Today marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision that marked the end of legal school segregation while also being one of the first victories on the road to tearing down Jim and Jane Crow.
I am a product of the Brown versus Board of Education decision. I grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood and attended racially diverse public schools. Legal segregation may have been ended by Brown but informal segregation by others means continues(ed) in those spaces. As is common today, because of school tracking black and brown students were disproportionately put in a remedial and below average cohort. White students were/are grossly over-represented among honors and higher tracks.
As an elementary school student I accepted this as natural and a version of Darwin in action--until I was put in a remedial classroom by a lazy white student teacher for no other reason than because I was black, and she was rushed in doing the next year's tracking assignments.
In middle school, I fell ill with "noble negro" syndrome and thought myself exceptional for being in the "upper" track, one of a few black and brown students to have that "honor". High school brought me back down to Earth, grounded by a realization that race and class matter in such a way, and outcomes in life are not always based on merit, that there are some clubs and cliques which I will simply not be admitted to. I realized that the "AP" and "national honors" students were no smarter than me; they were simply better connected and had parents that harped and complained; I vowed to get my revenge later.
Brown versus Board of Education, and the end of Jim and Jane Crow, was a revolution in American social and political life.
[There is something surreal about commemorating Brown, while the President of the United States and the Attorney General are also black men.
I can almost understand the anger, rage, and cognitive upset experienced by some white folks, conservatives especially, towards such an arrangement of affairs. Imagine what it must be like to have every person of importance and power in your world to be white, and that this is for you the "natural" order of things, and to then have said arrangement turned upside down--even for a moment. White privilege, once threatened, and when its owners are now forced to admit that it is real (even while not using the language of racial entitlement), must be a type of living hell for white conservatives in the Age of Obama.]
It could not cure the central birth defect of the American Constitution, and a society founded as a legal, formal, white supremacist state. However, Brown and the Voting and Civil Rights Acts which followed, helped to bend the color line enough to force white American society to live up to the potential of our national creed and mythology, in which we imagine the United States to be a country where equality under the law and meritocracy are real. Black and brown folks, and later women, gays, lesbians, and other marginalized groups, busted down and through the door that Brown opened.
While Brown's 60th anniversary is commemorated with speeches, TV shows, and public celebrations--America has embraced the landmark Supreme Court decision as part of our collective, anti-racist, public memory--it is important to take a measured view of how race changed, as well as did not, in that moment.
One of the genius ploys of the white supremacist order in post civil rights era America is how by making tactical surrenders, it could maintain structural power in the long-run. The white supremacist order that was Jim and Jane Crow in the South, and "polite racism" in the North and elsewhere, jettisoned its most noxious elements, a type of sacrifice, so that institutional white power and control of resources would remain intact. Colorblind racism was the result. The question thus remains, how do you fight racism in a society where there are no "racists"?
Black Americans face a racist criminal justice system, attend substandard schools, are punished and expelled at higher rates for the same offenses than white students, die at an earlier age, and have at least 20 times less wealth than white Americans. Even when success it attained, the color line's shadow remains. For example, black neighborhoods that are "middle class" by SES measures, in practice look more like poor or working class white neighborhoods in terms of access to public services and other resources. In many ways, the United States remains as segregated, if not more so, than it was decades ago.
As we think about Brown versus Board, and the America it helped to create (or not), I thought it would be useful to share some videos. I recently attended a lecture by Douglas Blackmon, author of the great book Slavery by Another Name. Mass incarceration is one of the ways that white society, and especially white elites, enforce the racial order and transfer, quite literally, human wealth and capital from poor and working class people of color to their own coffers. The documentary which accompanies Blackmon's book is enthralling and devastating.
The second video is an interview with Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends are Black. Colby's book examines his own post Brown experience as a white child and how racism and segregation impacted his social networks and those of his black peers in that generation.
The final clip is from PBS's great conversation about Brown versus Board of Education on Friday's edition of Newshour. Smart people, with expertise, saying smart things, is always a joy to behold.
As a bonus, here is a clip of Mark Shields and David Brooks, talking about Brown, race, and integration. I have a "no-prize" for the person who call out the foolish, and racially myopic, white racial frame, Right-wing, Bizarro universe comment, made in that segment. Brooks and Shields are proof that smart people, operating out of their depth, ought to exercise some discretion before opening up their mouth holes.
Are you a product of Brown versus Board of Education? If so how? Is Brown's dream dead or alive in the United States at present?