Our public schools arestill separate and unequal

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    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-


  • 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

    14 SOCIETY | 9 JULY/AUGUST 2004

  • blacks and other minorities ad- vanced to cross over and challenge the demarcated racial lines between American communities.

    In a real sense racial segregation and isolation have taught both white children and adults simultaneously how to feel morally superior, and to be ignorant, and contemptuous of others unlike themselves, and how to distort and pervert the American principles of democratic education, law, and morality. They have internalized the worst racial stereotypes and shibboleths, believ- ing that no law has validity that requires them to give up their self- proclaimed superior status in a com- munity. Thus, they cling to their deceptive isolation, all the while judging others to be mediocre or undeserving of the privileges they seek to preserve for themselves as first-class citizens. Their racial prejudices are learned early and often, starting before and in the lower schools, and in their segre- gated environs after school. Their ethnic, or racial or community pride leads them to the delusion that their own kind come from 100% high-class homes and that others are dangerous to associate or go to school with, for the latter will only tear down their community's stan- dards.

    This kind of racial arrogance no doubt seeds frustration and resent- ment on the part of blacks and other minorities who have come to ra- tionalize their retreat from inte- grated education, saying repeatedly to themselves that they do not need to go to school with, much less sit next to, whites, in order to get a quality education. Not surprisingly, many whites endorse this black separatism as the best chance of reducing racial conflict and raising the self-esteem of lower-status per- sons. In recent years, black activ- ists and educators have even pro- posed the establishment of all-male,

    all-black academies, public schools that would instill in the education- ally and culturally-deprived Afri- can-American male students pride of race, community, and self. At one such Afrocentric academy, black boys are taught to think black, act black, speak black, buy black, pray black, love black and live black. No doubt these children are carefully taught, with high expec- tations of their innate intelligence and with confidence that their aca- demic and racial skills are measur- able, in accordance with prevailing if not exacting standards, to ensure that every child in the school (prior to graduation) knows how to spell, read, write and think black.

    The segregated school environ- ment, whether imposed through law or de ,facto because of choice or residential patterns, whatever the qualitative similarities in facilities or services to a particular school or community, perpetuates racial caste and stereotype as the overriding and major focus of both education and life. This is detrimental to a demo- cratic, egalitarian society. These nasty habits and entrenched racial choices are why segregation did not disappear in the decades after the Brown decision or even after courts intervened and mandated desegre- gation remedies. They are the rea- son the American landscape, in- cluding many college campuses, still reflect racial residential segre- gation.

    How we get out of this racial separatism is the promise and man- date of Brown v. Board of Educa- tion, a promise and mandate that goes largely ignored today because our polit icians and civil rights groups are in retreat. They no longer see or feel any urgency pur- suing school integration, because they neither see nor feel any con- nection between education and equality. Rather, they engage in lofty rhetor ic that resembles

    Orwellian double talk-about how the Brown decision outlawed seg- regation in the public schools. What Brown did do was set our nation on a course of reexamination about the deification of skin color in America. It declared an end to government- sponsored racism in the public schools, but its teeth were pulled when the Court did not understand much less heed the advice it got from social scientists who had warned that segregation was harm- ful to both majority and minority children and to the society at large. The Court should have insisted on immediate desegregation of the public schools. Its "all deliberate speed approach" only encouraged an open, massive resistance to the Brown decision.

    We are today still dealing with the resistance to Brown, so much so that no one is talking or pursu- ing remedies to racially isolated schools as a strategy for achieving a unitary, equitable society. It is too late for integration, so say many commentators and educators, as they lament or celebrate the ethnic character of our urban communi- ties where the inner-city schools are located. That hardly explains why in cities where school integration is possible there is no movement for it. Voluntary desegregation is as rare and as dead, it seems, as court-ordered busing. Our educrats and state officials have learned how to avoid obvious government in- volvement and fingerprints on seg- regated patterns in the schools-that kind of segregation is illegal state action. But they are clueless about how to achieve both integrated schools and inclusive communities, where high academic standards are valued and achieved. No Child Left Behind is a halfway measure to a more perfect society. The other half, about which there is a national silence, is a call to action to school integration, on the compel l ing


  • grounds that elimination of the most obvious and nagging symbols of racial caste, segregated schools, is long overdue and fundamental to any genuinely democratic society. Rejecting the pernicious normative segregative behavior of public in- stitutions and of public officials is of paramount interest to a society concerned with individual freedom and broadening student horizons.

    The necessity for freeing our young people, white, black, brown, yellow and red, of superstitions about each other should not be rel- egated to a legal footnote; it is a moral and educational imperative in a society that respects and ob- serves truth and equality. Moreover, we must pursue desegregation be- cause it is the only route to inte- gration, and because there can be no compromise with racism. As Secretary Paige told the AEI, "Equality of opportunity must be more than just a statement of law; it must be a matter of fact. And fac- tually speaking, this country does not yet promote equal opportunity for millions of children. After 50 years, we still have a lot of work to do." Yes indeed.

    And just as no child should be left behind in academic achieve- ment no child should be placed be- hind the eight ball of either cultural literacy or segregated schooling. Addressing the cultural illiteracy and stereotyping and group scapegoating that occur in a segre- gated, racially-divided society is the next logical step after Brown ver- sus Board of Education. It is not a substitute step, but a simultaneous step in the right direction of end- ing apartheid schools. To pursue only the academic achievement gap between inner-city and suburban

    schools does not address, much less correct, the patterns of racial isola- tion that retard and damage all our children's moral growth and health.

    To talk only about grades and testing and student and teacher ac- countability, and not to mention the inequality inherent in racially-iso- lated public schools, is to ignore or dismiss the possibilities for a revo- lutionary change out of a separate and unequal America. If no one talks up integration, if our educa- tors and governmental officials and moral leaders simply do not talk about the need for integration, no action will be taken to bridge and unite us as Americans. And fifty years from now, myths based on skin color will persist as long as we think and believe and act as if black, white, yellow, brown and red can travel along separate tracks and end up equal. That is a notion tied to 1896 and to Plessy versus Ferguson, an emotion and doctrine that we thought the Brown versus Board of Education decision had reversed.

    Integration may seem pass6, but it has not been tried. As such it can- not be dead. And it is integration as a means of overcoming the achievement gap and steering America towards genuine equality that deserves a chance in modern- day America. We have put into the history bins the open resistance to integration through laws and pub- lic policies that favor an integrated, single society. Now it is time to practice what we preach; and to not only enforce the laws but to bring into existence their purposes through affirmative efforts at uni- fying our dual school system and racially segregated communities. Secretary Paige and the Bush Ad-

    ministrations celebration of the 50 th Anniversary of the Brown decision, as well as their avowed efforts at closing the achievement gaps be- tween white and non-white stu- dents, and at ending apartheid schooling, provide us with the vi- sion and maybe the opportunity to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of" Education.

    In its 50 th year, the spirit of Brown versus Board of Education ought to give integration a second wind, and give America a final chance to redeem itself for having spent so much time between Brown and now resisting integrated schools and succumbing to defeatism about the chances for a single society un- blemished by the scar of race. Now is the time to declare desegregation of the nation's public schools as the most logical and urgent priority and as, most likely, the only practical way out of our dual society, black and white, separate and unequal.

    Michael Meyers, B.A., Antioch Col- lege; J.D., Rutgers University, is Ex- ecutive Director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and past As- sistant to the Chancellor of Higher Education, New Jersey, r Assis- tant National Director of the Na- tional Association for the Advance- ment of Colored People (NAACP), and protdgd of Kenneth B. Clark, the social psychologist whose studies and work the United States Supreme Court cited as the modern authority in footnote I I of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, providing the basis for overturning the doctrine of separate but equal in the field of pub- lic education.

    John P. Nidir3,, B.A., Bowdoin Col- lege, is a first year law student at the Universi O, of Maine Law School

    16 SOCIETY | 9 JULY/AUGUST 2004