The true barometer for gauging whether the vision of the Brown decision has actually been realized is the quality of the education received by low-income African American students who remain behind in predominantly African American schools in the inner cities, Mr. Morris points out.
IN 1986 I graduated from Phillips High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Phillips High was an all-white high school until the early 1960s; it has been all black since the early 1970s.1 The school is located near downtown Birmingham in the middle of the Metropolitan Gardens Housing Projects (formerly known as Central City), where my mother reared me, along with my five older brothers and my younger sister. We were zoned to go to Phillips after we attended Powell, the K-8 elementary school, which was directly across the street from where we lived. Both Phillips and Powell had almost all-black student populations during the years I was enrolled. In fact, throughout my K-12 educational experiences from 1973 to 1986, there were no more than two white students in any of my classes. In high school, I remember only one white student in the entire school. Today, Phillips and Powell are virtually 100% African American; my nieces, nephews, and cousins now attend them.
To understand why the public schools I once attended are still all black, one needs only a general understanding of the demographic patterns in urban areas throughout the nation. A pattern of white flight from urban areas escalated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education; urban areas and urban school systems increasingly became less and less white and more and more black. After efforts were stepped up to enforce Brown through the desegregation of public schools, many white Americans made no secret of their feelings about living near African Americans and attending schools with them. They made their feelings clear not only verbally but by moving to suburban and outlying communities. In many instances, these actions were facilitated and encouraged by white communities and realtors through race-steering and other means of deterring African Americans from moving into "their" neighborhoods. Furthermore, to maintain the status quo in education, many southern states & including Alabama & used public funds to support "segregated academies" for white students.
As I reflect on my experiences growing up in a low-income housing project and attending all-black schools in Birmingham, I am reminded of the advice I received from my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Turrentine, prior to entering high school. A few of the "academically talented" students at Powell were encouraged to consider enrolling in one of two academically enriched high schools that had a substantial population of white teachers and students. But Mrs. Turrentine advised me and Vanessa, a fellow student, to think about attending the neighborhood high school: "You two need to consider Phillips High School because many of the "white' schools want to take the best and the brightest black students from the "black' schools. You can get a good education in the black schools. Many of our schools suffer because any time the white schools notice a "good' black student, they want the student to come out to their school to integrate it. They have to know that good students also can come out of the black schools."
Mrs. Turrentine reminded us that, because almost all the students and teachers who attended and taught at the outlying schools were white, those schools were considered "better" than the predominantly black inner-city schools. Her advice has been with me ever since, and it laid the foundation for my understanding of the dynamics of educating low-income African American students in cities across this nation. At an early age, I became aware of the politics involved in educating me and other students from Central City. While attending schools in Birmingham, I realized that many outsiders perceived our all-black schools negatively. I knew that, as black students & primarily from low-income communities and the housing projects that surrounded the schools & we were not expected to amount to much. I was cognizant of the inequities in resources between our schools and those in white communities. Despite the abundance of talented black students who had the potential to succeed academically & and I personally believed that we could do just as well as white students in the suburbs & I felt that there was very little commitment to ensuring that we would have a fair chance.
I think constantly about schools like the ones I attended in Birmingham. Despite valiant efforts on the part of African Americans and others, there are still those who resist the notion of creating equity in society and in the education system. Whether by de jure or de facto means, these resisters have perpetuated the legacies of "separate" and "unequal" within the American education system. And it is highly unlikely that in the near future large numbers of white people will eagerly open their communities, their schools, and their classrooms to vast numbers of black families and students from the inner cities & unless they are offered some type of financial incentive to do so.2 A great difference exists between tolerating black children and welcoming them. Therefore, I ask the question, What is the future of predominantly black urban schools? Located in the hearts of major urban areas throughout the United States, most predominantly black schools have been criticized as inferior, labeled as dangerous, or ignored because of concerns about sending a "wrong message" by openly supporting them, either in spirit or financially. Evidence that contradicts the negative generalizations is often dismissed as "an exception." Those who purport to create equity in education through the racial balancing of students are vigorously and blindly pursuing a course that is best translated as "Just forget about the black students who remain behind in the schools in the cities."
African American students represent approximately 17% of the 46.8 million students who attend public schools in the United States.3 Approximately 30% of these African American students attend public schools located in the large central cities. Furthermore, 53.8% of the schools located in urban areas have predominantly African American student populations.4 In a number of urban areas, African Americans account for well over 50% of the student population. Consider the African American student population in the following cities: Milwaukee, 61%; Philadelphia, 64%; St. Louis, 80%; Atlanta, 92%; and Birmingham, 94%. African American children will continue to enroll in large numbers in the public schools in these cities. It is incumbent upon educators and policy makers to ensure that these children are provided with the education they deserve.
The debate over the best environment for educating African American students & whether in predominantly white, predominantly black, or mixed schools & is not a new one in the African American community.5 As a people, we have never overwhelmingly believed that the problems associated with inequitable education would be resolved by having our children attend integrated schools. Historically, if the push was for black children to attend schools with white children, the chances for black children and their culture to be totally ignored in the curriculum and in the ethos of the school were great (as attested to by some of my friends who opted not to attend Phillips). On the other hand, if one chose the alternative of a black school, there were concerns about the lack of resources, lack of exposure to rigorous academic curriculum, and lack of facilities. Similar concerns are still being raised.
W. E. B. Du Bois' statement from 64 years ago still resounds today: "The Negro needs neither segregated nor mixed schools; what he needs is education."6 Today, in light of the new dialogues on race occurring throughout the nation, we need to get beyond the issue of segregation versus integration and ask a more probing question: Why do black children in 1999 even have to consider attending schools elsewhere because their local or neighborhood schools do not have adequate resources to provide them with an effective education? Even if the choice of a predominantly white suburban school seems to be a viable option & and assuming that the school is devoid of racist or prejudiced teachers, that the curriculum is reflective and reaffirming of the cultural experiences of black children, that black children are not disproportionately reprimanded, and that they are welcomed and not just tolerated & few of these schools can accommodate large numbers of black students from urban areas. Therefore, what is the future for black children who must attend inner-city schools?
In many predominantly white schools, efforts are made to keep the African American student population to a certain minimum. Some schools and districts still find ways to determine which African American students are not "problems" for the school but are able to offer something valuable (whether athletic talent, academic ability, or simply "good behavior"). Consequently, the "problem students" are left behind in the schools in the inner city. Those students who do attend the predominantly white suburban schools are in many instances marginalized, de-culturalized, academically tracked, and disproportionately disciplined.
To some, it may seem to be a good thing for predominantly black urban schools to have a dismal future; then the vestiges of segregation will be removed. Some advocates for the elimination of all-black schools find it difficult to perceive a predominantly African American school as not inferior. Others argue that policy efforts should make sure that schools are not all black, because schools need white students in order to be "successful." Furthermore, they argue that black students will have greater access to opportunities by attending schools in all-white communities.7
But why should black students have to attend schools outside their communities to have a glimmer of hope of receiving a "good" education? White students, after all, are rarely expected to attend schools beyond their communities in order to receive a high-quality education. In addition to proposals that focus primarily on racially balancing schools by transferring black children to white schools and communities, others purport to rectify the problems in inner-city schools by offering parents school vouchers. School voucher plans that propose to enable low-income children to attend public or private schools emphatically do not solve the problem. Students should not have to use vouchers to receive a decent education. With all the politics and the potential exacerbation of inequities associated with voucher proposals, it is clear that, at best, vouchers can "save" only a few. What about those students who remain behind? Vouchers literally mean "save a few and abandon the rest."
IT IS important to remember that Brown was the culmination of the struggle against legal segregation; it became the symbol for eradicating segregation in the schools and in all aspects of American society. I am not renouncing Brown just because I critically examine the manner in which this historic case has been interpreted and implemented, particularly with respect to education policy for low-income African American children. Some critics might argue that I am advocating a position that represents a retreat from the intentions of Brown. According to them, to support all-black "segregated" schools is to cater to racist agendas. To them I say, Phillips High School was once all white and segregated. When black people petitioned to integrate Phillips, they were resisted. Now, once again, Phillips is segregated, but this new segregation is black and low-income and therefore considered "bad."
Because Phillips currently enrolls a student population that is 100% African American, the city and the state have ignored the school. Do African Americans once again have to follow whites in the hope of receiving a high-quality education? The promises of Brown might best be fulfilled if desegregation policies were reconceptualized. Instead of being predicated on the necessity of having white students in the schools,8 "desegregation" should focus on equity in education for the low-income African American children who still and will continue to attend public schools in the inner cities of this nation. Because of the current manner in which school districts are funded & primarily through property taxes & many all-black school districts will continue to suffer from financial inequities; until that situation is remedied, effective schooling will not be possible.
Thus the true barometer for gauging whether the vision of the Brown decision has actually been realized is the quality of the education received by low-income African American students who remain behind in predominantly African American schools in the inner cities.9 Since I graduated from high school in 1986, Powell Elementary School and Phillips High School have remained 100% African American. Any plans that ignore students who attend these schools should be considered as the real "retreat from Brown."
1. Phillips High School in Birmingham, Alabama, was named after John Herbert Phillips, the white superintendent of the Birmingham Public School System from 1883 to 1921. In 1957 Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader in Birmingham, and his wife were the first black parents to attempt to enroll their children at a white school & Phillips High School. Instead of protecting Shuttlesworth, the police allowed a mob of Klansmen to beat him with chains and brass knuckles; his wife was also beaten and stabbed. See the interview with Shuttlesworth in Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York: Putnam, 1977).
2. For example, in a "voluntary" interdistrict transfer plan in St. Louis, which developed out of a 1972 lawsuit, Liddell et al. v. Board of Education of the City of St. Louis, Missouri, et al., participating county school districts receive funds from the state equal to the cost of attendance in the suburban schools. A settlement from this suit specified that the county schools were to desegregate by accepting black students from the city and achieving a 25% African American student population. In this court case, a desegregation settlement was reached in 1983 after the African American plaintiffs and the St. Louis Board of Education accused the suburban schools of contributing to the mass exodus to the suburbs of white middle-class families.
3. National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 1999 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education), pp. 98-100.
4. "Schools and Staffing Survey, 1993-94," in Michael T. Nettles and Laura W. Perna, eds., The African-American Education Data Book, Volume 11: Preschool Through High School Education (Fairfax, Va.: Frederick D. Patterson Institute of The College Fund/UNCF, 1997).
5. In Boston during the early 19th century, African American children were allowed to attend the Boston public schools, but few parents enrolled their children because of prejudice on the part of white teachers. Separate schools were then established for the African American students. However, some African Americans protested the segregation of black children from white children. In 1849 a group of African American parents, in what became known as Roberts v. City of Boston, fought for integrated education because they felt that separate tax-supported schools were inferior in quality. The African American community was split on this issue.
6. W. E. B. Du Bois, "Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?," Journal of Negro Education, vol. 4, 1935, pp. 328-35.
7. See Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain, Stepping over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997); and Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (New York: New Press, 1996).
8. See Missouri v. Jenkins (1995). In Kansas City, Missouri, desegregation funds focused on turning many inner-city black schools into magnet schools as a way to attract white students back to the city. The plan was eventually abandoned after so few white parents chose to send their children to the schools and there was no significant change in students' test scores.
9. This is not a totally new perspective. In 1980 Derrick Bell proposed that support (financial and political) be provided to schools in urban communities that enroll predominantly low-income African American students. See Derrick Bell, Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation (New York: Teachers College Press, 1980). Meanwhile, Judge Robert Carter, who as a lawyer was primarily responsible for conceptualizing the litigation and drafting the court documents in Brown, argued that "whatever is accomplished in isolated areas of the country, the metropolitan centers are where a majority of blacks now reside, and the schools in these centers must provide equal education for minority children." See Robert L. Carter, "The Unending Struggle for Equal Educational Opportunity," in Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and LaMar P. Miller, eds., Brown v. Board of Education: The Challenge for Today's Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1996), p. 23. See also Du Bois, op. cit.
JEROME E. MORRIS is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Foundations of Education, College of Education, University of Georgia, Athens. His research and teaching interests include the intersection of race and class in urban education policy. He would like to thank Derrick Alridge and Wanda F. McGowan for encouragement in the writing of this article.…