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Brown and Not Served

Brown vs. Board of Education vs. reality in 2004

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"If we knew the answer, I don't think we'd be here today," the much-esteemed former Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent, principal and teacher Helen Faison said to about 200 assembled at the University of Pittsburgh/Duquesne University symposium, speaking on "Fifty Years After Brown." Faison captured the city's and the country's ambivalence toward the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education -- the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ostensibly ended legal race segregation in schools -- in just a few sentences. Despite the abolishment of separate-but-unequal schools, a perfect and reliable formula for consistently good, equitable public education hasn't yet been found.

 

Ongoing racial inequalities in education and other arenas, said Faison, "existed before Brown. The problem in Pittsburgh is one I've fought for 40 years." Yet, she added, "We need to stop concerning ourselves with those issues with which we can do nothing" -- the racial inequalities that went far beyond the schools. This single Supreme Court decision -- often bitterly opposed -- had not succeeded in conquering them.

 

Though the decision's reach should have implicated all of American society, the burden of fulfilling the promise of Brown fell to educators like Faison, who were still constrained within the schoolhouse doors. Without appearing to offer a panacea, Faison concluded, "We need to concentrate on the quality of teachers" -- one solution among a thousand oft-repeated educational proverbs.

 

Faison's fellow panelist, city school board President Bill Isler, said that it was the job of school boards to look at data and "press for quality, quality, quality" -- a stance that Isler has championed as the progressive alternative to local conventional wisdom. Yet, "Boards don't like data; it tells them what they don't want to hear," Isler said. After three years on the board, he finally got an analysis of whether the achievement gap was in fact racial or a byproduct of socioeconomic inequality. "The gap was racial," Isler concluded: Economic conditions alone could not account for blacks' struggles in the Pittsburgh schools.

 

In 1954, the architects of Brown could not have guessed that some blacks today would almost seem to pine for the good old days of segregation. As Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent John Thompson put it: "To be very candid, I'm grateful for a segregated education because we were drilled and killed that I had to be better than the next person." The crowd cheered. "Yes, sir!" someone yelled. Thompson blamed the teachers' union, parochialism and the district's eligibility list -- a civil-service type of point system for nominating teacher candidates -- for keeping the district from recruiting the best candidates, and for making it harder to hire black men, who are underrepresented in the teaching force. Perhaps teachers made an easy target: None were on the panel, and most of them would've been in front of their classes during the midday symposium.

 

Reducing the number, and possibly the quality, of black teachers was an "unintended consequence" of Brown, Faison said: "We no longer get the best African-American [college] students because they have other choices, especially women."

 

But in practice, Brown-the-symbol was never just one case or one decision: Several earlier victories by the NAACP legal team made it possible, and, after Brown, key legal defeats kept the landmark case more a symbol than a reality. Duquesne law professor Ken Gormley reminded the audience of Thurgood Marshall's little-known failure in 1973. Everyone remembers Marshall's success in winning Brown as a young attorney, but less discussed is when Marshall, then a Supreme Court justice, was unable to convince a court majority that education is a federal right. That failure led to a decision -- ostensibly deferring to local control -- not to force schools to desegregate across district boundaries.

 

This, of course, forced city districts to attempt to desegregate large numbers of poor blacks with fewer poor and working-class whites remaining within their borders, while much of the middle class -- especially middle-class whites -- hid from the issue in suburban enclaves.

 

Economic and racial segregation by school district continues today, Gormley added, especially in Pennsylvania, where districts depend on local property tax revenue for an average of two-thirds of their funding, a situation that "reinforces pre-Brown patterns."

 

Fifty years ago, Gormley said, Marshall and his mentor Charles Houston "constructed a plan abolishing separate-but-equal. It was a radical plan that partly succeeded, partly failed, but they never expected us to live off that plan 50 years later. What is your new plan?"

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