'Brown Was Bigger Than Test Scores'

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This year marks 42 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. For African-Americans, Brown meant more than the mandate to desegregate public schools. It meant the end of the Plessy v. Ferguson era of officially sanctioned American apartheid. Brown split American history into B.C. and A.D., in which the promise of the Constitution's protection and of full participation in the life of our democracy finally applied to all its citizens. The Supreme Court's decision was one of the sparks that lighted the fires of the civil-rights movement. It stands as one of the defining moments in American history.

Ironically, despite Brown's significance, public schools in 1996 remain deeply segregated. Many of the schools African-American students attend are dilapidated and dangerous places, where quality education is a distant dream. Those who graduate--or drop out--from these schools are ill-prepared to become productive workers in a global economy. For too many, Brown's promise remains unfulfilled.

Many African-Americans yearn for the pre-Brown days, when, as they now see it, black communities fared better. For them, Brown was based on a false and an insulting premise: that black schools were inherently inferior and that black children could not learn unless they were sitting next to white children, as if the magic dust of white superiority rubbed off in integrated classrooms and sifted onto black children, imbuing them with an ability to overcome their innate limitations.

Brown, of course, did not rest on such ridiculous notions. Its reasoning, however, was sufficiently vague to invite multiple interpretations. After all, Brown did say that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." And Brown left little doubt that it was black children who were on the short side of inequality: Segregation "may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." The Supreme Court viewed segregation through the same flawed prism most white Americans have historically viewed the entire problem of race--as a black problem, not as an American problem. Subsequent desegregation remedies reflect that view.

It is not surprising, then, that many Americans, regardless of race, do not support school desegregation. Although most of the opposition has been framed in terms of busing, the real concern has certainly never been transportation. As one white mother said in a moment of candor during the height of the Richmond, Va., school-desegregation struggle in 1972, "It's not the distance, it's the niggers."

The prevailing opinion is that school desegregation has not worked. We are repeatedly told that test scores have not improved, quality education has suffered as a consequence of desegregation, and the monetary and emotional costs have been too high. In truth, data reveal modest academic improvement by black students and no negative effect on white students' performance on standardized tests in desegregated schools. Other studies reflect improved educational and employment opportunities for black graduates of desegregated schools. Whatever the effects of desegregation on achievement, Brown's promise was not about improved test scores. It was about how America would treat its citizens. It was about educational opportunity and basic fairness. Test scores are incidental, only partial and imperfect measures of the education process. Brown was bigger than test scores.

School-desegregation cases have addressed many problems afflicting African-Americans in public schools, including inadequate resources, discriminatory discipline policies and practices, and tracking. The cases have not produced a panacea. Given, though, that there is no federal right to a quality education, and given minorities' limited political influence, desegregation cases have sometimes been the best leverage for African-Americans to ensure educational equity for their children.

Contrary to popular belief, many school districts throughout the South and elsewhere have been successfully desegregated. Success, however, has been tenuous. Entrenched residential segregation means that busing has been a tool of necessity in school-desegregation plans. Federal judges, eager to return school districts to local control, are declaring school districts "unitary" and releasing them from compliance with the plans that cured their segregation.

School and housing segregation are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. Busing neutralized the effects of residential segregation on public schools. Plans to return students to neighborhood schools will only restore those effects. If Brown meant only that districts had to reach one moment in time when a judicial snapshot showed a desegregated district, the process has been an exercise in judicial absolution with little lasting effect.

Some African-Americans, weary of chasing white folks and insulted by the notion that black schools are inherently inferior, have welcomed an end to desegregation. Some have justifiably objected to racially patronizing aspects of poorly implemented desegregation plans. (Some school boards, for example, have established caps on minority enrollment in magnet schools in order to keep them attractive, or not too black, for prospective white patrons. If white students do not enroll in sufficient numbers, seats in these highly desirable programs simply remain empty.)

It would be a mistake, however, to romanticize the pre-Brown days of segregated public school education. Although some all-black pre-Brown schools were education gems, most were not. Moreover, segregation produced an artificially high-quality pool of teachers for black schools; black and female professionals had few options in those days. In our frustration with these days, we should not make the mistake of yearning for yesterday.

Our challenge is to provide quality education for all children, regardless of the racial composition of their schools. In many urban school districts, desegregation is not a possibility. White parents have fled schools in these districts, leaving them with a declining tax base and crumbling infrastructure. Supreme Court precedent has erected nearly insurmountable barriers to interdistrict desegregation. In 1973, the Supreme Court sanctioned property-tax-based school-funding schemes--even though such plans produce disparate allocation of resources between property-poor and property-rich districts. Separate but equal is no longer the law, but separate and unequal is fact.

We as a nation pay lip service to the principle of Brown. It has been said that "if you want a segregated America, segregate public schools." If, as a nation or as individuals, we give up on the promise of Brown, we forfeit our claims to integrity when we voice concern about racial divisiveness and balkanization. School desegregation in most communities is possible. It is a matter of will.

Vol. 15, Issue 20, Page 42

Published in Print: February 7, 1996, as 'Brown Was Bigger Than Test Scores'
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