First, let’s be clear: Separate has never been and is not now equal.
I want to expand on reflections I made about the 60th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision on the Teaching Ahead roundtable blog over at EdWeek.org. by inviting some distinguished African American scholars to the table.
One of the most important writings about the condition of youth in America, and about U.S. education in particular, is Geneva Gay’s, “Our Children Need…Education for Resistance.”
Gay is one of America’s most distinguished scholars in the area of multicultural education and culturally responsive teaching. Gloria Ladson Billings, author of The DreamKeepers calls Geneva Gay legendary among African American scholars.
Geneva Gay observes and concludes: “In too many schools throughout the nation, urban and rural students of color and poverty receive inadequate financial support to meet their educational needs; teachers are inappropriately prepared to work with these students; instructional materials and resources are outdated, insufficient, or inadequate; and the physical plants of schools barely meet safety code and in some cases are even condemned.”
She continues, “These conditions are reprehensible, but the human factors are even more problematic….Racial, social, and cultural differences matter profoundly in U. S. society and schools….Even if children are too young to recognize them (a questionable claim many make about elementary and middle school students), or do not fully comprehend their meaning and consequence for personal lives, the effects of inequities are nonetheless profound and pervasive, individually and collectively. Everyone is affected, [emphasis mine] although differently, whether they are members of mainstream or marginalized groups, middle, upper or lower class; long-term citizens or recent immigrants; old or young; privileged or disadvantaged; high or low educational achievers. Denial is not a viable strategy for coping with these horrific realities. Not teaching students about the causes, manifestations, and effects of these problems, as well as how to fight against them, is an indictment of schools for failing to provide an education that is equitable, relevant, and realistic.”
Gay argues that in addition to academic skills, “…students also need to develop skills and dispositions to confront, counter, and conquer the societal temptations, enticements, and chaos that bombard them on a daily basis….education for resistance.”
Her work complements that of another scholar of color, Vanessa Siddle Walker, who has studied the realities and complexities of segregated education in the South, particularly how African American teachers worked to mitigate the effects of separate and unequal on their students. Today, much has been made of the low numbers of African American teachers in our increasingly black and brown public schools. But that problem can also be traced back to the Brown decision.
The impact of Brown on Black teachers was the question I pursued in my chapter from The American Public School Teacher, “Brown v. The African American Teacher: The Lingering Effects of Inequality:” For those of you who missed it; here’s a quick review.
While students may have been slow to see the effects of Brown, the aftermath of the decision had a catastrophic impact on the African American teaching force. Tens of thousands of these teachers and administrators, many of them with experience and advanced degrees, were summarily terminated when southern schools were finally desegregated….Veteran African American teachers recall having their complexions examined (compared to a brown paper bag-and assigned according to degree of darkness), being shifted to less-desirable positions, and generally losing professional status after Brown was enforced. All manner of ploys were used to remove or demote these educators, from dismissals and non-renewals of contracts to establishment of stricter certification requirements for black teachers than for their white counterparts.
These firings and demotions were carried out under a general heading of improving the quality of education, with the strong implication that most African American teachers and administrators were inept or unqualified. Those who were deemed “good teachers” were moved to predominantly white schools, although many report that once there they were placed under the supervision of less experienced white staff.
The widely accepted misperception of African American students as inherently inferior–re-packaged as the increasingly popular poverty-deprivation view of our children as learners–crystallized during this dismal period, as African American teachers’ voices were limited or silenced.
Just as African American students have been the victims of low expectations in the classroom, African American educators have been the victims of low expectations inside the larger education community. Within a profession that itself has struggled for respect and empowerment, the voices of black educators have been historically muted, particularly in the areas of educational policy and reform.
Joyce King, professor of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University, in a 2010 presentation at Tulane University.
In this talk, King argues that “We as a human civilization cannot say that we are free, that we live in a democracy, that we are even human beings, if we accept the level of oppression and suppression for some parts of the population without recognizing that it affects everybody.” She concludes her remarks with this challenge: “There is an opportunity in the South to offer to the society as a whole lessons of how to educate all children better for human freedom.”
That’s the unfinished business of Brown.
P.S. I’m also participating in a discussion of this topic at National Journal.com/Education Insiders