Point of View

60 years later, still fighting for the promise of Brown v. Board

May 20, 2014 


JANI BRYSON — Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sixty years ago, the NAACP won its biggest victory for full citizenship for African-Americans when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared in Brown v. Board of Education: “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate-but-equal’ has no place.”

The U.S. considered this to be such a landmark for democracy that the Voice of America broadcast the decision around the world instantly in 35 languages. Yet the response over the next six decades has ranged from violent resistance, angry foot-dragging, legal subterfuge and quiet refusal to constant court battles. Americans routinely cite Brown as part of the proof that we have escaped our tragic racial past as we move steadily away from its mandate.

Brown v. Board may be the single historical event that Americans are most proud of and least willing to defend.

Research proves that the court’s 1954 ruling was not merely morally right but educationally sound. Brown works because high-poverty, racially isolated schools don’t work. According to Gary Orfield, professor of education at UCLA, the connection between diversity and excellence remains “one of the most consistent findings in research on education” over the last 50 years.

Meanwhile, campaigns for what George Wallace dubbed “neighborhood schools” have left most urban school systems a resegregated wasteland: high-poverty schools, racially isolated, politically weak and often abandoned by their communities. In these schools, a culture of achievement is hard to sustain. Impoverished children have burdens enough without piling them all together.

Mixed schools work far better. A national study of 913 high schools shows that “poor students in schools balanced according to income learned, on average, twice as much as those in high-poverty schools.” In schools with a healthy socioeconomic mix, poor students perform at a much higher level, while affluent kids do somewhat better, too.

The most segregated areas of our country are the most economically depressed areas, and it is no coincidence. The Brookings Institution’s 2007 study of more than 300 American cities showed that segregation was one of the most important causes of economic decline. The 20 most economically depressed cities in America are the 20 most segregated.

Many “reformers” assume that we must accept this resegregation while we let the Gates Foundation and company decide. Most have given up on America ever becoming one country and have decided just to build a wall around their little piece of it. Oh, yes, and they would like you to pay for the wall, please.

Like the advocates of “massive resistance” in the 1950s, they still long for private schools paid for with public money. Essentially, they are arguing for fulfilling the promise of Plessy v. Ferguson, not Brown v. Board.

Diversity alone will not solve everything. We need excellent, experienced, nationally certified teachers for all students, especially those in the greatest need. Herding the children of the poor into isolated schools undermines this goal. High-poverty schools breed teacher burn-out. As student populations shift, the most talented, experienced teachers, not the “average” teachers, leave these schools. Schools for the children of poverty become schools where strong teachers start but do not stay. Resegregation perpetuates inequality, as affluent children end up with the strongest teachers.

Rich kids whose parents manage to dupe the taxpayers into paying for an essentially private school – a “neighborhood school” where the price of admission is the ability to pay a gigantic mortgage – will always do fine, on the whole. But they perform just as well in mixed schools and also get preparation for the diverse 21st century workplace.

Brown could still help to do what it was intended to do: make us all one country. But we have to be willing to fight for it or school resegregation will turn all our public schools into sinkholes of misery and despair, damaging our children and mortgaging our future.

As Thurgood Marshall tried to tell us 60 years ago this spring, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the N.C. Conference of NAACP Branches. Dr. Timothy B. Tyson, Ph.D., is a senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

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