May 17, 2004 is the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared state-mandated segregated education to be illegal. What kind of progress has been made since then? Is the current state of public education what we would have hoped for? Did the decision lead to misguided expectations? These were the questions addressed by a panel assembled by the Division of United States Studies on April 21.

Signithia Fordham, discussing the "achievement gap" between white and Asian students on the one hand and African-American and Latino students on the other, examined the role of race in American society. She referred to African Americans and some Latinos as "involuntary" minorities whose presence in the United States are largely due to forced immigration and slavery or U.S. seizure of territory, while Asians are a "voluntary" minority and whites the dominant population group. The historical context is responsible for cultural differences which affect the ability of students to do well in the communal educational system. There is a fundamental difference, Fordham declared, between the system of individual evaluation used in American public schools and the high value placed on the collective in African-American communities. Because the American education system focuses so exclusively on individual achievement, African-American students, anxious to prove that they can function as well as their white peers, are reluctant to ask for help with academic work. She cited an experiment at Berkeley in which virtually all African-American students were failing introductory Calculus. Most of them were working alone, and when they were put in study groups the result was dramatic improvement. The lesson, she argued, is that the educational system must adopt a more collective model to help African-American students fulfill their potential.

Ernie Green was one of the nine African-American students enrolled at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958 after President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops to ensure their admission. Growing up, Green had watched his father, a World War I veteran, denied admission to public concerts in Little Rock and was himself chastised for using a whites-only water fountain at the age of six. When Daisy Bates of the NAACP asked Green if he wanted to be one of the students to integrate Central High, Green was therefore eager to help. "Most people didn't want to see us hurt," he said, "but they wanted to see us fail." "Most people" nonetheless stayed silent when Green and the other African-American students were faced with bomb threats and threats that they would be lynched. He became the first African American to graduate from Central High; Martin Luther King attended his graduation.

"Without Brown we would still be in the shackles we were before it," Green told the audience. He saw the decision as having consequences in four areas: education, economic development, politics, and social consciousness. He also spoke of the resistance to Brown and subsequent decisions, citing the fact that county officials closed all the schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia for four years rather than integrate them. Green referred as well to the horror of the assassinations of people such as Dr. King, Medger Evers, Emmett Till, and the four schoolgirls in Birmingham, Alabama. "They killed the dreamers," he declared, "but not the dream."

While he encouraged the celebration of the Brown decision, Douglas Reed also suggested that perhaps this should be the last anniversary of Brown to be celebrated. There is no argument, he said, that Brown represented a seminal step for the country. No matter how poorly the ruling was implemented, any form of success or failure under Brown was, by definition, better than living under the old precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, which had declared separate but equal public institutions to be constitutional and which thereby institutionalized segregation. But Brown solved the problem it set out to remedy, the one created by Plessy; it in no way addressed the problems of the current moment, including the unequal funding of schools. The traditional American system of basing public school funding on local property taxes necessarily leads to lower funding for schools in precisely those poor neighborhoods with the greatest need for enhanced funding. Reed mentioned the cases for equal funding that have been brought in many of the states, some successfully and others not, in an attempt to address the problem. He noted that the Supreme Court's decisions in Rodriguez v. San Antonio (1971), which held that there is no federal right to education, and in Milliken v. Bradley (1973), which struck down the lower court-ordered integration of Detroit's largely African-American schools with the largely white schools in the surrounding suburbs, were dramatic departures from the emphasis on the right to an equal education that illuminated Brown.

In a lively question and answer session, panel participants shared their concern over the rising re-segregation of American schools and emphasized the need for students to be shown some connection between achievement in school and the possibility of later economic success unimpeded by discrimination. Fordham stressed the factors of self-awareness and self-acceptance. Education can succeed, she declared, only if African-American students are taught to celebrate themselves because of, rather than in spite of, their race. The panelists agreed that it is nonetheless only national policies that can address the funding disparities across the states and that can help to give all the nation's students the kind of education that is a prerequisite to economic success later in life.

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff
Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129