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May 17, 2004

Brown: Good Decision Meets Bad Karma

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 1:36 am

house for sale neg . . . K-K-K karma


 – – Adam and Eve weren’t thrown out of the Garden of Eden. 

                                                      They left to avoid integrated schools. – –  


Racial-ethnic prejudice is perhaps humanity’s Original (and Perpetual) Sin.   In every corner of our planet, generation after generation has inherited. added to, and often invested in, the resulting bad karma.  


The 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (May 17, 1954) has focused a lot of minds and hearts on race relations in the U.S.A.   There are plenty of books*, articles, television specials, and editorials on the topic.  I can’t add to the scholarship, but I do want to give a personal perspective. 

  • My feelings about America are analogous to my relationship to the legal profession:  Because America is my country, and professes such lofty ideals, I expect a lot of its people and institutions.  Despite loving this nation, I’m disappointed by its ugly racial past and its lagging progress in overcoming prejudice and bigotry.   
  • I say this as a white man, who was five years old when Brown was decided; who comes from urban, “blue collar” America, but never attended public schools (thanks to a paper route and scholarships); who considers himself a liberal-with-common-sense; and who believes that laws and courts can do much to further racial justice.

In a Legal Times article, It Still Begins With Schools (05-17-04), John Payton, the lead counsel in The University of Michigan cases — Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger — succintly describes the importance of Brown and the importance of continuing its work

Brown is a watershed moment, heralding a fundamental change in the country. . . . Overt oppression would come to an end. Overt white supremacy would come to an end. Civil rights laws long forgotten were resurrected. New civil rights laws were enacted, at the federal and the state level.  . .  For many, the promise of Brown was the promise of a country pulled together rather than apart by race. A country strengthened by its racial diversity. A democracy made healthy. Those promises have been largely unfulfilled.

. . . “Our democracy requires educational proficiency. Our dynamic economy requires educational proficiency. So educational disparities associated with race threaten our democracy and our social and economic well-being.  . . . “That there are remaining problems . . . should challenge us to attend to the unfinished business of Brown. Only by solving those problems can we ensure that our democracy achieves its promise of freedom and equality for everyone.” 

back on the market  It was racial bigotry that prevented America from achieving the full benefits of Brown.  The primary manifestation of that prejudice is “white flight”  (described here) – the movement of white families from cities to suburbs, then to exurbs, and now to states with little racial diveristy (the “new white flight“), due to the existence, threat, or influx of “undesirable” racial or ethnic minorities.

  • Obligatory, but Sincere, Disclaimer:  People choose the residence of their families for many reasons, some quite benign, and virtually all to offer their children a “better” life.  When I speak of white flight, I’m referring to a broad demographic experience, and am not impugning the motives of every white person who has moved to a less racially diverse neighborhood or town.  That is especially true for those who do so now, given the structural reality whereby good schools are so often tied to real estate and municipal boundaries.  See  ‘White flight’ label misleading,” (The Detroit News, Luther Keith, 04-11-01):  “the phrase ‘white flight’ has a valid historical basis but is not necessarily the appropriate characterization for all the social forces in play today.”  Also, please be assured that I do not believe that only whites engage in hateful ethnic and racial prejudice (see reference to Eve and Adam, above).

I know in my bones and brain that racial animosity fueled the great wave of suburbanization that doomed the promise of Brown (and frustrated geographic integration through Fair Housing laws and similar civil rights legislation).  Beyond my “book-learnin’,” I saw it, heard it, and felt it growing up and living in America’s cities.  For example:

  1. As an adolescent, I often heard the anger of parents over the possibility of having children in schools with “them” — and possibly dating them someday!
  2. I saw the panic and For Sale signs when “they” started buying homes in my blue collar neighborhood; the resentment over any homeowner who would sell to a minority person; and the desperation of fathers who could not afford to move their families
  3. Many times, I overheard mothers complaining that they chose to go to the newer, but smaller suburban department stores, because there were “too many of them” on the street, on public buses, and in the stores “Downtown”
  4. As a young man in law school in Cambridge, Mass., I felt the rage of South Boston over school busing [and heard my own brother tell how his “Sicilian Afro” attracted racial slurs and flying bricks, as he walked to a Southie legal aid clinic to perform volunteer legal services]  
  5. A decade ago, I watched as every homeowner with middle-school aged children (except myself and one other neighbor) moved from our block in a lovely historic district to nearby suburbs.
  6. Today, I see white, urbanite Senior Citizens working hard to defeat school budgets, because the children in their city’s schools aren’t “ours” and their future somehow not important.
  7. wrong way sm  Update (05-17-04): Rather than warmly welcoming the first wave of immigrants in decades to our city of Schenectady, NY (which has dwindled from 100,000 to 60,000 in population), many citizens here have been quite cool to the mayor’s “Guyanese strategy” of attracting Guyanese-Americans from NYC, and others directly from Guyana. [Guyana is a former British colonie that borders Venezuela.]   Although the new Guyanese community has spurred revitalization in parts of this nearly-bankrupt City, speaks English, is family- and school-oriented, and is hard-working (rather than welfare-seeking), there is one problem — they are of East Indian ancestry, and therefore Brown Caucasian.  I’ve often heard whites and blacks using ethnic slurs against the Guyanese, and I’ve been told by Guyanese acquaintances that the refusal of neighbors to speak to them and their children has made them consider leaving Schenectady, despite having purchased homes here.

“tinyredcheck”  These attitudes have emptied cities of the middle class, destroying property values and bankrupting cities and starving their school districts (of hope and money).  Few of the best and brightest students choose to enter teaching, and those that do mainly choose suburban school systems.  

As a result of such forces, there seems to be no turning back — the inner city schools have become so bad that virtually no “responsible” parents, who could afford another option, sends their children to urban public schools.  Very few are willing to “sacrifice” their own children’s safety or academic and career future on the alter of diversity and racial harmony.   And, unless things change drastically, our children will feel the same pull toward real estate and residences attached to the “good” schools.


school bus . .


In After Brown : The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, Duke University professor of economics and law, Charles T. Clotfelter uses measures of interracial contact, racial isolation, and segregation to chronicle the changes in American education since BrownClotfelter’s two main conclusions are summarized by the publisher:

First, interracial contact in American schools and colleges increased markedly over the period, with the most dramatic changes occurring in the previously segregated South.  Second, despite this change, four main factors prevented even larger increases: white reluctance to accept racially mixed schools, the multiplicity of options for avoiding such schools, the willingness of local officials to accommodate the wishes of reluctant whites, and the eventual loss of will on the part of those who had been the strongest protagonists in the push for desegregation. Thus decreases in segregation within districts were partially offset by growing disparities between districts and by selected increases in private school enrollment.

The confluence of millions of individual choices and the politics of non-integration has not merely ruined the cities of the Northeast, Midwest and West, they’ve spawned federal highway programs and tax policies that have nurtured suburban sprawl everywhere.  Car Karma has relocated our society on a new ring of hell.

hand prints  I have no blueprint or roadmap to offer.  Clearly, better racial relationships and more equal educational outcomes will not be achieved by politics or parenting as usual — nor by an ethos that measures social responsibility and values narrowly by short-run or myopic notions of what is best for each individual family, or taxpayer.  

In an article from The Atlantic Monthly (Reversing White Flight  Oct. 2002), Jonathan Rauch makes two points that ring true to me: 

(1)  “It is simply wrong for rich, predominantly white liberals to insist that poor, predominantly minority children attend dysfunctional and often dangerous schools that rich, predominantly white liberals would never allow their own children to set so much as one foot in. It is callous for rich, predominantly white liberals to continue to tell inner-city parents, year after year, ‘Urban schools must be fixed! Meanwhile, we’re outta here. Good luck.'”

(2) “The tying of schools to houses is a historical accident that has undermined the economic integrity of cities. The tying of liberal loyalties to public-school-employees’ lobbies is a historical accident that has undermined the moral integrity of liberalism.” 

In his paper “White Flight: The Effect of Minority Presence on Post World War II Suburbanization,” Eric Bickford, of University of California-Berkeley, found evidence for the hypothesis that America’s suburbanization was caused in part by the “push” of families from the cities fleeing minorities (rather than merely the attractive “pull” of the suburbs).  Bickford concludes:  

tiny checkIn the face of increasing fragmentation between neighboring municipalities, [the push hypothesis] provides a framework for understanding the current conflict between cities and suburbs as a function of the underlying reasons for which they exist in the first place. By accepting the idea that elements of racism have played a part in community formation, we understand that we must first address those lingering elements.  Only then can communities trust each other sufficiently to cooperate and tackle the more mundane regional planning problems of transportation, air quality, taxation, and public services”.

tiny check Take a look at “No More White Flight: How a school district (Vicksburg, MS) won its parents back” (Time Magazine, May 2, 2000) for some good ideas.  “So how did Vicksburg win its parents back? By giving them both a greater say in which elementary schools their children would attend and a greater hand in shaping the district’s affairs. Perhaps more important, the district confronted its long racial standoff, engaging the black parents and wooing the white parents back into the system.”

Maybe Baby Boomers can regain some of their idealism, and join with their children (in the main, a less-race-conscious generation), and with caring elders to create a political force committed to the ideals of Brown.  Such a coalition must be willing to work outside existing interest-group, party and ideological relationships, and across racial and district lines, to find solutions — with the goal of assuring educational excellence for all our schools and children.  

  • Perhaps, for example, this new coalition will help find and fund government and voluntary programs that match mentors for every parent who wants to better encourage a child and promote academic excellence at home, and match tutors with every student that needs help.  

runners black small   Better than feeling guilty over the roadblocks that have stymied the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, whites should feel inspired to remove those roadblocks.  Achieving educational equality and equity has been like a relay race — with the baton passing from generation to generation within each racial and ethnic “team”.  Unfortunately, the “white team” keeps winning due to many advantages denied the other teams (and some dirty tactics).   Maybe we can’t have a “do over,” but we can start to focus on everyone reaching the finish line, rather than on out-pacing or running away from the other teams. 


Afterthought (05-17-04): This morning, I heard an intelligent, interesting interview on integration on WAMC’s Roundtable.  The discussion inspired me to learn more about the book, The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream, by Georgetown Law professor Sheryll Cashin, which is described by its publisher here.  


I can’t interview Prof. Cashin, but I want to sharesome of ther insights with you.  Cashin believes (as stated in a book excerpt on the npr website, 05-05-04) 

The costs of separatism to whites are enormous, yet they are the ones who are likely to be least conscious of separatism’s insidious effects. Currently, whites are also the segment of the population that is most apt to live a separated existence. Without an altered consciousness on the part of many more whites, I fear, our nation will never be able to transcend the separate an unequal society we have created.


Racial and economic separation creates both short- and long-term costs for white people. Admittedly, these costs fall differentially depending on the type of community one lives in. They are borne most heavily by the middle and working classes.

In addition, as noted in a Georgetown Law Press Release  (April 16, 2004):

house for sale  Cashin warns that modern segregation – based on both voluntary separation and continued racial discrimination – thwarts citizens’ dreams of living in safe, affordable communities with high-quality educational opportunities for their children.

She argues that public and private institutional policies continue to divide neighborhoods along racial and class lines. In addition, Cashin says, both white and black America have grown to accept de facto segregation – whites because segregation from minorities is often seen as necessary to ensuring better opportunities, and blacks simply from ambivalence to and weariness of integration.

This separation provides unequal opportunities to achieve a quality of life most Americans strive for – the ability to live in communities offering attractive neighborhoods, reasonable tax rates, low crime, good schools, and job opportunities, Cashin writes. Segregation sets up “winner” and “loser” communities, she says, with racial minorities and the poor substantially locked out of the “winner” column (and middle-class whites finding it increasingly harder to stay in).

“tinyredcheck”  I believe Prof. Cashin is absolutely correct: “In a rapidly diversifying America, the only way to stem our drift toward a ‘winner-take-all’ society is to jettison the common assumption that separation is okay,” Cashin says. “Our public policy choices must be premised on an integrationist vision if we are to achieve the dream America says it embraces: full and equal opportunity for all.” (emphasis added).


Here’s a handful of particularly interesting books about Brown and its aftermath:

Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell

Brown V Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution (Landmark Law Cases and American Society) by Robert J. Cottrol, et al

All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education by Charles J. Ogletree

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