Emory Report
August 23, 2004
Volume 57, Number 1


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August 23, 2004
A half-century of challenge

Vanessa Siddle Walker is professor of educational studies.

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 Brown.

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 desegregation plans.

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 education continues.

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 in achievement.

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 decision.

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.