Beyond Brown v Board of Education
BY PETER MEYER | Though we had the ongoing drama of the Los Angeles Clippers, the mayoral election in Newark, and the executive meltdown at the nation’s “paper of record” to consider, there could be no doubt that the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka has been the top education story for the last two weeks. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, overturned one of most pernicious and legally sanctioned racial discrimination practices in the United States:
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
Unfortunately, the big news on this anniversary of what is arguably the nation’s most important modern civil rights decision by the Supreme Court has been decidedly downcast.
A random sample of headlines finds this: “`Separate and unequal’: Segregation making comeback in U.S. Schools,” “Racial segregation returns to schools 60 years after the Supreme Court banned it,” and “The Resegregation of America’s Schools.”
Education Week, which ran numerous stories about the decision, published a blog roundtable of opinions from teachers, with equally dismal headlines: “Brown at 60: a Tale of Two cities,” “What did Brown v. Board of Education Ever Do for Me?” “Brown at 60: In Alabama, a Story of Progress Lost,” and, “In the Delta, a Dream Deferred.”
I had spent the Friday before the anniversary at Jonas Bronck Academy (MS 228), a predominantly Hispanic (69 percent) and Black (19 percent) school in the Bronx, where my friend Mark Anderson, a teacher, had helped organize an “Inquiry Day” on segregation for the school’s 8th graders. It included a guest list of high-flying educators and academics who would be interviewed by the 8th –grade “scholars.”
“We began the project asking students to explore the question of whether New York City’s schools were segregated,” Mark explained to the group of visitors, “but when a study was published saying that New York’s schools were the most segregated in the nation, we changed our topic to “taking a stand.” (I will write more on this event at a later time.)
A Complicated Picture
In fact, “taking a stand” seemed the most popular story on the 60th anniversary of Brown, summed up beautifully by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which was not as frequently cited as it might have been in the dour commentaries about Brown’s legacy, in part because its comprehensive May 15 report, Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat, and an Uncertain Future, was as much a demographic report as a civil rights one. The CRP report findings include:
- A vast transformation of the nation’s school population since the civil rights era. Particularly dramatic have been an almost 30% drop in white students and close to quintupling of Latino students.
- The nation’s two largest regions now have a majority of what were once called “minorities,” and whites are only the second largest group in the West. The South, always the home of most black students, now has more Latinos than blacks and is a profoundly tri-racial region.
- Desegregation progress was very substantial for blacks, and occurred in the South from the mid-1960s to the late l980s. Contrary to many claims, the South has not gone back to the level of segregation before Brown. It has lost all of the additional progress made after l967 but is still the least segregated region for black students.
- The growth of segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the l960s, and segregation has soared.
- A clear pattern is developing of black and Latino students sharing the same schools; it deserves serious attention from educators and policymakers.
- Segregation is typically segregation by both race and poverty. Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but white and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools.
- Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas, but it is also severe in central cities of all sizes and suburbs of the largest metro areas, which are now half nonwhite. Latinos are significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.
In short, modern segregation is very different than the segregation of the 1950s. As the CRP says, “Segregation is typically segregation by both race and poverty,” “double segregation,” says CRP, a “concentration of students in schools by both race and poverty.” And though the CRP recommended more study of the significance of these numbers and what to do about them, most of what the commentators focused on was the concentration of blacks in public schools. According to Jeff Larson, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Mike Tigas of ProPublica, for instance, “From 1993 to 2011, the number of black students in schools where 90 percent or more of the student population are minorities rose from 2.3 million to over 2.9 million.”
The numbers were real. And much of the “retreat” on integration, according to CRP, certainly seemed to be due to the abandonment of court orders that many school districts had been forced to follow as a result of failures to integrate their schools. “Segregation increased substantially after desegregation plans were terminated in many large districts including Charlotte, NC; Pinellas County, FL; and Henrico County, VA,” says CRP.
The percentage of black southern students in “majority white” schools went from zero percent in 1954 to 43.5 percent in 1988. That was the high point; the percentage has since dropped to 23.2 percent. Thus the “long retreat.” According to CRP, “The steady retrenchment of desegregation efforts began two decades after Brown and has now run twice as long as the period in which the Supreme Court announced and extended desegregation rights (1954-1974). While it is important to preserve what is possible of these gains, we must use new advances in social science understanding and contemporary demographics to shape new arguments that will be politically and legally persuasive.”
The losing ground mantra was the highlight of a speech by the First Lady in Topeka, where Linda Brown had been a third grader when her father joined the lawsuit that would eventually bear his name. Michelle Obama told a group of graduating seniors that, “Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech. As a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them. And too often, those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers.”
What Exactly is Brown v. Board’s Legacy?
Martin Luther King gave his final speech (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop) on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Could it be that we have made no progress since then? Or are we misunderstanding Brown? The CRP describes a very different educational landscape, but is there not a significant difference between the legal – and in many cases, mandatory – segregation that Brown addressed and the economic and demographic segregation of today?
These are complicated issues, made even more complicated by a Supreme Court decision that was so clear: separate schools are “inherently unequal.”
In the age of charters, can blacks attend all-black schools if they choose to do so? After all, part of the curriculum wars we fight include harsh criticisms about blacks having to read about people who don’t look like them, about having to take tests that are not written for them. Is there a difference between zip code segregation, where geography is destiny, and legal segregation, where race is destiny? In an America that has elected a black president, has a black justice of the Supreme Court, where 11.5 percent of Harvard’s admitted freshmen are African-American (see here), and where there were 43 African American members of the 112th Congress (which adjourned in 2013) – more than 30 percent the number elected in the previous 140 years combined (see here) — is it really so bad that young people go to school with kids “who look just like them”?
And if the nation’s progress in race relations is due in part to Brown – and, of course, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which together gave Brown the teeth it did not have up to that point (see here) – then should we continue to seek ways to increase integration?
In many ways the very success of African Americans these last 60 years might account for much of the ambivalence about Brown’s legacy. And it might require us to see Brown as necessary for a time in America that no longer exists. When Brown was handed down, 17 states and the District of Columbia either mandated segregated schools or allowed them (see here). None do today.
Seeing Brown Through the Lens of Inferiority
Part of the problem we face today is that 50’s-style integration came with a price. The Warren Court didn’t just declare forced segregation unconstitutional, it declared it “inherently unequal” and felt compelled to explain the inherent inequality by postulating the psychological harm segregation inflicted on blacks, regardless of how good their separate schools might be. Thus, wrote Warren, “the question” Brown posed:
[D]oes segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?
This, of course, had to be the question if the Warren court were to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision which established the “separate but equal” justification for segregated schools.
At one point in his decision, Justice Warren quoted a previous lower court case concluding that “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children,” and interpreted it to mean that,
[S]uch considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Establishing the harm of “separate but equal” was key to rejecting it. Chief Justice Warren went on to conclude that “Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge” at the time of Plessy, his court’s “finding is amply supported by modern authority.” That authority was in Footnote 11 of the landmark decision, where Warren cited the work of a number of academics and sociologists of the time, including black psychologist Kenneth Clark (“The Effect of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development,” 1950) and Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, 1944).
Clark’s study included the now famous “doll tests,” in which he and his wife asked black children to choose between black and white dolls; their preference for the latter, the researchers concluded (and Justice Warren agreed), suggested that segregation had produced racial self-loathing. Myrdal’s book, which sold over 100,000 copies and had 25 printings by 1965, also cited the connection between white prejudice and black inferiority: “White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually `cause’ each other.” So stated, we still have, as Thomas Jefferson said about slavery, “the wolf by the ear.” Are we afraid to let go of segregation 60 years after having declared it illegal? It is a dilemma very much appreciated by African-Americans themselves – not all of whom saw it as their problem or accepted the “inferiority” premise as productive, much less as “modern authority.”
In an essay I wrote a couple of years ago (here), I tell the story of my friend Staley Keith, who was growing up in North Carolina as Brown was decided. “Us black kids walked to our black school every morning and had to go by the white school,” he would tell me. “They shouted racial obscenities and threw rocks at us.” Then one morning, as Staley put it, he woke up to the news that “We gotta go to school with these m—–r f——rs.”
Even though the segregation practiced in the America of the 1950s was anything but cordial, there were then, as now, strong reservations in the black community about integration of the schools– reservations worth recalling in this 60th anniversary year. W.E.B. DuBois was an early skeptic, writing in 1934:
I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate nitwits as a plea for segregated Negro schools. It is not. It is saying in plain English that a separate Negro school where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers whose sole claim to superiority is the ability to kick niggers when they are down.
In my 2012 essay, I also cite a 2004 book review by Samuel Freedman in the New York Times quoting from a 1959 interview of Martin Luther King in which the civil rights leader was asked his thoughts about Brown. Said King at the time:
I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel…. I amfor equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual — the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.
Staley Keith, who went on to college on a football scholarship and a career as a teacher, couldn’t have said it any better. Could it be that King, in fact, was calling out Brown for its assumption that blacks were made inferior by segregation? He was certainly predicting a fate for black children in white schools that has not been amusing. Despite 60 years of integration, however halting its progress, the education of African-Americans, especially young males, has been dismal. As David Kirp, professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has written,
It is hard to overstate the plight of African-American boys and young men in our education system today. On every measure of educational attainment, they fare the worst; despite waves of reform, their situation has not changed appreciably in 30 years. The gap between their performance and that of their peers is perceptible from the first day of kindergarten, and only widens thereafter.
While the argument over cause and effect here is a complicated one, the warnings of DuBois and King certainly ring true in light of the subsequent educational facts of life for African Americans.
Ironically, perhaps tragically, one of the first consequences of Brown was the wholesale dismantling of a black-run public school system. As Peg Tyre reports in her “Segregation is Back” essay in Politico Magazine:
[B]ecause the [Brown] decision specified that black children would benefit from an education with white children, the grossly underfunded African-American run public education system, which for decades had been dedicated to serving children in black communities, was dismissed as inferior and dismantled. In the 1960s and 1970s, many more black schools than white schools were closed. African-American teachers and principals, who in many states held about the same level of professional certification as their white counterparts and who for decades had served as steadfast anchors in black communities, were fired en masse. African-Americans would never again have as great a role in educating our county’s youth. Sixty years later, at a time when nearly half of all public school children in the United States are black, Hispanic or Asian, 80 percent of public school teachers are white.
Thus, the true segregation, the one that worried King, among others, was that which gave whites – and still does, as Tyre reports — control over the pedagogical organization and instruction in the schools.
Finding the Counter Narrative
About the same period, and not far from where Black Panther Fred Hampton died in a fusillade of Chicago police bullets in 1969, a group of black activists, under the leadership of the Reverend Arthur M. Brazier, was organizing around much the same premise of black self-determination already advocated by DuBois and King. In his 1969 book, Black Self-Determination: The Story of the Woodlawn Organization Brazier writes,
History has shown that black people cannot rely on the moralintegrity of organized white society to give power to black people voluntarily.It must be wrested from that society.
I was lucky enough to meet Brazier in 2010, not long before he died, at a thrilling Harlem Children’s Zone conclave in Manhattan, an event crowded with African-Americans, including members of a presidential administration led by a man who had, finally, “wrested power” from that white society. It was enough to see the gleam in Brazier’s eye to know of his pride. And I was lucky that that introduction came from Charles Payne, professor of social work at the University of Chicago and author of So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Payne’s 2008 book is brilliant and should be read by all education policymakers, especially the Epilogue, where he tells the story of William J. Moore, “grandson of a fugitive slave,” who opened a “first class elementary school” in West Cape May, New Jersey, for the black “yard men, delivery `boys,’ dockhands, truck drivers, casual laborers, and factory workers” who serviced the white tourists of Cape May. This was the late 19th century and Moore ran his school for 53 years, a school Payne’s father attended. As Payne writes,
When I was a boy, I thought all Black men recited poetry and prose. When my father got together with his boyhood friends, it was not at all unusual for someone to start reciting Shakespeare and for someone else to follow that with some quatrains from the Rubaiyat,which might be followed by bits of Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.
Payne calls this “a kind of counter narrative, daily giving the lie to the narrative of Black intellectual inferiority.”
One of the few 60th anniversary commentators to take on the question of “inferiority” and “psychological knowledge” that is intrinsic to Brown is Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker. Cobb finds “an ambivalent legacy” in Brown, not because of the kind of data in the CRP report, but because “the prevailing idea in these debates remains one that is similar to the argument presented in Plessy: that the major, and perhaps the only, problem with ongoing segregation is the way black people perceive and respond to it.” Quoting Plessy, Cobb finds that question on full display in 1895:
We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored chooses to put that construction upon it.
Cobb argues that “the nascent civil-rights movement drew its moral authority, in some measure, from the image of African-Americans who were psychologically `damaged’ by the legacy of slavery and the ongoing travesty of segregation.” But those arguments, he writes, “have had a far more complicated legacy than the celebration of Brown would suggest.”
Cobb reminds us of some of this legacy, citing anthropologist John Ogbu whose 1986 study earned a great deal of attention when he concluded that black students did not do well in school because, according to Cobb, they “viewed high educational achievement as a form of `acting white.’” Though Ogbu was “widely disputed by other researchers,” writes Cobb, “the term—succinct in its oversimplification—leapt from scholarly journalist into public debates about race.” As Cobb notes, while the doll tests were seen as “an indictment of white racism,” the notion of “acting white” was “deployed as a means of pointing toward African-Americans’ own self-defeating behavior.” It is perhaps here, in reviewing Brown, that the counter narrative, the one suggested by DuBois, King, Brazier, and Payne is needed. As Payne writes,
At first glance, the issues of contemporaryurban education seem far removed from the world of William Moore and hischildren. I’m not sure that’s really true, though. The search for prescriptionscan be dangerous if we let it, but I don’t know that all our work has given usa better model for educating children from the social margins than WilliamMoore seems to have had in 1895. Give them teaching that is determined, energetic,and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can,most especially the arts. Root the school in the community and take advantageof the culture the children bring with them…. Recognize the reality of race,poverty, and other social barriers, but make children understand that barriers don’t have to limit their lives….
Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are comingfrom, act as if their possibilities are boundless.
As Cobb suggests, such a perception of the evils of segregation—that it relies on blacks’ own attitudes—may not be the best lens through which we view the problem. But it does help explain why DuBois and King may have been right to question the push to school integration as the solution to more equal educational opportunities for black students, and why the former said, “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.”
Not Integration, Education
The good news is that we no longer have mandated segregated schools. Instead, we have a healthy and growing black middle class (one of whom is President of the United States), and a more powerful counter narrative to offer those who see American education as “as segregated as” it was 50 years ago.
“Today, in 2014, our educational outcomes for black and brown students suggest that segregated schools weren’t the real problem or the ultimate challenge,” writes Daniel Rumley, a fellow with the Black Alliance for Educational Options. “The first and final fight was, and still is, the choice, to analyze and access, high quality education.” As Rumley concludes, the educational “delivery mechanism” was what counted in Brown’s day – and is what counts now. “As much as desegregation meant 60 years ago, today, the right of a parent to choose the educational space to meet their children’s needs now speaks to the power of Brown.”
There is plenty of debate about whether charters and choice will guarantee a good education, but few could dispute that the opposite of mandated segregation is the freedom to choose. (See Jay Greene’s “The Political Virtue of Choice.”) Despite the continuing constraints of socio-economic realities for all too many African Americans, the “social structure” that Payne urges children to overcome, eliminating legal barriers to choice and encouraging such choice, gives children the hope that, indeed, “their possibilities are boundless.”
Last year in Cleveland, Mississippi, according to Education Week, “the site of a still active school desegregation case nearly a half a century old,” a judge “surprised both sides” of the dispute “by ordering a third option: the new freedom-of-choice plan, which would eliminate boundary lines and let middle and high school students attend either of the respective schools.”
Some observers have noted that charter schools are just as segregated as the worst schools of the Brown era — New York City’s charters have earned the label “apartheid schools” (less than one percent white), according to Jeff Copion writing in New York Magazine.
But this is our current dilemma: is providing a good education as an alternative to a bad education really a violation of the spirit of Brown? And given the historical context in which Brown was decided, including rampant racism and mandatory segregation, can we allow ourselves, sixty years later, to presume that “inherently unequal” needs to be reconsidered?
Even the Civil Rights Project does not criticize charters, and concludes that “desegregation is not a panacea and it is not feasible in some situations.”
Is it possible that Brown was really not about segregation – or integration – so much as it was about the delivery mechanism of its day: mandatory segregation? Absent choice, and absent laws prohibiting mandated segregation, Brown is indeed the historic decision that is today, rightfully, being celebrated. But can it be the “delivery mechanism” for a good education any more than the Emancipation Proclamation guaranteed a minimum wage for blacks?
“Segregation is not the main issue any longer,” Sylvester James Jr., mayor of Kansas City, MO, told Education Week. Kansas City schools have operated under a desegregation order for decades, during which time the district population plummeted, according to Ed Week, from 77,000 in the late 1960s to 13,000 today, 90 percent of them poor, 60 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic, and less than 10 percent white. (See also here.) “Access to high-quality education is tied just as hard, and just as fast, to poverty and socioeconomics as it was to race.”
The real problems may lie elsewhere: that efforts to use accountability mechanisms and sophisticated “managed choice” programs do not guarantee better educational opportunities for the worst off. Even for the most seasoned reformers, the news from Newark, NJ, intended to be the poster child for this kind of reform, is bleak. (See the NYer here and RiShawn Biddle here). Zip codes are just as relevant to modern education as race was to the Warren Court when it decided Brown. It is true that just as “forced” busing was not an altogether successful solution to Brown, so it may not be the best solution to today’s segregation. (See here, and the interesting modern version of the question here.) But the challenges surely remain to find a better way.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t get beyond Brown and the Hobbesian choice of “inherent inequality”: one that requires black inferiority. And despite the arguments suggested by commentators like those of the CRP, that the “new” segregation reflects the iron “law” of an inhospitable capitalism – the “double segregation of race and poverty” – we can recognize the difference between a “Whites Only” sign where segregation is sanctioned by law and a zip code where segregation is encouraged by income. We understand Brown’s prohibition against mandatory segregated schools but are no longer sure that the harm to minorities in those schools is absolute. But the bottom line, moving forward, seems to suggest that instead of closeting our children with a view of segregation that depends on one groups feelings of inferiority to sustain the raison d’etre of diversity, perhaps it’s time to embrace, in the spirit of DuBois, schools that offer, first and foremost, a good education.
It may be that today’s most salient argument for equality does not engage with racial psychologies but, instead, insists upon a high-quality education for all children – no matter their income, no matter their race.
The kids at MS 228 in the Bronx seem to have discovered that argument. After their school’s “Inquiry Day” event, Mark Anderson emailed me to say that, thanks to the suggestions of some of their guests, the students broadened their “focusing questions” to include, “Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?
The counter narrative is being written.