WASHINGTON -- Fifty years have passed since
the May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education
decision barred state-sanctioned racial segregation.
How are we doing? You may have noticed
that we still have segregation. But it's not like it used to be.
Back then: Black kids went to all-black schools and whites went to all-white
schools because the government told them to.
Today: Schools still are largely segregated by race because America's housing
and social patterns are segregated by race.
Conclusion: You can have as much integration as you want in schools and
neighborhoods as long as you can afford it.
Back then: State-sanctioned segregation divided students by race into separate
all-white and all-black schools.
Today: Academic "tracking" in integrated schools divides students into classes
that end up largely divided by race: whites and Asians-Americans to "gifted
and talented programs," blacks and Latinos to "special education."
Conclusion: It is not enough to put students of different races in the same
school building. We also need to close gaps in academic achievement.
Back then: White segregationists helped white parents avoid integration
by sending their children to all-white private academies.
Today: White conservatives help black parents avoid poorly performing public
schools in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington by providing the parents with
vouchers to send their children to predominantly black private schools.
Conclusion: You don't have to be a segregationist to end up with a segregated
Back then: Thanks to dedicated teachers and parents, a lot of black graduates
of underfunded, all-black schools managed to go to fine universities and
Today: High-stakes testing actually may be preventing youngsters, like Ashley
Johnson of Orlando, Fla., from having a chance to prove themselves in college.
Johnson is profiled in Stanley Nelson's excellent documentary "Beyond Brown:
Pursuing the Promise" to be broadcast Wednesday on WTTW-Ch. 11 at 10 p.m.
She earned a 3.5 grade point average at her high school and a scholarship
from a four-year college. But she had to give up the scholarship after she
failed to pass Florida's new required achievement test.
There were things on the test that her teachers never taught her, she says
tearfully in the documentary. Instead of college, she took a job working
the rides at Orlando's Universal Studios.
Conclusion: The Law of Unintended Consequences resurfaces. Sometimes the
remedy for a bad situation creates victims of its own.
Back then: In the early 1950s, more than 80 percent of black children were
born to married parents. The percentages of black and white babies born out
of wedlock were about the same.
Today: Only 31 percent of black children are born to married parents, compared
to about 74 percent of white children. Paradoxically, as the wage rate for
black workers has gone up so has our out-of-wedlock birth rate.
Conclusion: While we continue to celebrate civil rights advances, we need
to strengthen one of our biggest engines of success, the black family.
Back then: "We believed [the Brown decision] was going to transform the
world," says James F. Cone, a prominent black theologian, in the PBS documentary.
Today: Cone observes that the Brown ruling "reminds Americans of the gap
between what is and what ought to be."
Conclusion: Brown has helped to transform America, but we still have a lot
more work to do.
Back then: Legal action spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal
Defense Fund changed the law from an obstacle into an advantage for African-Americans
in their pursuit of civil rights and equal opportunity.
It also spurred a decade of civil rights protests, backlash, legislation
and ultimately grand reforms.
Today: We have narrowed the income and achievement gap between blacks and
whites. But we unfortunately have widened the gap between black haves and
Conclusion: We need a new black liberation movement that the courts alone
cannot provide. We need to work with our families, schools, churches and
other institutions to take advantage of the hard-earned victories that have
come over the past half-century.
The past 50 years have made me optimistic about the progress African-Americans
have accomplished. Our next big challenge is to narrow the achievement gaps
for those who have been left behind.
Let us hope it does not take another 50 years for us to do it.
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