Saturday, June 30, 2007

Time to Bury Brown v. Board of Education?

Juan Williams in yesterday's New York Times made the provocative argument that it's time to deep-six the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954:

With yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling ending the use of voluntary schemes to create racial balance among students, it is time to acknowledge that Brown’s time has passed. It is worthy of a send-off with fanfare for setting off the civil rights movement and inspiring social progress for women, gays and the poor. But the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that focused on outlawing segregated schools as unconstitutional is now out of step with American political and social realities.

Desegregation does not speak to dropout rates that hover near 50 percent for black and Hispanic high school students. It does not equip society to address the so-called achievement gap between black and white students that mocks Brown’s promise of equal educational opportunity.

And the fact is, during the last 20 years, with Brown in full force, America’s public schools have been growing more segregated — even as the nation has become more racially diverse. In 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white, while 70 percent of black students attend schools where nearly two-thirds of students are black and Hispanic....

Racial malice is no longer the primary motive in shaping inferior schools for minority children. Many failing big city schools today are operated by black superintendents and mostly black school boards.

And today the argument that school reform should provide equal opportunity for children, or prepare them to live in a pluralistic society, is spent. The winning argument is that better schools are needed for all children — black, white, brown and every other hue — in order to foster a competitive workforce in a global economy.

Dealing with racism and the bitter fruit of slavery and “separate but equal” legal segregation was at the heart of the court’s brave decision 53 years ago. With Brown officially relegated to the past, the challenge for brave leaders now is to deliver on the promise of a good education for every child.
Williams' case to bury Brown will sound as heresy to civil rights activists, diversity mavens, and multicultural totalitarians. The 1954 decision has tremendous legitimacy as the turning point in America's long struggle for African-American civil rights. It ushered in the most successful decade of grassroots mobilization on civil rights in history, culminating with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But Williams is right to note that the heydey of movement for equal protection is long past. The Roberts Court, while divided on the issue, rightly moves constitutional interpretation back to basic principles of colorblindness under the law. We today are in the post-civil rights era, but many black Americans remain caught-up in the cult of victimology that grew out of rights revolution of the 1960s.

Williams, in his book
Enough, notes a tremendous indifference marking African-American attitudes on education. To many young blacks, the black "victim's strategy" has taken hold, leaving the pursuit of education to be no big deal:

There is a seductive, serpentine logic at work on young black people. Without anyone saying a word, black youngsters find themselves in a hypnotic, self-defeating trance that has them walking blindly into a black alley of failure. Brainwashed by popular culture to ignore reality, they are in a confused state of mind and doubt the value of schooling. When they watch TV or listen to music they never see people who have succeeded on the basis of education -- black intellectuals, artists, and professionals such as dentists, lawyers, and doctors -- celebrated for their accomplishments. In fact, people with that kind of success are ignored, if not put down as not authentically black, because they don't fit the caricature of black people in the culture.
Williams' writing on race are so refreshing for me, as a teacher at community college, in diverse Southern California, with an educational environment struggling to promote educational attainment and uplift among large numbers of minorities. Black students, especially from this demographic, are astoundingly difficult to educate.

I've thought long and hard about what it is that makes education for inner-city blacks such a challenge. I read many books on the topic, and I have made a personal commitment to black educational issues on campus.
We no longer have segregation mandated by law, yet voluntary residential patterns that result in de facto segregation certainly have an impact on the educational circumstances of black students in minority-majority schools. But the purported deleterious effects of "resegregation" alone cannot explain what hinders black educational advancement. One of the most interesting studies on the issue, John Ogbu's Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb, found that even well-off black students demonstrate levels of educational success below that of their white peers. For black educational gains to happen, an acievement revolution has to take place -- that is, especially among the black lower-third, a culture of achievement must take hold the promotes learning and knowledge attainment as key to black social gains in the post-civil rights era.

This is why Williams' writings are so on-point, and why -- as dramatic and iconoclastic as he sounds -- he's absolutely right: We must move beyond the powerful symbolism of Brown v. Board of Education. Blacks must get down to the hard work -- at the familiy and individual level -- of brushing off educational indifference and victimology, and promoting a culture of success in an American educational system providing more opportunities for advancement than ever before.

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