Race and Class: Brown v. Board of Education 50 Years Later

— Malik Miah

I FOUND THE headline of the May 17 Business Week article on the 50th anniversary of the famous Brown v. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court ruling, that "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional, most revealing.  "A Bittersweet Birthday," it said, declaring "Decades of progress on integration have been followed by disturbing slippage."

"There's no question," the article continued, "that African Americans have made major strides since economically, socially, and educationally.  But starting in the late 1980s, political backlash brought racial progress to a halt. Since then, schools have slowly been resegregating, and the achievement gap between white and minority school children has been widening again."

Based on data provided by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project, the charts summarize the "slippage."  In 1968, the percentage of Black students attending schools that were 50 percent or more minorities was 77 percent.  In 1988, it was 63 percent.  By 2001, it rose to 72 percent.

The same numbers are repeated for achievement.  In 1971 the gap between Blacks and whites for average scores for 17 year olds on National Assessment of Educational Progress was 52 percent; in 1988, 21 percent; and in 1999 up to 31 percent.  For math results, numbers show improvement between 1978 and 1990, but a widening gap in 1999.

Behind Resegregation

What explains this resegregation?  On the one hand, it reflects the general deepening of class divisions in society as a whole as the rich get more of the economic pie.

Working people from all ethnic groups feel the pain of the "class warfare" by the rich and powerful.  It's not just George W. Bush and the neoconservative Republicans but the top Democrats too. It is why Ralph Nader still has appeal to the most radical and independent minded voters.

The sharpening polarization in the Black communities is real, and reflects the more pronounced class divisions too. African Americans do not feel the pain in the same way as historically was the case. The lack of solidarity from the Black middle class toward the poorer working class is evident in the lack of organized movements to take on the deep inequalities.

Yet saying this does not take away from the real "progress" since the Brown victory, which opened the door to fundamental changes that haven't yet been, and won't be, overturned.

The rise of the African American middle class and even rich layers has integrated a section of U.S. society to a degree that had never occurred in American history.  The average white person (of all classes) is less racist in fact and in attitudes towards Blacks and other people of color.  It is not an accident that rap music has great popularity among white youth.

The fact of relatively better off middle class layers in the Black community explains why many identify more with the wealth of the upper classes, and less with their poorer cousins.  The progress among the top ten percent of African Americans allows them to live the "good life."

It is no longer the big event to have an African American Harvard or Stanford Grad become a CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation or head of a majority white academic institution.  Without Brown, and the massive civil rights movement that followed, this would not be true.

Role of Education

Education and the educational system are the most visible reflection and indication of the progress (more college graduates) and resegregation (less integration).  As educator and author Jonathan Kozol notes in an article that appeared in a special forum published in the May 3 The Nation magazine, "Virtual apartheid is a fact of life in almost every urban school I visit nowadays."

Black parents want integration because of the better infrastructure and money spent on such schools.  Desegregation was pushed primarily not for social reasons but for these economic realities.  Kozol adds that this is still the dominant view in the Black community.

In 1974, when I was involved in the fight to desegregate the Boston public schools through use of citywide busing, that was clearly the reason why Black parents supported the long bus rides to predominantly white schools.  These 1970s battles against organized segregationists in the "enlightened" center of academia did win, but at a price.  Most whites eventually fled the public schools.

Yet organizations like the NAACP and the National Student Coalition Against Racism, a group I was an organizer for, did set an example of fighting back in urban centers.

Escapism and Choices

At the same time, there are some parents in the middle class today who don't see the need for desegregation because they can afford to avoid it. They send their children to private schools or better off public schools of middle class kids of color.

Even the segregation of housing is different today.  The "talented tenth" can live in the big houses in the suburbs once denied them. This impacts their social consciousness—and activism.  This layer can't be the leaders (as W.E.B. du Bois once envisioned) to turn around slums and poor neighborhoods.

Kozol observes, "Young activists should be challenging their elders.  They should be mobilizing, too."

We thus see two phenomena of Black middle class response to the resegregation taking place across society.  Those who ignore it—they are escaping the truth.  And the others, who blame the poor for their predicament, are aiding the drive of rightists who accept institutional racism.

The former choice includes the modern Black feminists who write what's called "African American chick lit."  They are educated Black professional women who write their Black version of the popular television show "Sex and the City."

Tia Williams, author of The Accidental Diva and beauty director in the magazine Teen People, told The New York Times (May 31) that in writing her book she was not trying "to prove that Black girls can keep up with the Joneses.  The Black girls I know are the Joneses."

While such attitudes may seem frivolous, this form of escapism is a reflection of "progress."  Why shouldn't the well off Black educated women do what their white sisters in midtown Manhattan are doing?

Of course, the Black working class women of Harlem and the South Side of Chicago don't have that option.

Bill Cosby on the Other Hand

The more serious phenomenon is Black "better off" layers giving lectures to the downtrodden.  While the speeches may be given for good reason, they mainly cheer up the far right and those opposed to social programs that benefit society as a whole.

A case in point is the furor over recent remarks by comedian, actor and activist Bill Cosby.  In a May speech to teachers at Stanford University, Cosby offered his view of the Black underclass and what should be done to uplift them. Speaking of poor Black children, according to the San Jose Mercury News, Cosby said, "Some of these children have been raised like pimps."

To make perfectly clear his point about lack of responsibility, Cosby added, "Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting.  They are buying things for their kids—$500 speakers for what?  But won't spend $200 for "Hooked on Phonics.'"

The right went especially ape (in delight) over his words about crime.  "These are not political criminals.  These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying] 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"

Of course, after the uproar by many of his liberal friends Cosby said his words were taken out of context.  But he didn't take any of it back.

Progress and Contradictions

Just as the rise of the Black middle class indicates deeper polarization within the community is a reflection of the post Brown era, the response of the wealthier section of the Black community to the poverty reflects the same contradictions of progress.

The challenge for today's young activists is understanding the contradictions and seeing that progress won can easily be eroded and reversed if there is no mobilization by the American people to fight back politically, pragmatically and ideologically.

Some 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education the truth is more simple, and complex, than most of us can readily admit.  The bottom line is that the most disenfranchised section of the Black community are working people, and that section of the population must take the leadership in future struggles to defend and extend the gains won in the decades since Brown.

Malik Miah is an editor of Against the Current and was a leader of the National Student Coalition Against Racism, and a member of the NAACP that led the defense of busing in Boston in the 1970s.



ATC 111, July-August 2004