Our public schools arestill separate and unequal

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  • OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE STILL SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL

    Michael Meyers and John P. Nidiry

    A~ a recent talk before the merican Enterprise Associa- tion (AEI) U.S. Education Secre- tary Rod Paige credited the U.S. Supreme Courts 1954 Brown ver sus Board of Education decision with having ended the myth that there were two kinds of people, one black, and one white. But that is not so. The Brown decision left some wiggle room for the myth of skin color differences to persist, by the nine justices neglecting to point out the harmful effects of racial segregation on both minority group (black) and majority group (white) children.

    "To separate [the Negro chil- dren] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of in- feriority as to [the Negro child's] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone," is the way Chief Justice Warren explained the unanimous Court's reasoning for overturning in the field of public education only the Court's 1896 Plessy versus Ferguson separate but equal doc- trine. In arriving at its judgment for the Negro plaintiffs, the landmark Brown versus Board of Education ruling cited, in its famous footnote 11, social science that had found that government-sponsored racial seg- regation damaged the psychologi- cal development of all children, black and white.

    Why the High Court on May 17, 1954 stopped short of declaring segregation harmful to all is anybody's guess but the reluctance of Secretary Paige, public officials and social scientists to do so fifty years later is inexcusable. Indeed, as we observe the 50 ~h Anniversary of the Brown decision, it appears that many educators, civic leaders and public figures are skeptical if not oblivious to the Brown mandate to completely desegregate the nation's public schools.

    No doubt, the massive resistance to Brown in the immediate years and decades since the Court's ver- dict was daunting. Even so, the Court's unanimous ruling in Brown presaged a movement that in due course instigated integration of the public schools with blacks actually enrolling in the previously all- white schools, and blacks pushing for and seeking equal access and opportunity everywhere else, in- cluding in housing and jobs. The Brown decision did, in fact, spark that grassroots civil rights revolu- tion that challenged and oftentimes shattered the segregated landscape of America, South and North, East and West. But the resistance to Brown has had its lingering effects on society and our public opinion leaders as well. Efforts that blocked or that sought to evade and delay school desegregation in particular were as strong and as tenacious as the struggles of blacks and their

    allies to cross and alter the color lines in America.

    Because of white flight, and gov- ernmental subsidies of new com- munities that either perpetuated or caused segregated living patterns, as well as private discrimination in housing, and the unwillingness of local and state educational officials to force school integration rounded out by the court's eventual recog- nition that enforced school busing was neither achieving meaningful school desegregation nor encourag- ing respect for the law, our nation's public schools are today still largely segregated by race. According to Harvard's Civil Rights Project, our public schools are "resegregated." The Civil Rights Project's study did not merely reflect the growing con- sensus about the shame of the ra- cial divide in terms of academic achievement between inner-city, mostly minority and poor schools and the suburban and whiter, middle-class schools, it issued yet another warning just as the social science cited in Brown had done, arguing that separate schools are inherently unequal, and not just in terms of scholastics. The Civil Rights Project report refocused our attention on the American dilemma about race and how we are still moving apart, divided by race and becoming more and more racially polarized as a society. In this re- spect, the current social science re- iterates the Brown versus Board of

    12 SOCIETY c* ~ JULY/AUGUST 2004

  • Education warning about the dam- aging impacts on our society of the racial divide in the nation's public schools and communities.

    The problem of public school segregation persists in a glaring fashion. This fact U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, in his recent talk before the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), forgot to mention. He did acknowledge, with the moral indignation of a Baptist preacher, that today's dual system of public schools is an underperforming one for minority group kids. Secretary Paige de- scribed the academic achievement gaps apparent in the nation's dual public school system as the vestiges of segregation.

    Closing the academic achieve- ment gap between privileged and underprivileged schools is the mis- sion of the United States Education Department, said Secretary Paige. His AEI speech was an ode to Presi- dent Bush's two-year-old, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative, an Act the Bush Administration sees as the fastest and most practical route to finally achieving equal educational opportunity. The No Child Left Behind Act is the next logical step after Brown, Paige told the AEI. NCLB addresses, in its focus on academic achievement gaps, latent segregation, a de facto apartheid that is emerging in our schools, Paige continued.

    While referring to and declar- ing that racial apartheid is a soci- etal affliction, Secretary Paige turned away from school desegre- gation as a viable strategy for over- coming de facto [racial] apartheid in the schools. Even while ac- knowledging the role of massive resistance, racial violence, and the unwillingness of courts to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education mandate for change in the racial apartheid nature of the nation's public schools, Secretary Paige's

    speech seemed to leave out a whole section of what is still needed to address and redress this historic re- sistance to school desegregation. He skipped to what he rightly perceives as modern-day resistance on the part of vested interests to closing the academic achievement gaps be- tween white and black students. He aimed at promoting equity in the public schools.

    To Paige, and no doubt, in the eyes of President Bush, the effec- tive and practical remedy to the de ,facto segregated schools of today is different from the remedy to de jure segregation of the public schools attempted in 1954, even if the de.fi~cto segregated public schools are the result of historic patterns of racial discrimination or overt racism. The Education Sec- retary knows and accepts that the political and philosophical realities in the land do not support either court-enforced busing or induce- ments to broad scale voluntary school desegregation efforts. In- deed, it is no longer fashionable, if it ever was, for public officials or educators like Paige to talk about, much less call for, integrating the public schools. Instead, nearly ev- eryone in public office today, in- cluding most states' educational authorities, is focusing attention and their discussion of the public school crisis on achieving equity within the admittedly highly ra- cially separate and unequal public schools.

    The Bush Administration's means for assuring public school revival is centered on so-called edu- cational outcomes accountability on the part of students and teachers in every state and school district. The U.S. Education Department's em- phasis is on providing localities with financial incentives that induce their adoption of approved reading instruction programs, the imposi- tion of testing measurements for

    students and teachers, and the pro- vision of public school choice and tutoring for children in underperforming schools. There is no public or leadership emphasis on school desegregation. In this con- nection, even the civil rights groups who Secretary Paige lambastes as virtual handmaidens of the teach- ers' unions and status quo in public education ("I find it staggering that the very critics and organizations that fought so hard for civil rights could leave our African-American, Hispanic-American, and special needs children behind. Some of the very people and organizations that applauded Brown and worked to implement it are now opposing No Child Left Behind: unions, teach- ers, civil libertarians, liberal poli- ticians, and education advocates [because] it exposes their special interests. Their opposition is about power, politics and pride, not the best interests of our children.") have changed their rhetoric and tactics, from pursuing integration to pur- suing and achieving equity in the increasingly racially isolated pub- lic schools.

    The change in focus of the Na- tional Association for the Advance- ment of Colored People (NAACP) is a startling example of the change in the rhetoric and emphases of the civil rights groups. The very orga- nization that brought the Brown v. Board of Education cases and re- lated litigation in opposition to separate but equal public schools has kicked off its commemoration of the 50 ~ Anniversary of the Brown decision without even a ceremonial bow to the importance of still pur- suing racial integration. Its Janu- ary 9 th press release announcing a year-long period of activities in commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education promises to devise strategies to fulfill the promise of educational equity. The NAACP's statement never mentions integra-

    OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE STILL SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL 13

  • tion. The only time it invokes the word desegregation is in the his- torical context of the NAACP hav- ing, some fifty years ago, filed the Brown litigation. Now, the NAACP's president, former Demo- cratic Congressman Kweisi Mfume (who serves on President Bush's Brown v. Board of Education 50 'h Anniversary Commemoration Commission), is quoted in the NAACP's release as intending to convene in South Carolina over the Martin L. King. Jr. Holiday Week- end a conference of parents, reli- gious leaders and community or- ganizations, in order to analyze, advocate and devise strategies to engage families and community churches in the struggle to provide equal access to quality education.

    In devising strategies to improve ghetto schools, the federal educrats and the civil rights groups, the Re- publicans and the Democrats, have something in common, even as they divide over standards and methods for assuring and measuring achievement in the inner-city schools. They both essentially agree with Secretary Paige's rejection of all the usual alibis and bromides for explaining minority student under- achievement: "There are some who think that African American chil- dren can't learn as well as white children, or that Hispanic Ameri- can children are slow learners, etc. Such attitudes become self-fulfill- ing. These children can learn. All children can learn," Secretary Paige told AEI and the nation, no doubt to hallelujahs from minority com- munities. That is a truism, of course, but it is also a dodge as well as an inversion of the rhetoric about equal educational opportunity.

    The issue in Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent school desegregation cases was never whether African American children can learn or whether they were as a group slow learners or from cul-

    turally disadvantaged neighbor- hoods. Only diehard segregation- ists believed that genetics and race predetermined destiny. And, it may very well be that all the mea cul- pas and alibis for failure offered up by educators (for African Ameri- can children not learning as well as or at the same pace as white and Asian students) are cultural, and as deeply ingrained as were the atti- tudes about race and place in the 1950's. But, that is another point about the function and efficacy of public schooling not about the cen- tral issue that was addressed in Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the issue that, fifty years later, we are summoned to reconsider and study in terms of its implementation.

    Secretary Paige is right when he says that education is about knowl- edge and about finding oneself, but public education in a democracy has to be about more than measuring achievement in the basics of read- ing and computation or, for that matter, learning about oneself or one's ethnic group. By this time in our development as an information- driven, highly technocratic society, basic skills in reading, writing, and math are just that, basic, and mini- mal. As a democracy that suppos- edly values individual freedom and the rule of law we ought to be teach- ing our children in the public schools how segregation and other race habits and customs spoil the practice of equality. We ought to be finished with segregation as a national pastime. To do so, we need to reread the works cited in the so- cial science brief (footnote 11 of the Brown decision) in which the consensus of scientific opinion was certain that state-enforced race seg- regation (or segregation in which the state and community were complicit in arranging and perpetu- ating) were harmful to the psycho- logical development of all children,

    including Caucasian children. We already know how segregation lim- ited and stigmatized blacks; we have yet to acknowledge, and most citi- zens do not know or care about how segregation has damaged and con- tinues to injure the psyches of whites, including how segregated schooling infuses many Caucasian youth with fears and prejudices about others of different skin col- ors.

    In a society where there is no basis for skin color delineations, people on either side of the racial divide internalize stereotypes and cultural superstitions about those on the other side of that color line. In fact, one of the deep problems as- sociated with the effort to desegre- gate schools, and with opening up (i.e. integrating) American neigh- borhoods, has been that so many whites have objected, without any guilt, to any change in their life patterns. As psychologist Kenneth B. Clark explained, and warned the Supreme Court in 1954, segregated schools, while stigmatizing the mi- nority children, create and inten- sify moral conflict and confusion in white children, who learn preju- dices and dysfunctional social be- havior, and are taught to gain a sense of status by comparing them- selves with the despised, shunned and inferior minorities. Whether it is fear of a loss of property values or about a perceived lowering in the quality of education provided in a desegregated school, whites are socialized into fearing, resenting and running away from public school desegregation. So, many whites literally fought in the streets against integrated schools and de- cried changing neighborhoods. These whites have generally de- fined and regarded entire neighbor- hoods as theirs; and they have, with unbridled, unrefined tongues, warned their neighbors and fellow whites to beware of integration as...

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