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Brown v. Board Of Education at 60: When will we achieve compliance?


The night the 1954 Brown decision to desegregate schools was announced, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund threw a party. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had worked on the case was reported to have said this, ‘You fools go ahead and have your fun, but we ain’t begun to work yet.”

In 1952 my kindergarten class at Pleasant View Elementary School was located in a wooded area of suburban Wheaton MD, a working class community just outside of Washington DC. It was a child’s garden of earthly delights.

Each day brought new wonders: new songs, new stories, new indoor projects, big kids showing off green snakes from the forest and visits to the school hatchery where I watched baby chicks emerge from eggs. I loved climbing to the summit of the jungle gym where I thought it might be warmer because it was closer to the sun. I was wrong, but the view was worth it.

Kindergarten at Pleasant View was the best educational experience of my 12 years in the Montgomery County school system. What I didn’t know at the age of 5 was that not far away, there were schools that didn’t look like Pleasant View at all.

A local civil rights leader named Romeo Horad spoke to the Montgomery County government about these segregated African American schools saying conditions were “deplorable”:

He told the Commissioners ‘not one Negro school in the county compares favorably with any white school’. He charged [that] the county government ‘disregarded’ conditions at Negro schools which he said include no running water, outdoor privy toilets, schools located far from Negro population centers, some near railroad tracks. All Negro schools, he said were overcrowded.”—- from a 1948 Washington Post article

You see I went to kindergarten in 1952 in a segregated school district. That was 2 years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation in education. But unlike many places south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Montgomery County did not openly fight school desegregation and by 1961 the schools were declared to be officially integrated.

When I entered Springbrook High School in nearby White Oak MD, there were African American students enrolled in this officially “integrated”  school. But all through my years at Springbrook,  where I took a number of advanced classes, I never shared a class with a Black student except for PE. It wasn’t until my senior year that I even had a Black teacher. She taught English and ironically, objected to me reading James Baldwin. Go figure.

Springbrook High School was an example of how segregation can exist within “integration”.

Still, by 1965 when I graduated, it appeared that the evils of school segregation might be slowly evaporating despite strong resistance in some parts of the USA.

I now live in Oak Park IL, a desegregated suburb that borders Chicago. African American parents report racial disparities at Oak Park-River Forest High School (OPRF)  that remind me of those at Springbrook High School decades ago. African American parents charge that it is difficult to get their children placed in courses that are “challenging”. The so-called “racial achievement” gap at OPRF is discussed endlessly with little actual change to show for it.

That’s racial progress?

I recently read about Gale School on the North Side of Chicago an area where some of the best equipped and best funded schools are found. The North Side also has a large white population compared to elsewhere in the city.

Gale is majority African American and Latino. Unlike the pre-Brown decision Negro schools of Montgomery County MD, Gale does have indoor toilets. Unfortunately the interior of the school has peeling lead paint that only after years of protest is finally being removed. Gale is not a dilapidated structure like the pre-Brown decision Negro schools of my early childhood, but it has a malfunctioning fire alarm system.

A school where kids can pee and poop indoors but might suffer from lead poisoning? A school that looks modern from the outside but where students might die or be seriously injured in a fire?

That’s racial progress?

What the hell is going on?

Brown vs. Board of Education: Where’s the compliance?

The night the 1954 Brown decision was announced, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund threw a party. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had worked on the case was reported to have said, “You fools go ahead and have your fun, but we ain’t begun to work yet.”

But I don’t think even even the prescient Thurgood Marshall would have predicted the results of this  August 27, 2013 study by Richie Rothstein:

“Racial isolation of African American children in separate schools located in separate neighborhoods has become a permanent feature of our landscape. Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.”— For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since

Across the USA, school segregation is very real. It is not decreed by law, but it is such a feature of civil society that many Americans see it as as normal and nothing to be concerned about. This is not to suggest Brown was a complete failure. It was certainly a major impetus for the civil rights movement and there was some school desegregation as a result. But as a nation, we’re not even close to following its mandate. .

The Brown decision overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that declared racially separate but equal facilities to be constitutional. Plessy was a bad joke. No one expected that equal facilities would be provided during the time Jim Crow was being constructed.

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But todays modern segregation means that we as a nation not even in compliance with Plessy when it comes to education. Parental income is the best single predictor of student achievement and communities of color are generally less affluent thanks to our racial caste system. Even middle class people of color are often in more precarious financial circumstances than their white counterparts.

Poverty is heavily racialized in the USA along with the social problems it creates. Even former President Lyndon Johnson observed that,” Negro poverty is not white poverty.” Poverty paired with racial isolation also translates into less political clout, which means deliberate under-resourcing of schools in impoverished communities of color.

And guess which communities are bearing the brunt of school closings, school privatization through charters, narrowing of the curriculum, standardized testing abuse and the rest of the corporate inspired attacks that are dumbing down US education?

Protesting standardized testing abuse in the Chicago Public Schools
A Chicago protest against standardized  testing abuse

As we used to say on the playground back in Wheaton, you get 3 guesses and the first two don’t count.

Chicago is an example. Chicago’s record number of school closings and school “turnarounds” have been heavily focused on African American and Latino neighborhoods. In Chicago these schools are closed for “underutilization” while privatized charters and “turnarounds” are being opened. West Side Chicago policy analyst Valerie Leonard has documented how this instability negatively affects student performance as veteran teachers are replaced by younger more inexperienced teachers with a high turnover rate.

This is a city that has seen the number of African American educators decline from 41% of the teaching force to just 25% since 2000. This is a city where of the 160 schools that lack libraries, 140 of them are south of North Avenue, where African American and Latinos are most heavily concentrated. Separate? Mostly. Equal? Yeah, right.

Heck, enforcing the long discredited Plessy decision would be an improvement in Chicago. At least African American and Latino students would get school libraries and other necessary resources. Similar naked examples of under-resourcing can be easily found in other parts of the USA.

What went wrong?

The Brown decision was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.  Institutionalized racism and ideological white supremacy have a history dating back to the late 1600’s when African American slavery became the dominant form of planation labor. Before then African American and Euro-American plantation workers resisted oppression side by side, even to the point of armed uprising.

Racialized slavery was created to divide the working population along color lines and ensure ruling class control. Racism evolved into a robust racial caste system which even after the abolition of slavery, proved to be like the Borg in Star Trek, very adaptable to changing conditions.

Overturning an enduring racial caste system takes more than a judicial brief, however well written and historic.

Enforcement of Brown depended upon a reluctant executive branch and a multitude of often recalcitrant lower courts to fill in the desegregation details as best (or as worst) as they could. This encouraged  “massive resistance” to desegregation from the states of the former Confederacy who could then turn a blind eye to racist white violence.

The situation was different but not much better outside of Dixie. Federal labor, housing, transportation, and social welfare policy contributed to racial inequality. This fed the kind of segregation and racial discrimination that did not require “White Only” signs. Efforts to overcome this  “de facto segregation” met with some limited success, but also with massive white flight to the suburbs and at times, nasty mob violence.

The most progress toward school desegregation came during the heyday of the civil rights and black power movements. It should be pointed out that the Warren Court which issued Brown was a product of the New Deal political culture that evolved in a period of mass resistance to social injustice.

Progress toward desegregation ground to halt in the 1970‘s.This came with the ebbing of the social movements against racism and the beginning of the corporate offensive against the working class, best exemplified by the dark days of the Reagan Years. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Corporate USA and the 14th Amendment

Central to Brown was the concept of “equality before the law”, a legal fiction that in this nation dates back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Equality before the law in a class society born out of slavery and racism was at best a distant aspiration at the time. It remains so today.

Brown relied heavily on the 14th Amendment saying that the plaintiffs in Brown were “…deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” That was true, but one is tempted to ask, “So what?” What about enforcement?

The 14th Amendment  was born out of the decades-long often violently repressed abolitionist struggle to end slavery, finally culminating in a devastating Civil War. It was supposed to guarantee equal protection of the law regardless of race. One might think that after such supreme sacrifice, enforcement would be unquestioned. Wrong. Enforcement of racial equality  was badly wounded by the counter-revolution against Reconstruction and remained so until the post WWII civil rights movement created a brief span of time when the federal government took enforcement somewhat seriously.

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The first copy of the 14th Amendment

To make matters worse, US corporations soon  began to use the 14th Amendment, intended as a tool of liberation, into a tool of oppression as they claimed “rights” that had been intended for real people, not legal entities. They attacked progressive legislation that protected actual human people with particular savagery. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said this in 1938 about the use of the 14th Amendment:

“…“less than one-half of 1 percent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.”

The recent Citizens United decision is only the latest chapter in the usurpation of state power to protect profits instead of people. Corporate power over public policy has been growing steadily over the past 40 years. During this time Corporate America could have used their domination over government policy to push for racial justice in an aggressive way.

They did not. So we know which side they are on. Honorable exceptions noted.

Instead there have been attacks on affirmative action, the growth of mass incarceration, and massive disinvestment in working class communities, especially ones of color. A complete list of such attacks would take an entire other article. This has been accompanied by a barrage of propaganda that we now live in a colorblind post-racial society so that any social problems plaguing people of color are their own fault.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education
Zerlina Smith speaks out for racial and economic justice to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Brown decison

Corporations which benefited from the 14th Amendment to consolidate political power now attack public education, especially African American public education.

The irony of using “equal protection of the laws” against the descendants of the very people it is supposed to protect is another bitter irony in the USA’s long torturous racial history. Especially since African Americans were instrumental in building the first large scale public education system in the USA after emancipation from slavery.

That’s gratitude for you.

Equality versus equity

The USA needs racial equity to make racial equality before the law a reality. Equity is looking at actual outcomes, not prattling on about “level playing fields” or “equal protection of the laws” when neither exists in the world of US capitalism.

After over 200 years, US capitalism has failed to create a market economy or an educational system with equitable outcomes for all racial groups. Instead the human talents and creativity of millions are tossed away despite the consequences to those individuals and the cost to society as a whole.

Racism has always been at the very heart of US capitalism because racism is very profitable. One obvious reason is that paying working people of color less or even nothing at all(as in slavery times) means more profit. Another example is the direct theft of African American wealth through violence, financial chicanery and government sponsored programs such as redlining entire neighborhoods to prevent African Americans from obtaining decent mortgages.

This amounts to a staggeringly massive theft of wealth, much greater than the comparable theft of wealth from white working people.

But there is another reason that is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media or in conventional college economics textbooks.  Racial division within the working class weakens the working class ability to organize  for economic and political power. That means more wealth going to the top.This translates into even more power for the corporate elite.

An illustration of this racial inequity within the working population is a recent study from the Brandeis Institute on Assets and Social Policy. The study revealed a median wealth of $265,000 for white working age families as compared to the median African American working age families wealth of $28,000.  That is a huge division, made worse by the 2008 financial crash.

The wealth gap means white people are simply less likely to question the system. In addition higher unemployment among people of color means fewer white people out of a job. That also means fewer white people likely to question the system. These institutional racial inequities also help keep alive the ideology of white supremacy and the personal racial prejudices of people who live in white social isolation and know little else besides racial mythology.

In a widely read article from the Atlantic magazine Ta-Nehisi Coates recently raised the issue of reparations to African Americans to help close that very wealth gap:

“Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.”

But how does one bridge those inequities when it is those very inequities that fuel the chasm?

Multiracial alliances that link social justice and quality education by addressing racial inequities do exist today. But they are relatively weak, partly because social struggle itself is at a relatively low ebb. The greatest gains toward racially equitable outcomes in education have come during times of intense social struggle that involve multi-racial alliances. It has been in these times of struggle that more white people question this nation’s racial divide with some of them even joining with people of color in the battle for racial justice.

Racial inequities must be addressed directly if we are going to create an educational system that works for all children. And frankly, the kind of education that most white children receive could also use serious improvement.

Socialists such as myself believe that a strong well organized working class is the best hope of success in any major societal transformation. We need to be fully aware that striking at racism, which lies at the heart of American corporate capitalism is a radical demand. To put it bluntly, we’re messing with their money and these are powerful people who don’t like that at all. But without the power of a strong multi-racial working class movement, how can we possibly counter the current corporate offensive against public education?

In short the education justice movement cannot succeed unless it deals directly with economic inequality and racism.

Across the USA there are people in the education justice movement who see the big picture and are struggling for racial equity in education and socio-economic justice for all working people. But the hard facts are that we are have been losing most of these battles. That should surprise no one. We are up against some of the most powerful corporations and financial institutions on this planet…. and a racial caste system that dates back centuries.

But evidence across the country suggests that public opposition to the corporate offensive against public education is growing. This corporate attack is aided by  the Department of Education (DOE) and the White House. The USA’s two largest teacher unions have been very critical of DOE chief Arne Duncan with the National Education Association even calling for his ouster. Duncan honed his destructive skills on Chicago’s African American neighborhood schools when he was the head of the Chicago school system.

And here in Chicago another sign the times may be a changin’. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis is leading Rahm Emanuel in the latest  poll for the 2015 mayoral election. Lewis has put poverty and racism front and center in the education justice movement here. The future is unwritten, but pardon me for showing a flash of optimism.

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Chicago Teachers union president Karen Lewis during the historic 2012 Chicago teachers strike


Sources consulted

“Montgomery Negros Ask Better Schools”: Washington Post January 14, 1948

For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since: Education And The Unfinished March by Richard Rothstein

Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage: Voices from America’s Affected Communities of Color by the Journey For Justice

“Testimony against ‘Turnaround’ of Dvorak” by Valerie Leonard

Racial Roadblocks: Pursuing Successful Long-term Racial Diversity in Oak Park by Denise B. Rose

Brown at 60 Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future By Gary Orfield and others

Black children might have been better off without Brown v. Board, Bell says” by Lisa Trei

Parents speak out about the ‘two OPRFs’: APPLE forum focuses on students left behind by Terry Dean

Disappearing acts: The decline of black teachers by Brandon Johnson

Gale School’s Peeling Lead Paint, Faulty Fire Alarms Unsafe for Kids: LSC” by Benjamin Woodard

The $236,500 Hole in the American Dream” by Dean Starkman

The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide by Thomas Shapiro and others.

The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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