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60 years after Brown vs Board of Education

After Brown vs Board of Education
After Brown vs Board of Education
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Warren stated the following:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the unequal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th amendment.

This important decision was made 60 years ago and today only 35% of black students attend majority white schools, the lowest in 35 years. According to the Harvard University Civil Rights Project study, “White students-the most segregated group in the nation’s public schools- attend school on average where 80% of the student body is white.” In fact it was not until 1988, that the fruition of Brown vs Board of Education was realized when approximately 43% of southern black students attended majority white schools. It has been on a slow but steady decline ever since.

In the 1970s, “the South became the nation’s most integrated region.” (Harvard University Civil Rights Project study) Additionally, the United States also experienced an increase in union membership between 1954 and 1973 resulting in a stronger black middle class.

As we celebrate the achievements that were ushered in once Jim Crow and Separate but Equal Laws were decimated, we must also analyze the immediate aftermath of the decision. Black teachers had to fight for employment once black students were slowly admitted into white schools to fulfill the promise of integration. In fact, most urban school districts continue to recruit minority teachers to close the gap. This must be viewed through an historical lens too. Before 1954 and until 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act black college students had very limited post educational opportunities and that resulted in an overwhelming number in the field of education. When they lost their jobs because of Brown vs the Board of Education many sought other means of employment or were mired in court cases until they could procure employment at a school again. Even Philadelphia still had a colored and white hiring list for teachers until the 1950s. Read this excerpt from The Philadelphia Negro published by WEB DuBois in 1899 that describes the employment outcomes for Negro graduates from Philadelphia schools. Most reads like 2014.

It is a wonder that as black students were selected to attend white schools that the reverse did not occur in equal measure. The negative legacy of integration is that predominately black schools continue to be underfunded and exist in less than average buildings while predominately white schools flourish. Blacks and Latinos continue to have a higher percentage in poverty and unemployment than their white counterparts.

Several cases followed the historic 1954 case that intentionally slowed down the push for city to suburb desegregation. In 1974, Milliken vs. Bradley in Detroit, Michigan halted busing at city borders with a 5-4 decision. It blocked city-suburb desegregation. In Philadelphia, there is a quick and steady surge of families relocating to the suburbs. If a child is attending these schools with a grandmother’s address or fraudulently, they will be sent to court and given a bill for the education received. A year in Lower Merion school district costs approximately $15,000. More than what is being spent on a student in the School District of Philadelphia and just a few thousand shy of a Friends School.

When I attended my first job fair after graduation, the school district of Rockford in Illinois was recruiting minority teachers to fulfill a new desegregation ruling of 1996. My own mother was the second black teacher hired in 1973 in District 144 located in Markham, Illinois in response to such laws. This continues to support the claim that full integration is not wholly desired by the majority nor is it easy to sustain.

The 1954 decision went on to describe educational equality as the following:

Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

The challenges can also be seen in special education assignment. Minorities continue to be assigned to special education programs at a higher rate than whites, and white students are disproportionally assigned to gifted and talented programs in direct opposition to the EEO (Equal Educational Opportunity).

The recent cutbacks and/or elimination of bilingual education counters the gains made by cases like Lau vs Nichols in 1974 that enhanced the rights of Limited English Proficiency students and the United States vs Texas in San Felipe Del Rio, which resulted in two contiguous school districts (one predominately white and the other predominately Latino) to be consolidated. In the last example, the district judge ordered bilingual education for all students.

[basic English skills] are the very core of what these public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education. We know that those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experiences wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful. (The Leadership Conference, 2013)

This lack of justice follows and places minority children on a direct pathway to prison. Please read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Here is one of her talks at the University of Chicago.

As we remember the positives and negatives that followed the historic decision, we must ask ourselves the following questions: How does segregation undermine the purpose of public education in a democracy? How can we continue the battle for social justice and empathy in a country that is unequally yoked? What are the next steps in terms of policy and legislation when it comes to equitable public educational funding?

And the continuation of privatization which eliminates unions where everyone gets the same pay and benefits regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender will take us even further away from the promise of Brown vs the Board of Education and most importantly the 14th amendment. It also encourages the creation of charter schools that take public monies with little to no accountability under a charter operator that believes that separate is indeed equal.

I welcome you to review the links above and to read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and the article titled, It’s total moral surrender by Matt Taibbi. Attend and see Standardized, a documentary that illuminates the problems surrounding testing, another civil right violation. There will be a screening, May 28, 2014 at 5:30 pm at Spring Garden Academy located at 18th and Spring Garden RSVP here.

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