A road not taken

Several notable studies have been published recently indicating that segregation in America’s public schools is worse now than prior to the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in May of 1954. Numerous pundits — myself included — have speculated about how this reflects on racial attitudes and how relatively little seems to have actually changed over the years.

In my last column on the subject (“Ain’t integrating no more,” Metro Times, March 24), I admitted that I consider myself “retired” from the integration effort after a lifetime integrating schools, swimming pools, ski slopes and just about anywhere else I stuck my head through the door in Denver, Colo., where I was born and raised. My point was not that school integration is bad, as some readers may have thought. I was simply saying that since it isn’t working, we should try something else. Chasing white people around town in a desperate attempt to integrate make no sense.

But what if Brown vs. Board had turned out differently? What if the great Thurgood Marshall had failed to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that the philosophy of “separate but equal” in the court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 — then the law of the land — was a bad idea and needed correcting? Would black folk be stronger after having been forced to rally together, depend on themselves and improve their own situation without waiting for the illusory salvation that integrating was supposed to provide? Or would conditions be far worse for blacks after having been denied the right to even pursue the far superior educational opportunities available to whites?

In short, do black folks really need white folks to create a better world for themselves?

I’ve heard it said that integration is the worst thing that ever happened to black folks. Ever since blacks were allowed to integrate, this argument goes, blacks stopped patronizing black businesses, and those of means abandoned their own communities, leaving the poorer folks to fend for themselves. One consequence of this abandonment is the urban ghetto as we see it today.

I’ve also heard it said by none other than my very own mother, a retired teacher, that anyone who thinks life for black people was better before integration must be crazy. As one who vividly remembers the hand-me-down books and other indignities black youngsters had to contend with prior to Brown, she is convinced that the decision was crucial for the progress of black people.

Sheryll D. Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University, is another one who believes that Brown was an important step forward. She also questioned my statement that segregation in public schools is worse today than prior to the Brown decision. A one-time law clerk to Marshall, she lays out her views in her recent book The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream (Public Affairs). The following is taken from an e-mailed response she sent to me recently.

“First, let me say that your facts are not quite right. In 1954 when Brown was decided, fewer than 1 percent of black students in the South attended integrated schools. By 2000 that number was about 31 percent. So we are still much further along than we were on the day Brown was decided, but we are retreating rapidly. The number of black Southern school children attending racially integrated schools reached a high of 43 percent in the late 1980s. Black and Latino school children generally are more segregated today than they ever have been in the last 30 years.

“What do I think race relations would be like if Brown had never been decided, that is if separate but equal had remained the law of the land? I think race relations would be worse than they are today. Brown did produce one important success: a dramatic shift in national consciousness and the ultimate abolishment of a rigid racial caste system. The majority of Americans no longer believe that someone should be limited in their access to schools, jobs etc. because of their race. That represents an important cultural shift that we should not dismiss lightly. What we have yet to do is make the vision animating Brown TRUE for people as they live their daily lives.”

It is hard to argue with Cashin’s point that Brown definitely produced a shift in national consciousness. What had previously been simply accepted as “just the way things are” was no longer acceptable, and Americans were forced to question some of their most basic beliefs — or at least to accept the fact that, regardless of their beliefs, life was about to change. Her correction concerning what the real numbers were relating to school integration prior to and following the Brown decision also helps to clarify the issue.

I should point out that when I wrote to Cashin that school segregation is worse today than prior to Brown, I was referring specifically to a report of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which states: “The desegregation of black students, which increased continuously from the 1950s to the late 1980s, has now receded to levels not seen in three decades. Although the South remains the nation’s most integrated region for both blacks and whites, it is the region that is most rapidly going backwards as the courts terminate many major and successful desegregation orders.”

Also, in Detroit, as I stated in that earlier column, the most recent data, from the 1999-2000 school year, show that the Detroit school district is 91.1 percent black and 3.7 percent white —147,740 black kids and 6,074 whites.

However, when Cashin says that “the majority of Americans no longer believe that someone should be limited in their access to schools, jobs, etc.,” that’s where I disagree in part. Most Americans, if asked in a questionnaire how they feel, respond as Cashin says. Unfortunately, the well-documented pattern of “white flight” in which whites have overwhelmingly abandoned public schools in urban areas to head for the suburbs where they can be in the majority once again tells me that what many folks say they believe is not quite what they are willing to practice.

So what would have happened if segregation had prevailed in Brown vs. Board? There’s no way to be sure, but judging by the quality of education in so many neglected urban public schools, I really wonder how much worse things could have possibly become.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based writer and musician. E-mail [email protected].
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