Writer's note: In light of the Supreme Court's recent ruling regarding voluntary efforts by school districts to diversify the student body, I thought it appropriate to reintroduce a piece I wrote in 2004 to commemorate and analyze the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. I wish to introduce into the conversation certain areas of concern that have been missing or have only appeared minimally.
In the education of our children there are two vital questions that we must answer: Who is teaching our children? What are they being taught? The future academic success of our students hinges on our thoughtful and serious consideration of these questions.
The issues of who’s teaching our children and/or what they are being taught has yet, in my opinion, to be fully addressed. It is relatively easy and convenient to forget that the public school system in the United States has an explicit racist, sexist and classist history. As we view the current inadequacies in education within this historical context, it is important to remember, for example, the most widespread challenges to overtly discriminatory practices have occurred fairly recently. Yet, even in light of the “legislation-backed” desegregation efforts and racial, gender and socio-economic-based tracking, American school curriculum is still decidedly Euro-centric and male-centric in content and perspective. This deficit in curriculum is further exacerbated by the continually declining number of black educators as classroom teachers and administrators.
Of late, a great amount of time has been spent on the black parent’s role in education – this attention, by the way, I don’t completely disagree with. However, to belabor parental involvement without properly assessing our present post-Brown educational landscape is not only an incomplete stratagem, but an exercise in futility as well. We must take a closer look at the forces within education, specifically teachers and curriculum, which contribute to the success or failure of our black students.
Brown v. Board: Violent Blow Against Segregation or Trojan Horse of Racism?
“In the end, as any successful teacher will tell you, you can only teach the things that you are. If we practice racism then it is racism that we teach.”- Max Lerner
Let me be perfectly clear, in this essay I do not propose to either applaud or decry the Brown verdict. My goal is an earnest attempt to answer some of the lingering questions that still plague us some fifty years later, to examine some of the side-effects of the decision that have contributed to the on-going inequities in our educational systems.
After Brown, many blacks believed that there would be a brighter educational future for their children. The wall of segregation, that many believed prohibited them from access to a quality education, had been destroyed at last. But has the promise been fulfilled? How much has truly changed since May 17, 1954?
Many scholars believe that the Brown verdict has not produced the desired impact because the letter of the law of segregation was addressed in an extremely obscure fashion and the spirit (attitudes) of the law of segregation has gone virtually untouched.In 1954, about 82,000 black teachers were responsible for teaching 2 million black children. In the 11 years following Brown, more than 38,000 black teachers and administrators in 17 Southern states lost their jobs. These mass firings were made easier because during desegregation all-black schools were usually closed down – making black educators expendable even when their credentials surpassed their white peers. The National Education Association’s figures from this period show that 85% of minority teachers had college degrees compared with 75% of white teachers. So not only were black children left without the expertise of the more qualified black teachers, but a tremendous psychological and emotional void as well.
Although segregation was an imposed and racist system, blacks were able to create a functional system in spite of it. Prior to Brown, white administrators were more than happy to allow black administrators to run the “black” part of the school system (as long as there were no problems). This semi-autonomy gave black educators an extreme amount of latitude in educating and cultivating the minds of black students.One of the most prominent features of the pre-Brown black educational systems was the belief in the worth of every student. Black educators would refer to their young charges as “Mister” and “Miss” – emotionally and psychologically important titles when you consider that during segregation these titles were denied black adults. I suppose it could be said that the isolation of segregation also provided insulation against many of the negative forces and racist ideologies that black students would later be inundated with in the post-Brown “integrated” schools (an offensive that our students are still struggling with).
The role that perceptions and self-esteem plays in education can not and should not be minimized. With the loss of black teachers and principals who served as mirrors in which black students, by and large, saw the “angels of their better nature” reflected, a deficit was created in terms of black academic achievement. Although this deficit was by no means total in impact, it was significant.
As mentioned previously in this writing, the public school system in the United States has an explicit racist, sexist and classist history. With that in mind, is it not somewhat naïve for us to believe that a system that has shown that sort of bias towards people of color, would effectively teach our children without a radical educational revolution? This is not an indictment against white educators, but rather an appeal to the black community to examine the impact of the Brown decision in its entirety.
Without entering into a long-winded debate about the pros and cons of Brown v. Board of Education, I believe we have not spent as much time addressing what we lost as a result of Brown as we have what we gained. The most damaging loss we experienced was the presence of the black educator and their role in the shaping of the self-perception of the black student.
To place the importance of student self-perception and its role in education in proper perspective, let us consider the work of Jane Elliot. (I have a copy of the documentary, The Eye Of The Storm, that filmed her class as she conducted the experiment described, below. If you are interested in learning more about the possible impact that racism can have on learning, this is a must see).
In 1968 Jane Elliot was an elementary school teacher in the predominantly-white town of Riceville, Iowa. It was shortly after Dr. King was shot and hearing what she considered to be racist and condescending remarks by white television newscasters as they interviewed various black leaders at the time (“What are your people going to do now that Dr. King is gone?” “Who is going to hold your people together?”), that she decided to address the issues of race and racism in her fourth-grade class.
She divided the class into two groups: the brown eyes and the blue eyes. Anyone not fitting these categories, such as those with green or hazel eyes, was an outsider, not actively participating in the exercise. Elliott told her children that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed, due to the amount of the color-causing-chemical, melanin, in their blood. She said that blue-eyed people were stupid and lazy and not to be trusted. To ensure that the eye color differentiation could be made quickly, Elliott passed out strips of cloth that fastened at the neck as collars. Elliott withdrew her blue-eyed students’ basic classroom rights, such as drinking directly from the water fountain or taking a second helping at lunch. Brown-eyed kids, on the other hand, received preferential treatment – this included an extended recess.