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Book Review: School Desegregation Setbacks and the Lessons Learned

Seventy years after the Supreme Court rejected school desegregation, exciting new ideas about how to overcome America’s racist legacy are percolating among educators, even as the promise of equality in public education remains unfulfilled.

Eleanor J. Bader May 3

Those of us who have had contact with public schools at any point in the last 70 years have likely concluded that the promise of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education — a consolidation of four state challenges to racial segregation in education — has been a resounding failure. In its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” facilities are inherently unequal and that public schools should be desegregated with “all deliberate speed.” 

Yet, schools still divide children by race and class, and wide disparities in available resources, from books to computers, to enrichment activities, continue to impact teaching and learning.

In spite of these and other glaring inequities, psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer and attorney Nancy E. Dowd, authors of Radical Brown: Keeping the Promise to America’s Children, believe that this conclusion should be tempered. 

Spencer and Dowd want every child to be respected, something that involves recognizing tangible and intangible factors.

“Brown struck down the separate but equal doctrine,” they write. “On its face, Brown restored the full citizenship rights originally granted to former slaves by the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution and the 1866 Civil Rights Act.” 

So what happened?

For one, they argue there has been an overreliance on the law, noting that while litigation can be an essential tool in righting social and political wrongs, it is an insufficient corrective to systemic or interpersonal injustice. What’s more, they write, wide-ranging acceptance of whiteness as the default for “normal” has sidelined the lived experience of race among the body politic and has left white supremacist notions in place. Worse, these ideas are often centered on the subtle assumption — unconscious for the most part — of Black inferiority.

As Walter Allen, a professor of education, sociology and African American studies at UCLA,  writes in the book’s Foreword, “Radical Brown attributes America’s largely uninterrupted, pervasive, and persistent racial inequality to refusal to recognize the humanity of Black people. … It is possible to legislate behaviors; racist actions can be controlled and sanctioned. On the other hand, it’s impossible to legislate hearts and minds.”

The upshot is that racism poisons both white people and people of color, albeit in very different ways.

So, what to do? How best to honor the humanity of every child, regardless of their skin tone, place of residence or family income? 

First and foremost, Dowd and Spencer call out what they term “social obliviousness,” policies that give lip service to racial equality but do nothing to ensure it. Furthermore, they see studying U.S. history — grappling with the ongoing legacies of slavery and understanding the emergence of backlash movements that consistently work to suppress racial progress — as imperative. This, they write, is the only way to unravel the intergenerational trauma that has been perpetuated by our society’s denial of the lingering damage of chattel slavery and the foundational dehumanization it rests on.

The result, they say, is that white “individuals cannot easily feel guilty about someone who is not considered human. Accordingly, lacking discernible identification with the ‘other,’ there’s no reason for empathy, caring or any human consideration. The attendant and evolved 400-year-old uninterrogated white identity remains intact.”

And presumed superior.

Remediation, they write, further requires an intersectional framework that acknowledges children’s developmental differences and respects variations in terms of race, gender identity and sexuality. In addition, schooling that promotes equity over equality — the former necessary to level the pedagogical playing field – is essential. 

They also posit something called BIP, a functional Black Inhumanity Perspective, that, while a bit wonky, addresses the layers of scaffolding that maintain racism. Once this scaffolding is made visible, they maintain that it can be deconstructed and eliminated.

All told, Dowd and Spencer want every child to be respected, something that involves recognizing tangible and intangible factors that impact coming of age, from elevating students’ self-esteem to zeroing in on impediments to learning such as poverty, disability, and food and housing insecurity. Moreover they want classrooms to be multicultural. 

And there’s more:  Radical Brown offers  concrete suggestions, including promotion of a “New Deal for Children” that dismantles segregation. The New Deal doesn’t ignore race, but pays attention to the ways it affects interactions between individuals and those between institutions and individuals.

It’s an expansive and inspiring, if aspirational, vision.

On the downside Radical Brown underplays the ways that a deep-pocketed rightwing has sabotaged public education and worked to discredit it. Attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; efforts to ban books about race, gender, racism and sexuality; and legal limits on what teachers can teach in English, History and social-studies classrooms are part-and-parcel of today’s political backlash. 

This, of course, threatens public education, leaving Brown’s stated goal of equal justice largely and frustratingly unfulfilled.  

Radical Brown: Keeping the Promise to America’s Children
Margaret Beale Spencer & Nancy E. Dowd
Harvard Education Press
Release date: May 7

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