SUCCESS AND FAILURE:
HOW SYSTEMIC RACISM TRUMPED THE BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION DECISIONJoe R. Feagin and Bernice McNair Barnett
(Forthcoming, University of Illinois Law Review)
U.S. school children have long pledged allegiance to a "nation . . . with liberty and justice for all," yet from the beginning this has been hypocritical rhetoric. When it comes to schools, historically African American children and many other children of color have rarely gotten justice. Never in U.S. history has there been a year when even half the country's black children were in schools where a majority of children were white. Today, even officially "desegregated" schools--which are decreasing in number--are internally divided by intention into ability tracks that reflect racial, class, and gender stratification. Typically, a desegregated school facility is internally segregated with differential schooling experiences for most white and black children—"second-generation segregation." Despite white support in surveys for the ideal of a desegregated society, white leaders and citizens have been unwilling to implement thorough-going desegregation of any major institution.
Today, in many larger cities there are relatively few white children left in public schools. The rise of private academies, increase in populations of color in cities, flight of middle-class whites to predominately white school districts, movement of middle-class blacks into predominately white neighborhoods, and federal courts' allowing resegregation accenting neighborhood schools have greatly limited the possibilities for present and future school desegregation. Separation of white children from children of color is increasing. Indeed, recent government data indicate that segregation of black from white children in urban schools is very high and has increased a little over the last decade. Increased school segregation is particularly significant because residential segregation has decreased somewhat in this same period.
Here we discuss numerous reasons why desegregated schooling is important for all children, including the provision of improved social and learning environments for all. Indeed, a key reason why school desegregation is important for segregated children of color is because, as is often said, "green follows white"--that is, schools with white student majorities typically get better educational resources from those (usually white) officials who have power to provide such socioeconomic resources.
THE RACIST FOUNDATION OF U.S. SOCIETY
This great and growing segregation of school children along racial lines is unsurprising for those familiar with U.S. history. Over centuries of colonial and U.S. development, whites have created a system of systemic racism—initially, in the enslavement of African Americans and genocidal land-taking targeting Native Americans. The fifty-five white men who made the U.S. Constitution, and then implemented it, built into the country's foundation certain mechanisms designed to maintain enslavement of African Americans for the purpose of unjustly enriching many white Americans. These enslavement mechanisms were only removed eight decades later, and a racialized segregation was soon put in place. Legal segregation was a system of near-slavery for most African Americans; it was enshrined in state statutes and federal and state court decisions for nine decades. Whites have enforced various types of racial separation since the mid-17th century, when the status of African Americans became that of enslavement for life. Today, school segregation is but part of a centuries-old system of racism.
Systemic racism involves a racialized exploitation and subordination of Americans of color by white Americans. It encompasses the racial stereotyping, prejudices, and emotions of whites, as well as the discriminatory practices and racialized institutions generated for the long-term domination of African Americans and other people of color. At systemic racism=s heart are discriminatory practices that generally deny Americans of color the dignity, opportunities, and privileges available to whites individually and collectively.
Some recognition of racism's systemic character is occasionally seen at the highest levels of national leadership. Thus, dissenting in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, Justice John Marshall Harlan explained why anti-black oppression persisted after slavery: "That there are burdens and disabilities which constitute badges of slavery and servitude, and that the power to enforce by appropriate legislation the Thirteenth Amendment may be exerted by legislation of a direct and primary character, for the eradication, not simply of the institution, but of its badges and incidents, are propositions which ought to be deemed indisputable." In his minority view, the government had a right to eradicate racial badges, burdens, and disabilities of slavery in the form of persisting discrimination. More recently, in a 1968 case, Jones v. Mayer, the Supreme Court condemned housing discrimination, ruling that A. . . when racial discrimination herds men into ghettos and makes their ability to buy property turn on the color of their skin, then it too is a relic of slavery." Concurring, Justice William O. Douglas added that, "Some badges of slavery remain today. While the institution has been outlawed, it has remained in the minds and hearts of many white men. Cases which have come to this Court depict a spectacle of slavery unwilling to die. . . . Negroes have been excluded over and again from juries . . . . They have been made to attend segregated and inferior schools . . . . They have been forced to live in segregated residential districts . . . ." Moreover, since the end of legal segregation, many whites have continued imposing the burdens of a "slavery unwilling to die" in wide range of discriminatory practices.
The imposed segregation of racial groups, and larger reality of systemic racism, are the normal condition of U.S. society. School segregation separates those defined by whites as different racially, and segregation is buttressed by an ideology asserting whites are superior. As Lawrence noted, "Black school children are not injured as much by a school board's placement of them in a school different from that in which it has placed white school children, so much as by the reality that the school exists within a larger system that defines it as the inferior school and its pupils as inferior persons."
Attempts at desegregation in the 1950s-1970s era were part of a brief period of progressive impulse. Such efforts need constant renewal, for established arrangements of centuries have a strong social inertia. Systemic racism stays in place so long as there is no counter pressure forcing change. Briefly, the civil rights movement--together with increased black political participation and international competition with the former Soviet Union for allegiance of non-European peoples --pressed some white leaders to take notice of racial discrimination and more toward increased justice.
During the 1950s and 1960s, under pressure from black leaders, churches, and civil rights organizations, white liberals pressed for desegregation, especially in the South. However, by the 1970s most white liberals were backtracking on commitments to substantial desegregation. Backtracking has been widespread since the 1980s, with the rise of presidential administrations and courts controlled by conservatives. White conservatives have been joined by a few conservatives of color, such as Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly, in blocking further progress in societal desegregation. The failure of school desegregation lies primarily in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and civic power, who have long been mostly white. White elites—school board members, leaders of civic and business organizations, state and local legislators, and judges in state and federal courts--have made decisions that since the 1970s have reversed progress toward substantial school and other desegregation.
BEFORE BROWN: SUCCESSFUL STRATEGIES OF THE NAACP
During the early 1950s, on the eve of Brown, the United States, and especially its southern region, had in place extremely oppressive conditions for African Americans and many other people of color. U.S. apartheid was extensive, and the civil rights movement was accelerating. One gets some feeling for the continuing burdens of "slavery unwilling to die" in this comment from a black teacher who long lived under legal segregation:
In those days, black people in their community had all the things that they had, because they were set aside from the white community, and we had all the things we needed to sustain us. . . . We had no affiliation with the whites [in school] whatsoever. Everything was separate and unequal. . . . We had aspirations but we were limited since we were in the black world, that’s where we lived. . . . You thought . . . that everything was alright, and we were not looking out onto the white world because if you ventured out, you were stopped before you could even get started. And in those days there was a just a definite dividing line of black or white. White over here; black over here. . . . It was a black and white world. No coming together on anything.
In most U.S. areas, African Americans were forced by law or informal discrimination to live in segregated conditions, attend segregated schools, suffer discrimination in public facilities, take less desirable jobs, face higher unemployment, and live on family incomes less than half those of whites. In the South, African Americans faced an extreme racial etiquette requiring constant deference to whites of all ages. Resistance often brought severe punishment--loss of jobs, burned houses, beatings, and lynchings.
In the face of real or threatened violence, it took great courage for African Americans, including NAACP members and lawyers, to mount large-scale legal efforts to bring down the walls of segregation, first in colleges and universities in the 1930-1950 period, and then in public schools. This effort eventually forced the pathbreaking Brown v. Board of Education, which broke dramatically with legally coerced segregation. Mounting legal attacks in several states, NAACP lawyers sought school desegregation as a strategy to secure educational opportunity. The intent was to dethrone the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) doctrine of "separate but equal" as the defining law. Robert Carter, NAACP lawyer and later federal judge, has concluded these efforts were necessary to move to broader goals: "It was not until Brown I was decided that blacks were able to understand that the fundamental vice was not legally enforced racial segregation itself; that this was a mere by-product, a symptom of the greater and more pernicious disease—white supremacy."
THE BROWN DECISION: CONSTITUTIONAL, MORAL, AND POLITICAL SUCCESSES
Successful efforts by African Americans to end legal segregation showed how pervasive racism was in society. Elite whites were moved to end apartheid and thus enter the modern socio-political world by the organized efforts of African Americans and their non-black allies. The Brown decision did not come because of the "goodness of white hearts," but rather as the culmination of a long struggle by black children, men, and women. Without this enormous effort, the U.S. today might still be a backwater among the world's industrialized nations, a country trying to come to terms with apartheid institutions.
Finally, in 1954 nine white men were pressed by these efforts to see how unjust racial segregation was. At the heart of Brown is this broadly framed declaration: "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 equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment." With this statement, and with the rejection of previous court decisions upholding segregation, the Court in effect rejected legal school segregation in the 17 states that required or allowed it. With this broad framing, the Court asserted that the federal government has an obligation to extend full rights to African Americans, who were finally recognized by the Court as first-class citizens--a category to which they had been denied membership for centuries: "Segregation in the public schools is condemned for producing second-class citizenship for African Americans both because it imposed a stigma on them (as persons not fit to go to school with whites) and because it did not adequately prepare them to be effective citizens."
Brown had an important psychological impact on black Americans and others committed to desegregating U.S. society, for it indicated that desegregation struggles were sanctioned by whites on the country's highest court. Brown provided moral encouragement for those active in accelerating the civil rights movement. "Civil rights leaders repeatedly invoked Brown in their political and moral arguments against segregation." They cited the decision as moral authority for demonstrations. At the beginning of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, thus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to Brown in a speech: "If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong." The success of that boycott was in turn facilitated by lawyers who filed suits against bus segregation. When a lower court ruled against them, the Supreme Court overruled the Plessy doctrine in the area of transportation where it originally applied.
Brown provided the moral and legal authority for ending much segregation. The decision was interpreted by numerous judges as a mandate to dismantle state-created segregation. New cases came to courts regarding discrimination in such areas as public accommodations and voting, and an end to discrimination was mandated in most cases, including interracial marriages. Official segregation in public facilities began to end, first in border states, then in most southern areas. Brown remains a beacon of liberty for many people in the U.S. and globally, including those seeking voting rights, gender equity in sports, freedom from harassment based on gender and sexual orientation, multicultural education, bilingual education, special education, and international human rights. As Tushnet has noted, "Many people take the Constitution to express the nation's deepest moral commitments. When the Supreme Court said that segregation could not be reconciled with the Constitution, it told the nation that segregation was wrong. . . . Even today Brown stands as the Court's deepest statement on the central issue in American history—how Americans of all races should treat one another."
PROBLEMS AND FAILURES SINCE BROWN: THE TIMIDITY OF FEDERAL COURTS
Yet Brown and its implementation signaled that ending racial apartheid would come only at the pace that whites in the governing elite would allow. In this sense, the modest character of the decision reflected many elements of systemic racism, for few white leaders, including federal judges, envisioned fully dismantling that racism. Neither the 1954 Brown decision (Brown I) nor the 1955 implementation decision (Brown II) spelled out clearly what "desegregation" was, nor were the steps to end segregation described and mandated. One reason for the failure of Brown to bring significant desegregation of schools in the first decade after 1954 is the weakness of the 1955 Brown II decision, which articulated the "with all deliberate speed" formula for implementing desegregation. This failure was amplified by the unwillingness of President Dwight Eisenhower to back the Court's decrees with full federal authority against the intense opposition of millions of white parents, school officials, civic leaders, legislators, and governors, as well as of local supremacist groups. Given the racist views of most white leaders, including a president who revealed his racist stereotypes to Chief Justice Earl Warren, the vacillating action against racial discrimination was unsurprising. Systemic racism was too fundamental for them to accede to a head-on attack on its many oppressive realities. For that reason, school desegregation would come slowly to the South and never would be fully realized in most northern and western cities.
Not until the late 1960s and early 1970s did the high court and other federal courts begin to force meaningful school desegregation in the South. A series of important cases finally expanded the requirements for desegregation. In a 1968 case, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, the Court held that “freedom of choice” plans were insufficient, and belatedly put pressure on segregated school systems to make greater progress by requiring that segregation be eliminated "root and branch"-- that students, teachers, staff, transportation, and extracurricular facilities had to be desegregated. In a 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education, the Court ruled that desegregation plans grounded in residential patterns for student assignments were inadequate and aggressive action had to be taken to desegregate, including busing if necessary. Gradually, as in the "root and branch" language, justices on the high court seemed to see how systemic the racism underlying school segregation was.
Then, by the mid-1970s new conservative appointments to the Court presaged a long-term movement—lasting to the present day--away from eradicating the burdens of "slavery still unwilling to die" in public schools, as well as other institutions. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), a conservative Court blocked local officials' attempts at a metropolitan-wide school desegregation plan combining the city of Detroit and its suburbs. Dissenting in this case, Thurgood Marshall (joined by three other justices) noted that after decades of steps toward desegregation the Court was seriously backtracking:
Notwithstanding a record showing widespread and pervasive racial segregation in the educational system provided by the State of Michigan for children in Detroit, this Court holds that the District Court was powerless to require the State to remedy its constitutional violation . . . . Our precedents . . . firmly establish that where, as here, state-imposed segregation has been demonstrated, it becomes the duty of the State to eliminate root and branch all vestiges of racial discrimination and to achieve the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.
Since this decision, the Supreme Court and circuit court decisions have generally retreated on the commitment to desegregate. In a 1984 Riddick v. Norfolk decision, the 4th Circuit Court was the first to allow a southern school district that declared itself "unitary" (not officially segregated) to abandon its desegregation plan and escape federal supervision. By the 1990s, courts were allowing many school systems to abandon desegregation. Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell (1991) and Freeman v. Pitts (1992) decisions indicated that the Supreme Court would permit large-scale resegregation of schools. The Freeman decision gave lower court judges much discretion to abandon supervision of desegregation before a school district was in full compliance. Today, as Orfield and Eaton note, "Desegregation remedies can even be removed when achievement gaps between the races have widened, or even if a district has never fully implemented an effective desegregation plan." The current Supreme Court view seems similar to discredited Plessy assumptions that segregation in schools is "normal" and cannot be eradicated by government, and that that white authorities can be trusted to act in a nondiscriminatory way in decisions about schooling of black children. For the current Court, "separate but equal" is constitutional if racial segregation is not openly directed by government officials.
ADVANTAGES TO DESEGREGATION: ACCESS TO RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITIES
When and where government officials have implemented substantial school desegregation with commitment, resources, and significant public support, it has generally worked to the benefit of all. Even where officials have only partially desegregated schools, we see substantial gains. In numerous ways, school desegregation has been successful, for all its limitations.
Providing Greater Access to Educational Resources
From the beginning, black parents and community leaders sought desegregation primarily to secure greater access to educational and related socioeconomic resources. They did not seek desegregation because they felt that black children needed to sit with whites to be educated. The assumption has always been that better school resources come in racially desegregated schools, and this in turn usually means better learning environments and greater achievements for children of color.
In general, these assumptions have been correct. Research shows that attending desegregated schools usually facilitates achievement for black students. One major study found that "black third-graders in predominantly white schools read better than initially similar blacks who have attended predominantly black schools." There was less effect on reading at higher grade levels and no consistent effect for math scores. Another extensive review found that in most research studies of desegregation some positive effects were found for academic performance: "African American and Hispanic students learn somewhat more in schools that are majority White as compared to their academic performance in school that are predominantly non-White." In addition, research on more than 1800 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools found that black and white children did better in substantially desegregated schools than in segregated schools. Mickelson concludes from extensive data that "the more time both black and white students spend in desegregated elementary schools, the higher their standardized test scores in middle and high school, and the higher their track placements in secondary school." One major reason is that the most segregated schools (with children of color as the majority) get less in the way of socioeconomic and human resources.
Providing Greater Access to Networking Resources
School desegregation has brought African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and other students of color improved access to important job networks, most of which are controlled by white employers. Often greater in desegregated schools, networking resources help students later on in securing good jobs and advanced education. Black students from desegregated, substantially white schools typically do better in getting into good-paying job and college networks than those from traditionally segregated schools. Going to a substantially desegregated high school significantly increases the chance that a black or Latino student will attend college. Black students in desegregated schools are more likely to attend historically white colleges, work and live in desegregated environments, and have friends from other racial groups. Going to desegregated schools increases the "pool of contacts and informants from whom African Americans can obtain information about available jobs," thereby increasing opportunities. For children of color without much previous contact with whites, school desegregation may also help them develop coping strategies for dealing with racist whites in other settings.
Desegregation has often forced white officials to deal with insufficient resources in historically black schools. When schools are substantially desegregated, white officials typically spend more money on schools. However, when school systems resegregate with court approval, as many are now doing, per-student expenditure differentials again increase sharply. This is the lesson of big cities like Milwaukee, where a recent report shows that the "separate but equal" notion accepted increasingly by courts fails. Per capita school expenditures for Milwaukee's children, mostly children of color, are now far lower than per capita expenditures for suburban children, who are mostly white. The differential is considerably more than $1000 per child. "Half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed separate and unequal schools based on race, the Milwaukee area has firm-ly returned to both separate and unequal education. . . . as the percentage of African-American students and students of color has risen in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), funding per pupil has plummet-ed compared to funding in overwhelmingly white suburban dis-tricts." The report also notes the role of state government: "The state of Wisconsin is constitutionally responsible for pro-viding public education. Yet the state not only tolerates the fund-ing gulf between Milwaukee and its suburban counterparts, it has instituted policies that allow the gap to widen. . . ." This increasing gap is one consequence of state-sanctioned resegregation now spreading across the United States. Such resegregation will, doubtless, mean sharply reduced access for many students of color to those critical college and job networks that desegregation has provided.
While the school desegregation process stemming from the Brown decision brought new opportunities and better access to resources for many children of color and their parents, at no point has a desegregated system equalized the array of educational resources. White officials and citizens are still unwilling to spend the money necessary to eradicate the long-term impact of racism in education. Interestingly, several studies of desegregation, including the famous Coleman report, downplayed school resources in explaining racial differentials. The Coleman report concluded that resources, such as per-pupil expenditures, were not greatly different between predominantly black and predominantly white schools and had no significant correlations with achievement; the important correlations of achievement were with socioeconomic status and family characteristics. Many analysts have taken this as meaning that significant differentials in school resources no longer exist--or that what differences remain are not critical for achievement. However, even the Coleman report notes that the small differences found that consistently favor predominantly white over predominantly black schools can accumulate to a major difference in quality: "The child experiences his environment as a whole, while the statistical measures necessarily fragment it. . . . The statistical examination of difference in school environments for minority and nonminority children will give an impression of lesser differences than actually exist . . . so that subsequent sections will probably tend to understate the actual disadvantage in school environment experienced by the average minority child compared to that experienced by the average majority child."
To assess whether critical resources are different in predominantly white and predominantly black schools, one must consider the accumulation of small differences and an array of resources often neglected in comparative assessments of schools. Even the best desegregation plans are unable to equalize in fundamental ways historically black and historically white schools. Researchers examining desegregated Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have found many differences in the level of resources available to the still predominantly black and predominantly white schools. Schools with more white children are more likely to have adequate media centers, computers, and other technology, as well as newer buildings and more classes for advanced students. On the average, such schools have more teachers (regardless of race) with substantial teaching experience. Research indicates that other critical resources, such as availability of small classes, are not equitably distributed. Today, de facto segregated schools are segregated not only by racial group but also by income. Most black and Latino children remain in schools where low-income children are the majority, yet most white children are in schools where the majority are middle-class. Schools where the children's parents have higher incomes usually have an array of resource advantages, while those in low-income communities are likely to have fewer teachers, less adequate libraries, and fewer advanced courses than those in affluent communities. Again, the problem of racial segregation is inextricably linked to class stratification in society.
Providing Greater Opportunities to Experience Diversity
School desegregation has generated not only increased opportunities for black, Latino, and other children of color and their parents, but also new experiences for white children, parents, and teachers. Although since Brown many whites in all regions have chosen private schools and moved into higher-income communities where most children of color do not reside, the challenges of cooperatively living, learning, working, and participating democratically in a multiracial society, within a global economy, are greater than ever before for all Americans. In the future, the U.S. public and policymakers will need to utilize the diverse ideas, knowledge, and talents of everyone even more than now.
Racial segregation exacts costs for whites in terms of fear, ignorance, conflict, and inhumanity. Population trends indicate that by 2050 the U.S. will likely have a population majority composed of people of color. Increasingly, whites are pressed to understand the significance of racial-ethnic diversity in living and working cooperatively in communities, schools, government, businesses, and other arenas of society. Moral and practical reasons dictate building a country that expands socioeconomic and political participation in a multiracial-democracy framework. School desegregation provides opportunities for all, including whites, to dismantle historical barriers. White students in truly desegregated schools, as other students, gain opportunities to learn about and associate with those with whom they might otherwise never have interacted. For example, studying young children in a multiracial pre-school, Van Ausdale and Feagin found that white children learn racial differences and how to discriminate at an early age, and that it is by experience, interaction, and education with children of color that they are able to reduce stereotypes and gain a significant opportunity to establish friendships and understanding of others.
NEGATIVE IMPACTS: CHILDREN IN DESEGREGATED SCHOOLS
The Severe Impact on Pioneering Black Children
In the first era of school desegregation, the late 1950s and early 1960s, Supreme Court justices, congressional leaders, and presidents failed dismally to provide strong supervision of court-ordered school desegregation. This lack of supervision signaled weak commitment to change and, quite forseeably, encouraged white resistance. Federal officials left much actual desegregation up to courageous black children, parents, and community leaders. Children were lonely pioneers thrown into extremely hostile, formerly all-white environments. Desegregation's costs were very heavy for these child pioneers—costs that few whites have yet acknowledged.
The social scientists testifying in the Brown cases presented data that segregation had a harmful impact on children by damaging self-esteem. Ironically, because of feeble enforcement, desegregation also had a damaging psychological (and often physical) impact on numerous black children who were early pioneers. While there have been a few autobiographies, such as that of Melba Pattillo Beals who vividly recounts traumatic experiences of nine Little Rock students, few studies have systematically examined the impact of desegregation on child pioneers. In the 1990s, Inniss interviewed eleven black adults who had desegregated New Orleans schools decades earlier. On the positive side, several reported making white friends, and most felt they received a better education under desegregation.
However, the desegregated schools limited other opportunities. In predominantly black schools they could try out for cheerleader or run for class president, but this was not possible in newly desegregated schools. In addition, all these pioneers paid a high psychological and emotional price. Two were so hurt by the process that they had nervous breakdowns. Interviewed as adults, numerous respondents were still in pain as they recalled negative desegregation experiences. Most reported being more or less constantly tormented by white students and, sometimes, teachers. One reported that "after a while all hell broke loose and they really started harassing us," and another noted that "Well, we had a little group [of whites] that would meet us every morning, I mean they would say little ditties to us, it was sort of like entertainment."
Inniss was a black student pioneer at a formerly white high school in the 1960s, an experience that was emotionally battering: "During the first year, parents spit on me, called me a monkey, and used other intimidating behaviors while lining up on both sides of my morning pathway to the school, forming what I called a 'tunnel of terror.' The students defaced my locker, stole my books, and tore my clothing." She continued with an account of what happened the next year when President John Kennedy was shot: "Through my tears and sobs I heard one white student shout that was good for him because he was 'only for niggers anyway.' The third year brought more threats and indignities, ranging from warnings not to participate in certain extracurricular activities to a white boycott of a traditional school slumber party."
As a result of extreme harassment, most students had a sense of decreased self-esteem or self-confidence. One former student noted that "desegregation left me with feelings of alienation and incompetence." Another explained, "We had to learn their way of doing things – acting, talking, dressing – their way of being, but nobody was interested in our way. We wanted so badly to be accepted, we tried to do and be all they wanted and we were still rejected. Even today, I have a really big problem with rejection of any kind." Yet another described the severe physical effects: "To this day . . . I never eat breakfast . . . . I know it's because for those four years my stomach was so much in knots I couldn't eat before I went to school and then I couldn't eat lunch. I wouldn't sit in the lunchroom because of the things they would do. . . . deep down you know that it's stuff that still affects you."
How did they manage to survive the trauma perpetrated or allowed by white judges, politicians, teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and bus drivers? Those who survived the experience reported on the importance of staying focused. One child pioneer, now a successful lawyer, explained: "You just maintain and say, look my goal is to get out of here and make my grades and to get out of here and you just stay focused on that and you know it's a transition . . . . " Recalling her experiences, Inniss explains how she focused "on the belief that my endurance would make things better for my own children and others who would follow me." Another pioneer noted that "forced integration was the worst thing that happened to our race," and he added that "we were forced to play their game by their rules but now my own goal is to extract all their knowledge and use it to beat them at their own game. My job is not to help white folks but to educate my son so that he is prepared and he is able to compete with those people at a very early age and that's what I'm trying to teach him." What is most striking is that not one of these pioneers would do it over if they faced the situation again, and several, like this woman, said that "they would never even consider sending my children to an integrated school." In our recent interviews, another pioneer in southern school desegregation, now a successful administrator in higher education, recounted with great pain: “They beat me. They beat me every day that I went into that white school…I can’t forget…I can’t love them now. ”
Reflecting on survival and resistance strategies that she used during the voluntary school choice period of desegregation in her southern town, Bernice McNair Barnett has explained that she protected herself from the everyday “grind of racially motivated negative incidents” by withdrawing inward and using “tactics similar to those of POWs who successfully survive systematic personal attack and isolation. In my daily battles of war, I swore never to let 'them' see me cry. I was silent and found inner strength in the knowledge that I had done nothing to engender such race-based animosity.” The costs were high, as Barnett describes:
The years of spatial and social distancing, ostracizing, name-calling, pushing, shoving, jeering, and threatening were all a part of my daily . . . battles that gradually promoted my aloofness and silence. I was isolated and cut off from the world of my former Black peers (who saw my school desegregation choice as “trying to be White”) as well as my new White peers (who were both hate filled bullies and otherwise good hearted but silent bystanders). Mine was a battle that was fought not in the newspapers or in front of the television cameras, but alone and with the everyday survival-resistance strategies I used in a small southern school. Thus, divorced from and unaccepted in both worlds, I lost my “voice.”
Significantly, in her analysis Inniss ponders another question: "I wonder what, if anything, did my experiences accomplish? The cumulative, multigenerational experience of entrenched racism has never been adequately presented, examined, or analyzed from a black point of view." A key problem throughout the societal desegregation process, including that of schools, is that relatively few whites have ever cared about black experiences--what Lisa Delpit categorizes as the experiences of “other people’s children.”
Continuing Discrimination in Schools: Teachers and Students
Since these pioneering days, many white students, teachers, administrators, and parents have moderated their behavior, yet much racial hostility and discrimination remain in ostensibly desegregated schools. In the literature, we have not seen a study indicating that any historically white school has eliminated "root and branch" all major "burdens and disabilities" of racism. Most school desegregation has done little more than change the demographic mix of students and, less often, of faculty and administrators. Often, the senior administrative staff at schools has remained overwhelmingly, if not entirely, white. In most desegregated schools, teachers are disproportionately, if not predominantly, white, and many other features of school settings remain white-normed. Given the realities of institutionalized racism, black children in desegregated schools with white majorities have continued to face racial harassment and other discrimination.
Significantly, hostile racial climates in desegregated schools have seldom been systematically researched. Reviewing the literature, we have found relatively little discussion of racial attitudes of, or discrimination by white teachers, principals, staff, and students. We see little analysis of how discrimination affects everyday school performance. Some analysts even argue that significant racial bias on the part of white (and other) teachers exhibited in learning settings is unlikely or unimportant. Thus, Jerome Brophy has argued that "Few teachers can sustain grossly inaccurate expectations for many of their students in the face of daily feedback that contradicts those expectations." Emil Haller has argued that, while there are likely prejudiced teachers, "the problem [of student achievement] does not seem to be of that nature. Conceiving it so is to confuse the issue, to do a serious injustice to the vast majority of teachers. . . ." Whites tend to downplay the importance of the racial thinking or discrimination exhibited by whites in desegregated schools. One study of a desegregated New England middle school found that most teachers said they tried to ignore racial issues; they "denied that they noticed children's race not only when the researchers were present but also among themselves."
We have found no specific surveys of white teachers and students in desegregated schools, yet it seems probable that many of these whites hold views similar to the majority of whites questioned in recent national surveys. In these studies, a majority admit to holding negative stereotypes of African Americans. Given the likelihood that many white teachers, principals, parents, and students hold similar stereotypes, future research studies of children of color will probably find substantial discrimination in school settings that is linked to stereotypes. Researchers have found that racial bias in white (and other) teachers' expectations affects student performance; this discrimination takes the form of teachers' not expecting the same performance from black and white children, or from black and white children with comparable test scores. Four experimental studies show that teachers are less supportive of black than white students in situations where students are matched for ability or randomly assigned. In one study, black students got less feedback after mistakes and fewer hints than comparable whites. Similarly, observation studies in desegregated classrooms have found that teachers are more likely to encourage white than black students to participate actively in class. This discriminatory behavior on the part of teachers likely affects student achievement. Reviewing the literature, Ferguson concludes that "teachers' perceptions, expectations, and behaviors probably do help to sustain, and perhaps even to expand, the black-white test score gap."
One famous study of (white) children showed that those who feel stereotyped often do not perform as well as they would without the stereotyping. Teacher Jane Elliott divided her all-white, third-grade class into privileged and unprivileged children based on eye color. Those with the favored color got better treatment from the teacher. The experiment showed the strong impact of negative and positive teacher expectations on students. From their earliest years, black children carry the burden of disapproval by whites, including those in schools. Whatever their socioeconomic background, black children must regularly confront this negativity--a symbolic reality that affects everyday interactions and achievements. Research by Claude Steele indicates that academically successful black students are often concerned that scoring low on a test will feed stereotypes that blacks are less intelligent. In research where racial characteristics of successful black students are highlighted for them prior to an academic test, such as by having them indicate on a form their "race," they do not do as well as when nothing is said about racial characteristics. Accenting the "stereotype threat" can have negative effects on how well black students, regardless of class backgrounds, do on tests and other performance situations.
Still, even these important studies do not research the array of other discriminatory actions targeting children of color in desegregated schools. White teachers, principals, counselors, and students--as well as office, cafeteria, janitorial, transportation, and security personnel—act in ways that undermine the self-confidence of students of color and make learning difficult. In a biographical account, white professor Sharon Rush, who is raising a biracial adopted daughter, gives numerous examples of how whites regularly sabotage the educational growth of her talented daughter. White teachers have discriminated against her daughter over many years in public and private schools. This discrimination involves differential expectations and discrimination in class assignments, curriculum, placement of desks, and sports. White students can be a problem as well. In their study of a multiracial daycare center, Van Ausdale and Feagin found that white children caused substantial psychological harm to children of color. White students often do discriminatory things that interfere with school performance of children of color.
Continuing Racial Bias in the Curriculum
In almost all desegregated school systems the curriculum has stayed mostly the same after desegregation as before—with, for the most part, token gestures to the history of formerly excluded students. The orientation of many white teachers and administrators in desegregated schools seems to be to one-way acculturation of children of color into a white worldview. In a 1978 study of desegregated classrooms, Ray Rist found a widespread orientation among teachers to having black students acculturate to white ways. Since the 1970s, multicultural education has been added to schools--and accented in teacher education--yet most schools have not successfully integrated people of color, and their histories and experiences, throughout the K-12 curriculum and over the school year. Although some teachers add references to accomplishments of people of color during special ethnic history weeks, the general orientation of most is to white understandings of U.S. history and group experiences.
Textbooks provide one example of the whitewashed curriculum. These texts often communicate much historical information that is inaccurate or elliptical, especially in regard to racial discrimination, stereotyping, and conflict. Assessing high school history books, Loewen found that they ignored or downplayed harsh realities of racial oppression, past and present. For example, New York City's AWall Street@ is celebrated in textbooks for its economic role, yet none note that it began as a large colonial market where whites bought enslaved African Americans in a bloody business that lasted until 1862. Not one major textbook made significant use of African American sources in regard to racial issues, and not one "lets African Americans speak for themselves."
Another curriculum bias lies in the uncritical use of literary "classics" that are often part of required reading. Analyzing schools' use of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Sharon Rush shows how widespread the requirement of reading this racist novel is in schools and what the consequences are for children. Not only does the novel bombard readers, including black children, with more than two hundred "nigger" epithets, but it is also riddled with racist stereotypes of African Americans, such as the explicit portrayal of heroic action by the enslaved protagonist "Jim" as indicative of his soul really being "white." While many teachers may use the novel to problematize slavery, typically the novel is not taught as a book that is pervaded with racist assumptions and stereotyping by its prominent author.
More Second-Generation Segregation: Ability Tracking
Ones sees systemic discrimination in ostensibly desegregated schools in the widespread use by authorities of ability tracking that creates "second-generation" segregation. In desegregated schools, many children of color learn in segregated classroom tracks with fewer resources and less rigorous teaching than tracks for allegedly "more talented" students, who are selected to be mostly white. Derrick Bell early underscored this problem: "Extra money for special programs with better, higher-paid teachers follows white students into special, upper-track classes even within integrated schools, where most blacks are trapped in lower-track, generally ineffective and less expensive course offerings."
Tracking is well remembered by students. In our interviews with people who attended desegregated schools, one white college student recounted this:
I found out that even though we were always in mixed classes in elementary school, they were tracking us, like they had us divided into groups and were kind of watching us as we developed … . If you look at the racial mix of the classes, [the] honors track seemed to be predominately white and the lower, like regular classes, would be predominately African American… .They’d be placed in the lower track so early on, that it was just impossible to break out of even if they had the ability level.
Much research now shows that tracking assigns students of color "unjustifiably and disproportionately to lower tracks and almost excludes them from the accelerated tracks; it offers them inferior opportunities to learn and is responsible, in part, for their lower achievement." Recalling this pattern, a middle-aged white teacher in our interview study recently commented: I remember in the fourth grade when the first time I actually had a black classmate. I specifically remember [him] reading along in class, and I think it was the word Nazi that came up. And I didn’t know what the word was, but he knew; and I was kind of impressed by that. By the time I got to high school, or even junior high, when I started getting separated from other students . . . the number of minorities dropped precipitously. So by the time I was in high school, in honors classes, there were perhaps you know some Arab or Indian students in those classes with me . . . . African American and Latinos weren’t in those classes.
Significantly, African American students often get placed in tracks lower than their measured abilities indicate, even as measured by the racially biased conventional tests. Students in higher tracks typically get more attention and better resources, often including more experienced teachers and more rigorous instruction. Students in privileged tracks in early grades tend to perform better in later schooling, and thus over time "racially stratified tracks create a discriminatory cycle of restricted educational opportunities for minorities who are disproportionately assigned to lower tracks irrespective of their academic abilities."
Several early studies showed that desegregated school systems that eliminated or significantly reduced ability tracking had better achievement results than those that maintained or increased tracking. More recently, Roslyn Michelson has summarized much school research: ". . . when schools consistently employ practices to enhance equality of opportunity (including the elimination of tracking and ability grouping), desegregation brings clear, though modest academic benefits to black students and does no harm to whites."
Interestingly, in her own Charlotte-Mecklenburg study, Mickelson has found that breaking down tracking benefits whites as well. Thus, tracking has negative effects on all children, for they are much less likely to learn effective ways of interacting with people of different backgrounds. Homogeneous socializing limits the breakdown of racial-ethnic stereotyping. Much literature now indicates that the more diverse the learning milieu, the more likely people are to get beyond rigid and stereotyped ways of thinking.
Problems of Testing: Racial and Class Bias
Much racial and class bias exists in testing procedures used for placing children in educational programs. Most standardized tests, including so-called "intelligence" tests, measure learned skills, not some broad "intelligence." Skills learned depend on resources in home and school environments, which often disadvantage the learning process for lower-income children. Black and Latino children often do less well than whites on paper-and-pencil tests standardized on whites and created by educators who are overwhelmingly white. Such tests are typically skewed toward the knowledge--including subtle understandings--of the white middle-class minds that generate test items from within a limited racial-class experience. Traditional tests measure only certain skills and acquired knowledge--skills and knowledge not equally available to all racial groups because of centuries of discrimination. Successful achievement-test taking is a skill that white middle-class children are more likely to possess than working class children, including most children of color, because the former are more experienced in testing. In addition, the testing situation can create the problem of test anxiety noted previously. At best, a small portion of human abilities are revealed on any achievement test.
“Acting White:” A Secondary Factor
Some researchers, such as the John Ogbu, have viewed achievement differences between black and white children as more likely the result of negative black school cultures than of problems with institutionalized racism in schools. That is, academically successful black students are put down so much by their black peers that they cannot achieve as well as whites. Ogbu gathered ethnographic data supposedly showing the severe effects of being put-down for "acting white," as well as showing that black students and parents do not put as much emphasis on education as whites. We will examine later the fallacious notion that African Americans do not value education as much as whites, but should note here that much research contradicts the notion that pressure from other students has severe and lasting effects on achievement of talented students. For example, Cook and Ludwig summarize the research: "Black high school students are not particularly alienated from school. They are as likely as whites to expect to enter and complete college, and their actual rate of high school completion is as high as that among whites from the same socioeconomic background. Also, black and white students report that they spend about the same amount of time on homework and have similar rates of absenteeism." Despite the widespread belief that typical black students do not work as hard in school as white students, no research evidence exists for this stereotyped notion. Black and white high school students who do well in school are also no more likely to be socially unpopular than other students. While successful students--black, white, Latino, Asian, Indian, and others--do periodically get taunts from less successful students, such comments usually "do not inflict especially grievous social damage."
CHILDREN’S CONTINUING BURDENS: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, LITTLE SUPPORT
Over the history of school desegregation, educators and politicians have often forgotten about the everyday lives and well-being of children. Repeatedly, children are treated like blank slates, robotic machines with protective armor, or trained soldiers going to battle. They are told to fight with bravery to achieve society's goals, regardless of casualties. But these are America's children. Many have performed key roles in the implementation of school desegregation, thereby reflecting the better ideals of the larger society. The enormity of the children’s burden is seen in unforgettable images of 6-year old Ruby Bridges walking bravely up steps escorted by federal marshals to the previously segregated school in New Orleans; of Elizabeth Eckfort walking resolutely with head high flanked by whites yelling venomous epithets in Little Rock; of Vivian Malone and James Hood attempting to enter the University of Alabama as Governor George Wallace stands in the door; of James Meredith trying to enter "Ole Miss” as Governor Ross Barnett fuels rioters by declaring “segregation today, segregation forever;” or of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes escorted by police at the University of Georgia after rioting whites burned crosses and Governor Ernest Vandiver vowed to let “not one, no, not one” black student enter. Such searing images emphasize the significance of black children’s burden in achieving what adults had not achieved over centuries of oppression.
In a 2003 Supreme Court opinion regarding a University of Michigan affirmative action program, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed the view that in 25 years the U.S. may not need to consider racial characteristics to achieve educational diversity. Reflection on the 170-year history of racism in education casts doubt on that expectation. Over the last four presidential administrations, national school reform plans for enhancing achievement of “all children” prompt both hope and caution about the next 25 years. It will likely take much more time for children of color to achieve parity with white children.
The four most widely publicized educational plans over the past twenty years have been controversial. A Nation at Risk, America 2000, Goals 2,000, and No Child Left Behind are problematic in terms of expectations and results for children, with some having fundamental flaws in design that are insensitive to the realities of many children who are working class, a disproportionately large number of whom are African American, Latino, and Native American.
A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report of President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, had well-publicized expectations and strategies. It evaluated public school children unsympathetically: ”Our nation is at risk…. [the] educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." A Nation At Risk advocated an “educated work force” and excellence for “economic growth.” Excellence meant accountability for scores on standardized tests in English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science. Recommending a market-oriented educational system, higher standards and expectations, more learning time, school choice, teacher training, school-business alliances, and more citizen support, the report's goals were supposed to bring “all children” to a level of excellence. However, A Nation at Risk ignored the structural inequality in education demonstrated above –inequalities in resources from racism and classism -- and placed an unfair burden on working class children and parents from all backgrounds to meet its goals.
In the early 1990s, President George H. W. Bush proclaimed America 2000: An Educational Strategy as his plan for attaining excellence in public schools. America 2000 again emphasized excellence in English, math, science, history, and geography, as well as common values, technical training, and business participation in a market-type system with “school choice” and vouchers. Like A Nation at Risk, it has not achieved its goals, in large part because it failed to deal honestly with extreme inequalities generated by racism and classism in schools.
President Bill Clinton accented similar themes in his Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994). The Clinton plan called for “all children” to achieve excellence by 2000. Incorporating America 2000 goals, it heralded great expectations: All children will enter school with a readiness to learn. The country will achieve a 90 percent high school graduation rate. Children will demonstrate competency in challenging subjects. The U.S. will become first in the world in science and mathematics achievement. Teachers will have new resources. Schools will increase parental participation. All adults will be literate. Schools will be free of drugs. Again, Goals 2000 did not adequately address the racial and class inequalities governing many children’s lives. Indeed, while poor children are at much greater risk of academic failure than advantaged children, their families were attacked in the era's so-called "welfare reforms," which reduced resources available for poor families to achieve educational goals.
More recently, President George W. Bush decreed his No Child Left Behind (2002) plan. Building on previous plans and emphasizing the pieties that “no child should be left behind" and that "every child should be educated to his or her full potential,” Bush proposed closing the achievement gap by accountability in the form of extensive testing of children, annual assessments, and school transfers for students who “fail to make progress.” However, such national testing strategies have been tried before and have not achieved the expectations for “all children,” particularly working class children of color.
During school desegregation efforts since Brown, and under these national reform plans, children (especially children of color) have borne the actual burden of school change and policy regression. National plans, like earlier court orders, have generated programs to improve educational performance, such as magnet schools. Yet, the majority of children in public schools have been unable to achieve the plans’ grand goals. Adults' plans have not sufficiently considered the heavy burden placed on children and have neglected the great expenses in monetary and human capital necessary for children to reach parity in an educational foot race with a legacy of ball-and-chain impediments placed around the feet of working-class children.
CONCLUSION: STRENGTHS OF BLACK CHILDREN, PARENTS, AND COMMUNITIES
We see significant successes and major failures following in the wake of Brown. Racial desegregation is a major break with apartheid, and desegregation works best when resources—economic, educational, legal, and political—are put into it wisely. The racial world of the U.S. is much different now than in the decade before Brown. We have documented important successes in desegregating educational institutions as well as in the larger society. Research shows that desegregated schooling has a positive impact on academic achievement for most students, typically with substantial gains for students of color. Research demonstrates too that black students who attend desegregated schools tend to do better in job and educational attainments later on. Those with desegregated school experience are more likely to attend college, work in desegregated environments, and have diverse friends. Researchers have shown that many students in desegregated schools become less stereotypical in their thinking about other groups--which equips them better for life in this increasingly multiracial society. Clearly too, Brown's impact is not limited to education, for, as judge Robert Carter has underscored, Brown brought about "a radical social transformation in this country and whatever its limited impact on the educational community, its indirect consequences of altering the style, spirit, and stance of race relations will maintain its prominence for many years to come." Brown, together with other contemporaneous desegregation efforts, dismantled much of the legal architecture of anti-black oppression in the United States.
In spite of the substantial hostility that African American students and other students of color have faced in desegregated schools, they have managed to achieve much. While for most whites historically and predominantly white school settings are social comfort zones, most black students integrated into these settings find themselves in difficult environments well outside their social comfort zones. There, as well as in the larger society, they face significant discrimination—for many, hundreds of discriminatory incidents each year. When black children face racism routinely, it is extraordinary that most do as well as they do in desegregated settings. Just the energy loss that comes from dealing with hostility and discrimination may be enough to account for remaining differences in school performance of white and black children. Extraordinary strengths shown by black children in getting through a racialized day, as well as in school achievements under these conditions, get little discussion in most analyses of desegregation. These strengths are deserving of much research. They are likely based in the collective values and knowledge that African Americans have accumulated over centuries of struggles against racism.
Indeed, we see evidence of the impact of successes in the civil rights struggle against racism in the educational achievements of African Americans. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, black students made dramatic educational gains. By the mid-1960s, large numbers of black students were graduating from high school. The percentage graduating in the South increased from 35 percent in 1960 to 71 percent less than two decades later. Historically black colleges saw dramatic increases in black college graduates, as did formerly segregated white colleges.
Nonetheless, research documents the continuing significance of discrimination in majority white colleges, as well as the increasing disparity in the gender ratio among black students, especially because black males are more likely to drop out of high school and college. Thus, current problems in education reveal the intersectionality of racial, gender, and class factors in the "pipeline" to achievement--with some parents and educators of black children now supporting the idea of Afrocentric (often all-male) academies.
Today African Americans, including students, place great emphasis on the importance of education, despite historical relations of racial privilege that structure experiences of black students inside and outside of school classrooms, in the larger society. One recent analysis found that black students "have high educational aspirations, and they are more likely than whites to continue with their schooling at given test score levels." Black Americans with jobs are more likely to pursue education into adulthood than comparable whites. African Americans show as much or more desire for education as whites in surveys, yet are more likely than whites to understand the structural barriers people face in getting more education. Whites are more likely than blacks to view low socioeconomic status and lesser performance in school as indicators of personal failure, while blacks are more likely than whites to accent structural factors as barriers.
We should situate the great difficulties in desegregating schools in the context of structural barriers created in this racist and classist society. In our interviews, thus, a middle-aged white teacher recently commented: "I think what needs to be done nobody wants to do it. Like they talk about building one big giant school around here and everybody would go to it…. You can't have [names affluent school ]--that’s where all the money is at. . . . but [names poor school], they don’t have a chance, and that’s 80 percent, probably, minorities there.”
We cannot bring profound change in one area of this racist society by dismantling discrimination there alone, no matter how well done. Racism is systemic and thus expressed in all major U.S. institutions. Those Americans who are not white are generally kept at a huge disadvantage relative to whites. Because the privileged are resistant to significant change, successful progress against racial discrimination constantly faces the threat of backtracking. In this society constant organization for change is necessary.
The 1776 Declaration of Independence articulated the great American ideal that "all men are created equal," a doctrine the founders meant to apply to white men with property. However, once this grand doctrine was articulated, subsequent generations have pressed for its application to ever expanding groups of Americans. Thus, Section 1 of the 14th amendment (1868) was created to make the newly freed African Americans into the full U.S. citizens they had not been before the Civil War:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
All government actions that overtly or covertly create or sustain racial segregation in any area of society operate to subordinate and stigmatize African Americans and thereby in our view blatantly violate the 14th amendment's promise of full citizenship "privileges and immunities" and the "equal protection" of the laws for African Americans. The authors of the Brown decision glimpsed the great promise of equality for all that is imbedded in the Declaration of Independence and in the 14th Amendment, yet neither they nor their official descendants have been willing to turn this rhetorical promise into a social and political reality. That is now our task.
Success and Failure in Social Science Research on Racism
| Heeding Black Voices: The Court, Brown, and Challenges in Building a Multiracial Democracy
| Success and Failure: How Systemic Racism Trumped the Brown V. Board of Education Decision
| Du Bois, Darkwater, and Being Ahead of One's Time
| Liberation Sociology
| American Sociological Association Presidential Address (2000)
| The Many Costs of Racism