Fifty years ago today the Supreme Court killed Plessy and mortally wounded Jim Crow. The remarkably brief opinion in Brown v. Board of Education had seismic implications for American society that reached far beyond public education. The Court provided judicial force, promised by the Fourteenth Amendment, to the declaration that “All men are created equal….” The modern era of civil rights was born, peaking with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But how much of where we are today is due to Brown’s symbolism and how much is due to its substance?
The answer clearly is that Brown’s symbolism has had a far greater impact than its substance. The promise implicit in the decision, that desegregation would speed black educational achievement toward levels attained by whites, remains appallingly unfulfilled. Nonetheless, Brown’s symbolism helped remove a multitude of ugly barriers that had deprived millions of an unfettered right to liberty and equal opportunity.
The Court in Brown held that state laws permitting or requiring public-school segregation denied black children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, even though the physical facilities and other tangible factors–such as school buildings, curricula, texts, teacher qualifications, and salaries–of both black and white schools may be equal. The holding was supported by a finding of the lower court that:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
The educational landscape improved for blacks subsequent to Brown, particularly in the deep south. Moreover, Brown’s domino effect wrought broader societal changes resulting in immeasurable improvements in the quality of life for blacks and other minorities.
Much of the “Brown at 50″ commentary is unduly pessimistic, lamenting the nation’s persistent race-relations problems and maintaining that black progress is somehow illusory. This is specious. Obviously, problems persist. But no one can credibly deny that the lot of blacks has advanced dramatically over the last 50 years, and with it society as a whole.
On the other hand, a good deal of the remaining commentary on Brown tends to credit the decision with virtually every good thing that’s happened since 1954 except, perhaps, the fall of the Soviet Union. Perspective is in order. After all, as Thomas Sowell notes, the economic condition of blacks was already improving at rates that “were not accelerated by the civil rights laws and court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s.”
NOT YET EXCELLING
The reality is that while Brown did enormous good in changing the second-class status of blacks in America, its impact on the narrower issue of black educational achievement has been far less spectacular than originally hoped. To paraphrase Justice Clarence Thomas, merely sitting next to white kids didn’t automatically erase the yawning educational-achievement gap between blacks and whites.
At the time Brown was decided only one of four black young adults had a high-school diploma. Blacks averaged nearly four fewer years of education than whites. Today, black graduation and years of schooling rates are not significantly different than those for whites.
But as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom note in their recent book, No Excuses, these rates tell only part of the story. A closer examination reveals black students lag woefully behind their white comparatives. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our national report card, in 1975 only one in ten black 17-year-olds could read as well as the average white 17-year-old. Black reading scores moved up in the 1980s so that nearly one in three black 17-year-olds could read as well as the average white comparative. But then the gap began to widen again, the latest data showing that fewer than one in four black 17-year-olds can read as well as the average white 17-year-old.
Black math scores are even worse. In the Seventies, the average black student scored below 85 percent of white students in math. Again, the gap closed in the Eighties, but widened again in the Nineties so that the average black student scored below nearly 90 percent of whites.
Science scores are the most dismal. The average black 17-year-old scores below more than 90 percent of white students in that subject. The Thernstroms note that the typical black high-school graduate has the academic proficiency of the average white eighth grader.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, these discouraging figures are not simply a function of poverty, poor school funding, or de facto segregation. The predominantly black D.C. school system annually spends approximately $14,000 per pupil, yet its students’ test scores are perennially among the lowest in the nation. Scholars such as Ronald Ferguson and the late Jonathan Ogbu have noted the abysmal academic performance of middle-class black students in affluent, integrated suburbs such as Shaker Heights, Ohio, the school system that is arguably the Brown ideal. The Shaker schools spend more than $10,000 per pupil per year, provide tutors and mentors from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and make strenuous efforts to get black students to take AP courses. Nonetheless, in 2000 two-thirds of Shaker’s black twelfth graders failed the state proficiency test in basic subjects. In contrast, only one-sixth of white students failed. Furthermore, 50 percent of Shaker’s white students passed the exam with honors, versus only 4 percent of blacks.
BROWN’S PROMISE & THE CURRENT CRISIS
This pattern is repeated throughout the country. The Thernstroms rightly call this an educational crisis. So what’s the remedy?
The educational establishment reflexively calls for more funding. Money, wisely spent, can’t hurt. But sclerotic bureaucracies aren’t known for their fiscal wisdom. If the example of Kansas City–which pursuant to court order spent $2 billion to improve predominantly black schools with almost no discernible improvement in academic performance–doesn’t forever banish the notion that more money is the magic bullet for academic incompetence, nothing will.
A flurry of recent articles also suggests that the problem is that schools are resegregating. The evidence of such resegregation is dubious at best: A third of all black students attend majority white schools; and more than two thirds of black students attend schools with a sizeable population of white students. Regardless, the Shaker Heights example shows that the disturbing racial educational-achievement gap persists in thoroughly integrated settings.
Studies point to two dominant reasons for the gap (forgive their simplicity): family environments incompatible with academic proficiency and miserably performing schools. The former cause has proven itself to be a formidable problem not easily remediable by state action (although easily exacerbated thereby). Poorly performing schools, however, can be changed and the data show that good schools can frequently overcome the deficits produced by in-optimal family environments.
The Thernstroms cite several examples of remarkable schools that foster black academic excellence. Schools in the impoverished areas of the South Bronx and Newark whose student bodies are nearly 100-percent black produce students who perform at levels that exceed even those of the best schools in the most affluent neighborhoods. The schools set high standards and demand much from their students and parents. They don’t waste time and tolerate no excuses for failure. Some of the schools operate six days a week and eleven months out of the year. By eliminating fluff and disorganization they add several hours of teaching time per day. Discipline and order dominate every aspect of the schools and their students’ behavior. Frequent testing is a key ingredient. Basic math, reading, and writing skills are stressed and competition is emphasized. The students respond with a sense of accomplishment and pride. They simply hunger for more learning and success.
The people who run these schools acknowledge it’s not an easy task, but they do it cheerfully because they are usually (as administrators of private or charter schools) unconstrained by the suffocating rules and regulations that plague many public schools.
So why doesn’t every school system do it? As Mark Steyn would say, “Never underestimate the seductive power of inertia.”
Politics, union rules, and bureaucracy combine to preserve the status quo and oppose salutary reforms incorporating school choice, high-stakes testing, and accountability. The educational establishment vehemently rejects school choice, supposedly on the premise that voucher or charter-school programs drain financial resources and high achievers from public schools. But several recent studies demonstrate that competition introduced by school choice actually causes significant improvements in public-school performance by providing such schools powerful incentives to reform.
Brown’s 50th should be commemorated for articulating an American ideal. But the promises of Brown will be forever lost if the educational establishment and its enablers continue to resist reforms proven to elevate black educational achievement. Neither self-congratulation, good intentions, nor political correctness will get the job done. After all, they haven’t for 50 years. For most of that period, the focus has been on equality. Now the focus must be on excellence.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.