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August 23, 2004
half-century of challenge
Vanessa Siddle Walker is professor of educational
Earlier this year, we as a nation celebrated the 50th
anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown
vs. Board of Education decision that dismantled legal segregation in this country.
The occasion gave us cause to stop and consider the progress of the
last half-century, and whether the hopes and dreams embodied in Brown
have been realized.
Our perspective on the decision—its formulation, intent and accomplishment—has
been primarily a legal discussion. The anniversary has recalled the court cases
that preceded the decision, the community leaders and organizations who visibly
supported the cases, and the decisions of the court in recent years that threaten
the implementation of the original decision. Although important, this rubric
measures success or failure by a legal standard. It does not incorporate the
breath of vision held by the myriad actors who joined together to accomplish
Carefully hidden behind the scenes of Brown were black educators, who crafted
a dialogue with local attorneys, NAACP attorneys and community leaders that would
utilize the law to accomplish their ongoing agenda for school equality. Indeed,
in Georgia, the adoption of a legal approach represented the culmination of more
than 50 years of advocacy for equality in black education, beginning as early
as 1878. Yet the historical record has failed to consider what Brown was intended
to be by those who fought the longest and sacrificed the most for its accomplishment.
Revisionist historical accounts have shown that many of the school environments
maintained by black educators during de jure segregation were ones in which institutional
and interpersonal caring permeated the climate, despite the oppressive learning
environments forced upon them by local school boards. With strong community support
and professional educators whose training (by 1954) in many Southern states exceeded
that of their white counterparts, African American children often were buffered
in their schools from the negative societal messages about their potential and
encouraged to believe in what they were capable of achieving.
Black educators, on the eve of massive desegregation, argued that the desegregated
schools should maintain the clubs, assemblies, leadership roles, committed educators
and community support they had used to inspire children during segregation. They
hoped to achieve a world where black children would have equality of facilities
and resources and caring environments. They did not expect to exchange one for
the other. Moreover, they expressed concern about the capacity of school boards—who
had no history of fairly educating black children—to implement proposed
What black educators wanted for black children at the dawn of desegregation appears
to be what white parents take for granted. That is, they wanted their children
to be educated in environments where facilities and resources would support educational
attainment and where their children would be taught by well-trained teachers
who nurtured children’s belief in their capacity to achieve.
This ideal has not been achieved. To the contrary, in some ways the problem has
become even more pernicious since supporters of the status quo may now point
to the unconstitutionality of segregation and insist that this should be the
extent of state action. They say, in effect, “What more can we do?”
But much of desegregation has failed, just as black educators predicted, on the
school level. School boards and personnel make choices about pupil and teacher
placement, funding, and other variables that influence success, and national
data show that many of these choices disadvantage African American and Hispanic
youth. One-third of black children in high-poverty schools are taught by a teacher
out of field. Minority schools are three times as likely to have a teacher with
three or fewer years of teaching experience, and the absentee rate for teachers
averages 6–10 percent per day. Black children are often in schools with
larger class sizes, less technology, greater concerns about safety and more severe
challenges for parental involvement.
Despite our understanding of the relationship
of these variables to student achievement, the disparity in access to quality
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the inequalities in educational opportunity,
the national conversation instead laments the “achievement gap” in
our schools and directs public attention to accountability measures designed
to close that gap, such as the “No Child Left Behind” program. The
political language embedded in the policy creates an illusion of moral rightness
that, on its surface, makes the policy a difficult one to disagree with—of
course, we want all children to achieve.
Yet the very language itself is questionable. To frame the discussion as the
achievement “gap” makes the issue one of ineptitude, as the larger
population ponders the “problem” inherent in black and other minority
children, their parents and their communities. These children have, after all,
been saved by a landmark Supreme Court decision and have become the national
focus for receiving help in the current educational climate. That they still
are unable to achieve, as we are constantly reminded by the language of “achievement
gap,” creates the perception that the problem is the children, rather than
an understanding of the fixable structures that continue to create inequality
But Americans are seldom publicly reminded of the current inequality in structures.
They are generally shielded from the sacrifice that motivates many black parents
to drive or bus their children to schools far from their communities because
they understand that the resources and test scores are superior on another side
of town. To the contrary, data from the National Opinion Research Center crisply
summarizes the widely held public view of blacks: 78 percent of whites believe
that blacks prefer welfare, and 53 percent believe blacks are less intelligent.
When we widely embrace the language of a public policy that focuses on the students—and,
implicitly, their parents—as the problem, the public can continue to ignore
the structures that create the problem. If the structured inequalities were more
widely known, we might imagine a conversation that focused on the “resource” gap,
which attributes blame to its source rather than to its symptom.
I believe in Brown—it took me from a segregated school in the rural South
to a doctorate at Harvard—and I believe America wants to believe in Brown.
Indeed, America has to believe Brown was successful, because to do less stings
its vision of itself and violates the Constitution we value.
Nevertheless, the Brown anniversary should refocus our efforts to achieve equality.
Fifty years ago black students had segregated schools, overcrowded classrooms
and fewer educational materials; similar inequalities still exist for many
black children today. Messages the larger society sent black children pre-Browndoubted their ability to achieve; the messages in this moment based on the structures
in many urban areas are comparable. And the strong, caring teachers and principals
who worked to help achieve success for the children were fired and replaced by
too many people who neither know, understand nor are willing to continue the
struggle for racial uplift.
We cannot merely celebrate a legal victory. Rather, we must be careful to forestall
the events of Reconstruction, when unprecedented advances in structural equalities
were made only to have them eliminated with widely accepted social mores and
subsequent Jim Crow laws. Unless we remember our history of valuing equality
while ignoring and retreating from structures that would enforce it, we may find
ourselves, like our predecessors, creating new names to mask old problems.
I hope not. Brown, like other icons we value, represents America at its best,
and its proponents have rightly earned a place in history. Yet inequality, whether
overt or covert, still smacks against the intent of the proponents of this
When, in another 50 years, we celebrate Brown’s 100th anniversary, I hope
we will have addressed both its principles and promises. If so, then it will
be time to clap. Until then, we will cling to that promise of equality, while
understanding that we still have much work to do.
This essay is based in part upon Walker’s
contributions to an interdisciplinary dialogue on Brown, which
originally appeared in Focus on Law Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 2 (Spring 2004), a publication
of the American Bar Association Division for Public Education.