Published Online: February 26, 1997


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On Race: Barriers and Achievement

In a society so transformed since the civil rights movement that opponents of affirmative action now quote Martin Luther King Jr. to buttress their arguments, award-winning journalist Ellis Cose asks in his introduction to Color-Blind some questions on race that grow in complexity with every passing day: "Is it realistic to envision an America where race and extreme disadvantage do not go hand in hand? If color-blindness is an impossible dream, what of color-neutrality? If color-neutrality is a possibility, how do we get there? Do we even have the will to try?"

Mr. Cose's answers to those questions involve not only a finely wrought analysis of historical trends in this country and several others he offers as comparison studies, but also the keenly observed insights of a black man who came of age--and rose to the top of his profession--in the Great Society. He discusses how blatant racism is being replaced in America by subtle, even at times unconscious, discrimination, and writes candidly of the culture's pervasive apprehensiveness and silence on the subject.

Of most interest to educators will be Mr. Cose's assessment of the successes, failures, and limitations of desegregation and his examination of the ways in which minority academic achievement is stifled rather than encouraged. "Many black and brown children," he writes, "are still being told that academic accomplishments are still so much beyond them that there is no real purpose in trying." After an informative look at several college and high school programs that have successfully countered this message, he draws from the strategies they employ an outline of "six simple steps for achieving educational parity."

Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, by Ellis Cose, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, $24.95.

Michele Foster, a professor of education at the Claremont Graduate School in California, presents in Black Teachers on Teaching a riveting portrait of the American Century's inequality in education by weaving together the words and memories of 21 black educators born between 1905 and 1973. Ms. Foster chose her subjects with care to provide a mix of ages, geographic locations, and social circumstances. She calls her blend of oral history and storytelling "life-history research," and through the lives she presents shows readers a good deal of the power and poignancy of events now fading into stock representations in history texts.

The teachers in the book describe the transition from segregated to integrated classrooms with an eye not only to what was gained but what was lost. Their stories give the lie, Lisa Delpit writes in the foreword, to the "debilitating myth" that "the reason black people fought so hard for desegregation is that deep down they agreed with the larger society's view that without access to white culture, white teachers, white schools, and white leadership, black people would never adequately educate their children."

In fact, education and the teaching profession were prized in the pre-integration black community, and one consequence of desegregation, as the book shows, was to degrade and devalue the considerable skills of veteran black teachers. "In Northern cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, it was customary to assign black teachers to predominantly black schools or to restrict them to particular grades (usually elementary). In Philadelphia, it was not until 1935 that the first black teacher was appointed to a junior high school, and not until 1947 that the first black teacher was assigned to a high school."

Among many other unsettling historical nuggets unearthed in the book is this: In the mid-1930s, black teachers were earning $339 less a year than white janitors.

Black Teachers on Teaching, by Michele Foster, The New Press, New York, $23.

Perhaps the most famous study ever conducted on the impact of race on children--the one cited in the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954--was Kenneth and Mamie Clark's elegantly simple doll study. The psychologists, husband and wife, showed to representative samples of black children and white children two kinds of dolls, one white, one black. They found that not only did the white children, as expected, choose the white dolls, but also the black children, thus rejecting their own likeness.

Though this study provided a powerful symbolic underpinning to the movement for equal rights in education, the contributions of Kenneth B. Clark and the late Mamie Phipps Clark to racial justice in this country go well beyond it. In Children, Race, and Power, historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner tell the story of their influential lives and that of the institution they founded, the Northside Center for Child Development, a small Harlem clinic that began as a mental health center but grew to become a leading force in progressive politics for 50 years.

The Clarks challenged the professional and political apathy that often masked racist attitudes and helped enlighten the field of psychiatry to the impact of poverty and racial hostility. The authors use the Clarks' Northside Center as a lens through which to view, as they write, "the history not only of Harlem and New York urban politics, but of black-white relations, the War on Poverty, and academic disputes on 'the culture of poverty' and the IQ controversies." That history also provides an intimate view of the real-life consequences of urban-renewal and anti-poverty programs and shows how the center became a model of community-based service and education for urban families.

But the book is first and foremost a biography of two extraordinary people, and educators will find much to savor in the personal revelations it affords. Not the least of these is Kenneth Clark's own recollection of his first encounter as a young student with a black teacher. Mr. Clark attended a virtually all-white elementary school in New York City, yet did not realize, he says, how central racial awareness was to his own life until the day a classmate told him "there was a colored teacher." "I went to the door to look at him," Mr. Clark recalls. "I was so proud. ... I remember the joy, pride, and thrill I had, and I think I went home and told my mother that I saw a colored teacher."

Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., $29.95.

--M.S. Reeves

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