Brown vs. Board: Then versus now

Clarence Page

May 9, 2004

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.

Time flies.

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 situation.

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 succeed professionally.

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 have-nots.

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.



Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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