When the news came fifty years ago of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education invalidating separate schools for Black children, I was standing outside of the Rabbi Jacob School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side. Everyone was elated, to some extent doubtlessly because nearly all American Jews felt that school segregation was evil and unconstitutional. Notions of racial inferiority were not our cup of tea, certainly not so soon after the Holocaust. The ideal of equality struck a responsive chord. Our reaction, however, was not as automatons expressing what we were conditioned to say. There was a deepfelt feeling that a unanimous Supreme Court had taken a great and necessary step to erase the stain of racism.
Fifty years later, Brown is under attack, specifically including from several Black scholars who have made it. They argue that Blacks might have been better off had school segregation been allowed to stand, provided that Black public schools would have facilities and funding equal to what governments provide to whites. The argument cannot be proven, of course, but Brown’s critics say that the continued high drop-out rate and other indices of Black educational failure provide powerful support for the claim that the focus on integration missed the mark.
This is historical revisionism, an exercise in rewriting the past and rejecting to one extent or another what has been accepted. Historians and other scholars indulge in revisionism because the passage of time affords a new perspective and may also uncover information that was not previously available. There is also obviously the desire to avoid being like a xerox. The past is reinterpreted because that is integral to the enterprise called history.
Brown wasn’t the grand slam home run that we believed it to be in May 1954. In a sense, the ruling was oversold, a fate that attaches to most major decisions. Nine Justices could rule that school segregation violates the Constitution but their reach scarcely extended to de facto segregation arising from residential patterns and certainly not to educational failure arising from social dysfunction. The importance of Brown was that it was a moral statement articulating a commitment to civil rights and human dignity. It also came to be a major building block in the still unfinished struggle to achieve racial equality.
This struggle has yielded abundant fruit, no matter what the naysayers are saying. Change for the better is evident nearly everywhere – in universities and executive suites, in law and politics, in suburbs and social attitudes. There is more than a residue of racism and this plus the too high rate of educational failure among Blacks give ammunition to those who denigrate Brown.
By 1954, the huge migration of rural Blacks to the cities was underway, a development that for all of its inevitability added enormously to the destabilization of Black family life which obviously had not recovered from the deep social and psychological wounds caused by slavery and state racism. In the aggregate, Black children have gone to school without the family structure and back-up available to most white children. Geographic dislocation, poverty and social breakdown have combined to heighten the prospect of educational failure.
There was another profound social shift that contributed to a similar outcome. Around 1954, reading and writing were increasingly replaced in the lives of children by watching, first by the ever-expanding wasteland of television and then by the interrelated cesspools of cable, movies, popular music and whatever other filth could be peddled by filthy-rich dreckmeisters who spout concern about human dignity and civil rights and then target their poisonous products toward those who are most vulnerable. Of course, white children are being hurt, but what is happening among a certain part of the Black community is devastating.
It is easy to get kids hooked on what is exciting and wean them away from study. Instant gratification is a far better bet for the young than years of schooling. There is a new racism that exploits young Blacks who are already vulnerable because of the high incidence of violence and drugs. The new racists condition young Blacks to have base values and to indulge in base behavior so that they will buy hip hop music with an exciting beat and violent lyrics and watch sitcoms that show Blacks as stupid and sex-crazed. Young Blacks are also exploited so that they will buy cheaply made ugly clothing at exorbitant prices and glitzy sneakers at five or ten times their worth.
I wonder how many who produce the sewage have gotten awards – including from the NAACP, Urban League and Jewish organizations – for their alleged promotion of civil rights and human dignity.
We expect schools to overcome all that is hostile to educational success. When schools do not succeed as well as we would like them to, we blame them and not the root causes, not family breakdown or drugs or the anti-educational pull of powerful cultural stimuli.
It is convenient to scapegoat schools. We scapegoat teachers. We scapegoat educational administrators. We scapegoat those who make governmental funding decisions. And now we have taken to scapegoating Brown v Board of Education. When will we ever learn, oh when will we ever learn?
I abhor racism. It is sinful and must not be excused. There is a scene that I see on subways, usually at midday or so. It is of groups of young school children, smiling and chattering, holding hands and being obedient, along with their teachers who are obviously caring. Many – perhaps most – of these children are Black. Let us then fast forward by perhaps a half dozen years and we see a different picture, one of disintegration and of inexcusable behavior among pre-teens and teenagers. We also see a scene of educational failure culminating in massive drop-outs at the high school level. Are we to blame the teachers or schools for this?
Smaller classes make a difference, as do better teachers and educational enhancements. But the reach of schools goes only so far. If we are to more fully realize the promise of Brown, we need to have the courage to confront the new racists who promote an image of Blacks as an inferior people.