By L. Clark Williams
On May 17, 1954 the U. S. Supreme Court handed down the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The ruling dismantled a system and a way of life in the South by concluding that state laws establishing separate public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
This landmark case, which then-NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall argued, overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson that maintained that segregated accommodations were permissible as long as they were “separate but equal.” America was seemingly headed in the right direction on the issue of race.
In reality, our experiences since that time have been together, but not equal. Laws no longer require us to be separate, but the realities of blacks and whites in both schools and society are still very far apart.
A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that black students in 132 school districts in southern states were suspended at a rate five times higher than their percentages of their respective total student populations.
Based on the U. S. Department of Education sanctioned Coleman Report of 1966 and on 2013 data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the academic proficiency of 12th grade black students has changed little in comparison to their white peers over that time. Despite efforts over two generations to narrow achievement gaps, far too many black students are graduating from high school neither college nor career ready.
Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the black unemployment rate has consistently remained twice as high as that of whites.
These factors and others conspire to produce an environment in which black women are six times more likely than white women to be imprisoned.
More black American men are incarcerated than there are total people in prisons and jails in India, Argentina, Germany, France, England, Canada, Israel, Lebanon and Finland — combined, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the International Centre for Prison Studies.
Perhaps a clue to why Brown has not been effective in improving black student outcomes can be found in the opinion itself. The justices held that “separate educational facilities (were) inherently unequal” because they gave black students a sense of inferiority that stripped them of their motivation to learn and tended “to (retard) the educational and mental development of negro children.”
That analysis reflects the failings in traditional American approaches to achieving racial equality. There was a presumption that only black students would benefit from integration. Little or no thought was given to the reciprocal benefits white children would receive from learning and developing alongside their black counterparts.
Consequently, today lip service is often given to the value of diversity, but the fact that it is so often lacking in critical areas of society shows that what blacks bring to schools, government and corporate America is still often overlooked, undervalued and many times unwelcome.
Undoubtedly, integration without a genuine understanding of how everyone wins is a recipe for disaster.
An African proverb says “it takes a village to raise a child.” But in Brown, the court was oblivious to the devastating impact ensuing closures of black schools, with black teachers, in black neighborhoods would have on black children. Along with the subsequent black business closures and widespread flight of black professionals to integrated suburbs, they left many black children without the nurturing villages that prepared previous generations for the many obstacles that stood in their way.
Clearly, blacks are not inherently better off merely by being integrated into white environments that are not conducive to their success. Understanding this is the first step toward being together with comparable access to similar outcomes.
Harry Belafonte, the legendary entertainer and dear friend of Martin Luther King Jr., recalled their last conversation in which King sadly spoke as if he realized that his much celebrated dream had tragically turned into a nightmare.
In that time of reflection, King told Belafonte, “I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
Sixty-two years after Brown, America’s house is still burning. But the fire can still be extinguished if society ever decides to truly believe that we can all learn and benefit from each other, and if black people work intentionally, creatively and sacrificially to reclaim our village for our children.
L. Clark Williams, director of ministry at Shiloh Baptist Church in Lexington, is also president and chairman of The People’s Campaign. Reach him at www.campaignforpeople.com