“Back to school” is just around the corner, and 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, many children will be returning to “resegregated” schools. The anniversary year has prompted much investigation and analysis, most pointing toward waning enforcement of integration orders. But what if integration itself is part of the problem?
As a young girl in Bainbridge, Ga., I attended segregated schools two years before the 1954 Brown ruling and six years after. My teachers and school administrators lived in our neighborhood and knew my parents. These educators had high expectations for us and were daily role models and cheerleaders for our success. I had a rich, balanced educational experience rooted in strong cultural awareness.
Then we moved to Sacramento, Calif. It was 1960, and my parents were warned that the segregated schools were inferior to the integrated schools and that I would probably have to repeat eighth grade. It was true that my segregated school didn’t have the modern facilities and equipment available to white students on the other side of the tracks, but I breezed through ninth grade and performed equally well in high school.
But still, something was lost. I had excellent teachers, but black teachers and counselors disappeared from my academic life. Despite my good grades, my high school counselor had low expectations for my future, encouraging me to become a nurse’s aide or secretary. She didn’t think of me as college material.
Fast-forward 60 years and a big question looms large: Is it possible that integration was actually a major setback for black educators and students?
The reality is that black families faced heavier burdens with the desegregation mandate than whites. Black children spent more time commuting, black schools were closed to make desegregation more convenient for whites (and to prevent their flight to the suburbs or private schools), and black teachers and principals were fired when white and black schools were merged. Estimates show that more than 82,000 black teachers provided instruction to a black student population numbering around 2 million in 1954. Within a span of 10 years, around 40,000 black teachers lost their jobs. Ninety percent of black principals lost their jobs in 11 Southern states.
Today, increased public school closings across the nation disproportionately impact black, Latino and poor students who lose their neighborhood schools. Eighty-eight percent of the school closings in Chicago affect black students.
The decimation of black educators has had a long-lasting impact. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that among 3.3 million teachers in American public elementary and secondary schools in 2012—where minority students are quickly becoming the majority—they were 82 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and about 2 percent Asian. The loss of black teachers means that many students have lost contact with their most impactful role models. As black educator Kevin Gilbert told the Associated Press, “Nothing can help motivate our students more than to see success standing right in front of them.”
This lack of black educators has meant that black students are less valued in general. White teachers, typically women, who are educated in white neighborhoods and white universities, make up the majority of educators in minority classrooms. Many are fantastic, quality teachers and a gift to all students. But many are ill-equipped to meet the educational needs of black students. And studies indicate that they treat black children differently.
A 2012 study from the American Sociological Association found, “Substantial scholarly evidence indicates that teachers—especially white teachers—evaluate black students’ behavior and academic potential more negatively than those of white students.” Another longitudinal study shows that teacher expectations account for 42 percent of the difference between white and African-American students’ realization of their potential.
I’m not saying the 1954 Supreme Court decision is solely to blame for the significant decline in black student achievement. There’s no question that it had tremendous strengths. It clarified the harm caused by state-sponsored segregation. It articulated the central role education would play in modern life and that the opportunity for all to receive a quality education required an end to racial segregation in education. It also highlighted the human suffering caused by racial segregation.
The decision also laid the foundation for racial equality and was the keystone for major civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voter Rights Act of 1965. But the way desegregation efforts were administered resulted in extreme inequality.
It’s time for the Department of Education to address the long-term systematic inequalities of that biased desegregation model and launch a national recruitment campaign for black teachers, especially men. We should also offer a student-loan forgiveness program for black professionals proportional to the number of years spent teaching in inner-city classrooms. In the meantime, we should require cultural-sensitivity training for nonminority teachers who teach in predominantly minority classrooms and upgrade inner-city schools to the maintenance and technology standards of middle-class suburban schools.
I’m a firm believer in a diverse learning environment for all students with updated facilities and technology. But it’s equally important for students to have community accountability and positive role models who look like them. This community need wasn’t recognized by the Brown decision, and it’s still not recognized by many decision-makers 60 years later. That has to change, and it must change now.
Daisy M. Jenkins is president of Daisy Jenkins & Associates and a member of the Tucson, Ariz., Human Relations Commission. She is also a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.