For most African-Americans, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision is like the Holy Grail. Brown effectively paved the way for the civil rights movement of the '60s by declaring that "separate but equal had no place" in our schools and, by extension, in our society. The effort leading to that ruling, spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, is viewed as a brilliant example of legal strategizing and execution. Plus, for countless years after the ruling, Brown was hailed as the first concrete statement against segregation by the US government.
The primary thesis of Brown back in 1954 was that segregated schools exacerbated the inherent second class treatment of African-Americans that was a natural by-product of slavery. To address this problem, the Brown Court reasoned, the U.S. government had a responsibility to end segregated schools and the states were ordered to integrate their schools with "all deliberate speed." This of course led to a host of federal court school busing decisions and orders, many of which still exist today. At the time, Brown made infinite sense. America needed a shot in the arm to remind itself that racism, discrimination and second class American citizenship were all contrary to our constitution, even if our founding fathers didn't have the courage to make those facts clear at the time our nation was created. It is generally accepted that one doesn't speak ill of the Brown decision. No one, not even subsequent conservative Courts, messes with Brown vs. Board of Education.
But, what do you do when the blood, sweat and tears of your history clashes with the realities of today?
Our schools are arguably more segregated today than they were during the Brown decision. Indeed, many of the schools desegregated after Brown have re-segregated today. The effect of that segregation is just as toxic now as it was in 1954. Then, racial disparity was the issue and the main impetus behind the Brown decision. Today, the segregation challenges we face in our schools are an awkward mix of race and class.
Yes, our schools remain segregated along racial lines. The average white child in America attends a school that is 77 percent white, and where just 32 percent of the student body lives in poverty. The average black child attends a school that is 59 percent poor but only 29 percent white. The typical Latino kid is similarly segregated; with a school population made up of 57 percent poor and 27 percent white. But increasingly, a growing educational gulf exists between the haves and have nots in our country, irrespective of race.
When looking for solutions, many of us who have celebrated Brown are faced with a dilemma in the form of the ultimate question: Does forced integration of races and classes in our schools today have a role in helping us get better educational outcomes for all? Many education reformers believe that good teaching is the only factor. As a result, the core premise of Brown, namely racial integration, is not viewed as largely relevant to the current challenges found in public education. But recent studies suggest that low-income students attending racially and economically diverse schools do perform better than similarly situated peers without such exposure.
The solution is two-fold. We must ensure that integrated schools and integrated classrooms are available to all students no matter their race or their class, and we must also start embracing and learning from our differences. Folks, we can raise academic achievement across the board while celebrating, not demonizing, the rich diversity of cultures in this country. Integrated schools are a win-win for all students. But we are going to have to teach our kids, and adults for that matter, the importance of appreciating and learning from their peers from different backgrounds. For if we don't, it will be impossible for future generations to succeed in today's diverse society where collaboration is a necessity and separate but equal is no longer a viable alternative.
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