Sixty-five years ago, on Dec. 9, 1952, the infamous Brown v. Board of Education case began its arduous journey in the U.S. Supreme Court. When the decision was rendered nearly a year and a half later ruling that separate but equal was unconstitutional, large swaths of society celebrated what was most certainly a victory for desegregation efforts more broadly. Yet nearly seven decades later, the promise of integration in public schools remains largely unrealized. In fact, public schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1970s.
Here’s my suggestion: Let the lofty ideal of integration go. Recognize that it’s not going to happen and move on. Let’s pool our collective mental and political energy toward the construction of institutions that might actually be designed to benefit black students and to undo the centuries-long assault black students have endured as a result of white supremacist and anti-black educational systems and structures.
Without diminishing the significance of Brown and the triumph in ending a mandate that very explicitly cast black students as inferior and forbade access to material resources white students received, consider what the end of formal segregation has meant for black students who remain a subjugated group.
In every facet of the education system, black students continue to suffer racialized disparities.
- From preschool through 12th grade, black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, including but not limited to, referrals suspensions, expulsions and even arrests.
- Black students are largely systematically denied access to comparable material resources as their white counterparts, such as the unavailability of textbooks or computers, lack of access to rigorous and advanced placement courses, or experienced teachers.
- Black students are still subjected to erasure and misrepresentation in curricular content where for example, they may learn enslaved Africans were “workers” who came to the United States in the context of “immigration.”
- High school-aged black students are disproportionately subjected to to vocational education and military-funded initiatives, while black elementary school children are unduly stripped of recess, access to the arts and other exploratory forms of learning.
- Black students must endure the implicit racial biases of their teachers, who oftentimes have lower expectations for their success.
- Black students are more likely to attend schools with an emphasis on high stakes testing, where archaic “drill and kill” curricula and teaching preclude the possibility of developing a love of learning.
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
On discipline and black children
Certainly there are those who would argue black students are disciplined more in school because they display more discipline-worthy behavior. There are those who would say we shouldn’t waste taxpayer money on modern technology and adequate materials in schools where students “just don’t want to learn.” We have seen through violent resistance to ethnic studies curricula in Arizona for example, there are those who believe teaching U.S. history from varying perspectives is “divisive” or even dangerous. And yet, we know those arguments, rooted in anti-black stereotypes about black students’ “inherent” disposition and ability, ignore institutional and structural racism and have been repeatedly debunked through educational research.
So, what do we do? My daddy, Southern man he was, used to say, “You got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” I say it’s time to fold. Brown has been one of the most interesting experiments in modern history — but an experiment that has already cost black students dearly.
Many black students saw no improvement in their access to superior material resources for example but did witness the loss of black teachers. The Brown decision meant while schools were forced to desegregate, they weren’t mandated to allow black teachers to teach white children.
Today, nearly 80 percent of the teaching force is comprised of middle-class white women; in my own work, the bulk of high school-aged black students I’ve interviewed, lamented never having had a black teacher.
“School changed utterly with racial integration,” hooks said. “Gone was the messianic zeal to transform our minds and beings that had characterized teachers and their pedagogical practices in our all-black schools…Bused to white schools, we soon learned that obedience, and not a zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us…realizing this, I lost my love of school.”
So what does folding look like? First, we know black students are thriving in many nontraditional learning spaces, such as after-school and Saturday programs, or elective courses offered during the school day that carve out space specifically for black students.
Where black students do well
My own multiyear ethnographic study has demonstrated some of the reasons black students do so well in these spaces are access to black educators with whom they may develop particularly meaningful relationships, the ability to name anti-blackness and white supremacy, and reframe individual racialized experiences within the context of structural and institutional racism, and access to curricular instruction that (at minimum) acknowledges the formative role of black people in historical and contemporary America.
So in this case, folding means two things. In the immediate, we should be dedicating additional resources to the expansion of these kinds of programs, and ensuring that all black students who desire to participate have access to them. In the longer term, it means acknowledging the disastrous ways Brown has affected black education and considering separation.
I’m not advocating a return to segregation, which was (and is) a system imposed on all of us: I’m talking about elective separation, which is something some of us may choose because we believe our chances at education as the “practice of freedom” are better in these spaces.
kihana miraya ross, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis and a Public Voices Fellow.
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