 2014

What is the Legacy of Brown?

By Dr. Howard Fuller

Relatively few people, who know anything about the racial reality of America in the 1950’s would argue that the Brown decision was not indeed an almost revolutionary decision.  But, all these years later the question is being asked, what is the legacy of Brown?

This crucial education decision was a catalyst to end the entire evil system of legal segregation and racial oppression in the United States. As Richard Kluger pointed out,  “The Supreme Court had taken pains to limit the language of Brown to segregation in public schools only… But it became almost immediately clear that Brown in effect wiped out all forms of state-sanctioned segregation.”

Until the 1954 Brown decision, the Plessy v Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine defined the national norm. In the South, racial oppression was unrelenting, backed by the legal system and nurtured by the mores that could be traced back to our country’s slave era.  In the North, de facto segregation and covert discrimination were commonplace. America was a country where Black people were expected to stay in “their place.”

It is clear the decision was one of the sparks that helped stoke the flame of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. It gave hope to tens of thousands of Black people and their allies who moved forward with courage and determination to transform American society
In no small measure, these struggles changed America for Black people.  Black people are operating at levels today that were beyond the aspirations and certainly the reach of Black people in 1954 irrespective of academic accomplishments or life experiences.

But it is clear that 60 years after the decision much of the promise of Brown is still awaiting fulfillment. A close study of the decision reveals that the foundation for some of the questions and doubts about its legacy can be found in two conceptual flaws of the decision.  First, the decision did not (maybe could not) address the fundamental power differentials between Black and white people in America. Second, there was an assumption that the only way to provide equal educational opportunity to Black students was through a desegregated environment, which was at least an implicit acceptance of the inferiority of “all Black” institutions.

Although the Brown decision was aimed at eliminating segregation sanctioned by law, it did not alter the fundamental disparities in power that were inherent in a society where “white skin privilege” dominated. The decision did not change the power of white people to resist implementing Brown. When desegregation did occur, it was almost always done on terms favorable to white people.  So Black schools had to be closed (leading to demotions or the loss of jobs for Black educators); whites were given access to specialty schools or allowed to remain in their neighborhood schools, new forms of tracking students were established to protect white children from “ill-prepared’ Black children.
The second flaw was centered in the view that equal education was not possible without integration.  Many people who supported the Brown decision felt that placing Black children in classes next to white children would guarantee an equal education.  This view was never supported on educational grounds.

What was not considered was the likelihood that Black children would be placed in environments where the people being asked to teach them had no respect for them or their families. They did not realize all the ways that educators could avoid teaching children whose education was of no interest to them. They did not grasp the capacity of those in charge to: set up segregated classes and activities within desegregated schools; develop ways of categorizing Black students such that the best courses would be for white kids only; concoct various theories that in essence would blame the children and their families for the failure of the schools to teach them.

Moreover, the stance that desegregating schools was the exclusive means of achieving equality assumed Black institutions and perhaps even Black people were inferior. The language of Brown itself subtly reinforced this belief despite the Court’s recognition that state-imposed segregation was indeed established to reinforce white superiority and its opposite--Black inferiority.  The decision stated, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect on colored children.” This implies that the mere fact that the students were in Black schools meant they were being negatively affected.

So where are we today?  Recent statistics make it clear that Black people are still struggling to find the fruits of equal educational opportunity despite the gains since Brown. Data on the 4th grade reading tests as determined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2013 showed that 50% of Black students were at or above basic and 17% were at or above proficiency as compared to 80% of white students at or above basic and 46% at or above proficiency.  The reading tests for 8th grade, showed that 61% of Black students were at or above basic and 17% at or above proficiency as compared to 86% of white students at or above basic and 46% at or above proficiency.  These educational inequalities in part explain the enduring racial economic inequalities. In 2010, for example, 65% of Black children under age 18 lived in low income families compared to 31% of white children. The Black unemployment rate for Black people has been twice as high as for white people for over 50 years. The median income for Blacks in 2010 was $32,068 as compared to $54,620 for whites.

So sixty year later the struggle continues to make America a place where Black people and Black institutions are respected; where integration is viewed through the prism of pluralist acceptance; where there is a reversal in the power relationship between low income and working class Black families and schools so that the aspirations parents have for their children’s education will be met.

The struggle continues to fulfill the promise of Brown.   

My Comment: The above is reposted from Black Alliance for Educational Options. It is heartening to see many Blacks parting ways with their white liberal friends when it come to education policy. Charter school have shown that Black students can excel. One does not have to sit next to white kids in order to get a good education. There are charter schools that are almost working miracles. Instead of early pregnancy and welfare or dropping out of school and going to prison, young Black students are excelling and going to college. There are many charter schools where whole classes, made up entirely or mostly of inter city Black kids, are not only graduating but where every graduating senior is getting accepting to college. One-size-fits-all public education has terrible failed most Black students but has failed our nation.  Education reform may be the key to ending Black poverty and welfare dependency. Educational options should be promoted at every opportunity. There is an active chapter of BAEO in Tennessee,  To learn more follow this link. I have made a financial contribution to this organization and urge you to consider doing likewise.

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