By Brenda Robinson
Sixty year ago, America’s school systems were ordered desegregated. This action followed the case that became known as Brown v Board of Education. The main focus was whether or not states had the right to sponsor segregation in their schools. Well, that order changed the face of America in more ways than one. Black culture would not be the same—socially, economically and educationally.
Historical documentation indicates there were actually four cases challenging segregated schools, prior to the Brown Case. All cases were handled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Supreme Court justice. The NAACP petitioned Oliver Brown to file suit on behalf of his daughter who was not permitted to enroll in an all white elementary school near their home. The Browns, residents of Topeka, Kan., case was combined with four previous segregation complaints—Briggs v Elliot Davis, Davod v Board of Education of Prince Edward County, VA, Boiling v Sharpe, and Gebhard v Ethel. All of the combined cases were included in Brown v Board of Education complaint.
Even though the Brown lawsuit was filed in 1951, by June, 1953 the justices had not reached a decision on this desegregation issue. The case was reheard in December 1953. In the interim Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by the liberal Earl Warren of California. Warren was able to convince the justices to make a decision. And, what a decision it was. Warren got a unanimous decision, “segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.”
On May 14, 1954, Warren, in his writing of the majority opinion, wrote:
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal, has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Thus, the finding was neither promoting that white schools were somehow superior because black kids were not present, nor superior because white kids were smarter. The ruling was that separation breeds inequality. The speculation can be, due to the very fiber of the racism in this country, black schools would be granted less resources than white schools.
This desegregation ruling, perhaps, was the second most influential legislation since the country was founded—freedom of slaves being the first. Both changes had tremendous impacts on all aspects of black culture.
States were directed to move with all deliberate speed with desegregation and busing black students to all white schools in all white neighborhoods was the choice made by most states.
Through the years, there have been discussions on the pros and cons of desegregation. While sentiments vary, there are some for sure occurrences. The neighborhood school concept became null and void. Schools became obsolete in black communities. Black teachers, in some cases, were not absorbed into what were previously described as white schools. And, teachers were not the only impacted groups. Non professional black employees suffered job loss. Black students were the leadership in segregated schools—class presidents, football captains, the basketball stars, the leading characters in school plays, valedictorians, and the list goes on. These students were basically unable to assume these roles in the majority schools. There was a degree of “community connectedness” that departed along with the neighborhood schools in black communities. Parent and students were proud co-partners with the school staff. Such partnerships were essentially dissolved in the new school settings.
Of course, in time, with the Civil Rights Movement era and beyond, integration seemingly became a reality. Minority students, to a degree, became a part of the school culture. Minority staff, though not well represented in some schools, was hired. Progressive school systems found ways to return schools, though the school-staff joint ownership connect never reappeared, to black neighborhoods. These are issues most systems realize need fixing.
Though disturbing, the aforementioned issues are not the most perplexing. The real problem is the reason Justice Warren used to justify desegregation has not changed. Let’s examine:
Warren cited a study by Kenneth Clark, psychologist, which became known as the doll test. Clark presented dolls to black children, ages three through seven years. The children were asked which they preferred, a black doll or a white doll. The majority of children preferred the white doll describing the white doll as nice and pretty versus the black doll as ugly and bad.
Warren said, and convinced the other Justices, “To separate from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race, generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.” Clark expressed similar sentiments.
Margaret Beale Spencer, child psychologist and University of Chicago professor, conducted a similar study with four-and-five-year and nine-and-ten-year old children, in 2010. Her study revealed both “black and white bias.” Black children overwhelmingly preferred white over brown. White children identified their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes.
Clark has his critics. Some researchers called Clark’s work unscientific. Perhaps, however, Spencer’s research collaborated Clark’s finding. Therefore, as we commemorate 60 years of school desegregation, we must acknowledge there still remains a serious educational problem. Separate but equal was a fallacy and inseparable but equal has met the same fate. The challenge is how to fix it.