Still Separate and Unequal:
Public Education More Than
Forty Years After Brown
by Rose Sanders and Wythe Holt
Eddie Blue was ready to enter Selma High School, the only public high school in the troubled city of Selma, Alabama. He was fourteen then, in 1989, filled with visions of greatness that exceeded ordinary fantasies and dreams. He wanted to take algebra, a foreign language, and other challenging courses so he could go to college and realize his dreams. But, without explanation or even testing, Eddie was railroaded. He was placed in Track Three where general math, general science and other undemanding general courses were offered for him to achieve a General Diploma which often means "general failure." Unlike most of his peers and elders, Eddie demanded to know why.
Eddie had come face to face with the continuing racist assumption that children of color and children of poverty are inherently inferior, not worthy of the academic opportunities provided their peers of "higher" intellect and lighter color. He did not understand that 35 years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, his skin color and his poverty would severely limit his opportunities to achieve through education the greatness he saw in himself.
Unbeknownst to the apparent victors of the long battle to end separate and unequal education in Selma. equality of educational opportunity ended as soon as Black and white students entered the schoolhouse door. The war to destroy the cancer and pain of Plessey v. Ferguson's doctrine of separate but equal, the legal underpinnings for American-style apartheid, was far from over. The facade of "legal" integration blinded past and present generations, however.
Tracking -- usually known under its neutral-sounding euphemism "ability grouping" -- remains, as Eddie Blue discovered. Tracking is an insidious but awesome form of segregation, an ingenious circumvention of the Brown decision, which assures the continuing relegation of most children of color and poverty to an inferior, separate and unequal education.
Tracking was adopted in many areas of the South in order to keep whites from fleeing the newly integrated school systems. The purpose was to assure segregated education where rich "able" whites would not be "soiled", "infested" or "dumbed down" by having to be in the same classroom as persons assumed to be permanently stunted by their genes or their social circumstances.
A Rand Corporation study determined that Hispanic and African-American students are seven times more likely to be placed in a lower track than white students. The great majority of students were not and are not tracked based upon ability, but upon teachers' and counselors' subjective perceptions of ability influenced by hidden assumptions of race and class. And ability tests, where actually used, subtly but persistently discriminate against the poor and the nonwhite.
Tracking, since it is based upon and implements prejudice, has no positive correlation with learning, for everyone. It does not help whites to learn, while it actively impedes learning for nonwhites. The Rand report concluded that "tracking fails to increase learning" and "widens the achievement gap between students."
Tracking operates to place white children in the higher tracks which offer the same or a better education as offered in the segregated system, while providing Blacks a worse education than the one available to them in segregation. Although saddled with unequal resources, books and curricula, most Blacks in the segregated system were required or had the option to take all the courses offered at their school, including higher math, science, and literature - and more, since many could take African-American History. Moreover, they were not reminded daily of their supposed inferiority since there were no smug white children passing them by in narrow halls without a glance, making them feel invisible, as the whites went to their "higher" track classes. Self esteem was higher, and the drop-out rates and crime rates lower, for Blacks in the segregated system.
But Eddie Blue was not in a segregated system. He questioned the authority of other humans to play God with his life and dreams. How dare someone decide that he was not smart enough to take algebra! He knew he would never realize his vision of greatness without taking the courses that would challenge him to think and prepare him for higher education. Was not his desire to learn and achieve sufficient? Did he not have the right to believe that integration would assure him of equality of opportunity, curriculum, and resources with all other schoolchildren?
Eddie was painfully and personally aware of the people and faces that gave life to the horrible statistics that maintain the stereotypical image of the Black community. Incidents of violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy were choking the vitality from his friends and neighbors. It is no coincidence that 90% of prison inmates in Alabama are school dropouts tracked "down" the ladder to failure rather than "up" the ladder to success. Yet, no one views these inmates as victims. An insightful and sensitive white school superintendent in New Mexico, commenting for ABC News on the low percentage of Hispanic children in higher tracks, stated: "We give them the worst courses, the worst teachers, the worst supplies and when they end up 'doing nothing,' we wonder why. In spite of this forceful, simple logic, few African-American leaders speak out against tracking or link the high crime rate in the Black community to America's continuing failure to end separate and unequal education. Why?
In our system of jurisprudence, the victims of crime are compensated for the injuries sustained by intentional or negligent acts. Yet, generations of victims of intentional separate-and-unequal education have gone uncompensated. Rather, they are expected to achieve with less opportunity and less economic means. When they fail to do so, they are labeled failures. They have less because their parents also had less. The cycle goes on. The crime rate gets higher. And the celebrations of our victories, such as Brown, continue to be hollow, continue to ignore the reality of millions of this nation's mistreated children of color and poverty.
Eddie Blue was determined not to be another dreadful statistic. Once he found out that the classrooms behind his new schoolhouse door were separate, unequal, and designed to achieve the same results as in the pre-Brown era, he chose to assert himself. He insisted on taking algebra and other challenging courses. when he was rebuffed he went to his community for support and help. His community responded well, as it had before - with solidarity, with militance, and with an increasing realization of the existence and the horrors of tracking.
One of us discovered that her own daughter Ainka - the child of two graduates of Harvard Law School, and always an exceptionally good student - had been tracked into a low level despite her high grades and test scores. The system of tracking was worse in Selma than in other places in Alabama and the nation. Teachers were allowed to disregard grades and test scores in stopping students in their tracks.
Eddie Blue's stalwart vision of his future led to an unprecedented battle to end separate and unequal education in the Selma school system. People went to meetings, to the school system bureaucracy, finally to the streets. the message about tracking still proved difficult to hear. Unlike Selma's civil rights battles of the sixties that claimed the attention and the hearts of a whole system, few at first listened to this new war cry for justice, this proclamation that education is a civil rights matter. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders visited Selma during the protracted battle over tracking, but did not address the issue.
The arrests of several attorneys, parents, and community leaders were a small price to pay for justice. However, one "life" was lost in that unsung battle for human rights. the first African-American school superintendent in the city was fired when, at the urging of Black parents, he joined the struggle against tracking. Ironically he, unlike the parent group, sought not to end tracking, but only to require that grades and test scores be the sole criteria upon which tracking decisions were based. His abrupt termination and the resulting demonstrations and school boycott drew some national attention, but were obscured by most of the media. Finally in June 1990, following the arrest and incarceration of Betty Strong and one of us (Rose Sanders) for passing out leaflets encouraging children to take algebra, ABC reporters came to Selma. They soon understood what tracking is all about, and they well documented that our struggle centers around finally achieving the goals of Brown.
The ABC report appeared on Peter Jennings' prize time news in three consecutive nightly segments. It amply demonstrated the existence of tracking throughout the country, not just in Selma or the South. For example, in the Boston school system, only one Hispanic child was taking calculus. It also documented the link between low tracks, low self esteem, and low outcomes (including criminal outcomes). It made clear that the seemingly illogical treatment of Ainka Sanders and the Selma school superintendent was no accident: expectations and opportunities determine a child's fate, not ability. The talk about "ability grouping" was false both in the practice of tracking and in learning itself.
The second part of the ABC report began with the question, "Is it possible that an education sorting system commencing when a child is six years old determines whether that child will be a physician or a prison inmate?" ABC answered affirmatively, mirroring the deep insight contained in Chief Justice Earl Warren's forty-year-old Brown decision:
In spite of the Brown decision, the majority of children of color and poverty continue to be denied the opportunity of an education on equal terms. Equal terms, by definition and common sense, must include an academic and cultural floor, not ceiling, that prepares each child to climb to the heights of that child's desires, interests, and abilities. As Thomas Jefferson sagaciously observed, most people use less than five percent of their natural intellect or ability. By doubling their effort, average or even slow learners can master and exceed the work of fast learners. Therefore, ability should rarely be a determinant of opportunity, but opportunity is always a stimulus of ability.
Community activists established a pre-school in Selma fifteen years ago to test the validity of the hypothesis that all children can learn at high levels. Black children on the lowest rungs of the income ladder read and mastered the three R's before entering first grade, because they were expected to do so and had the opportunity. This school is still thriving. Yet, tracking is justified by the misnomer "ability grouping," from which it can be inferred that some children have higher ability than others, which is then supposed to account for separate and unequal learning opportunities. We do not argue that all children are equally intelligent. But within the expansive range of human ability and creativity, most children can master the so-called college track if motivated and if expected to do so. (It is misleading to call the current high track a college track since that appellation discourages students from pursuing a course of study that is not exclusively college preparatory. the courses in such a track are life preparatory.)
Only three to five percent of the human population can legitimately claim to be geniuses. Geniuses have a right to a challenging curriculum in line with their abilities. Likewise, children who are mentally challenged have a right to a curriculum which meets their needs. Also, higher or more advanced courses should be afforded to all students who seek advanced learning. However, that which is ordinary should not be denied in the name of "ability grouping" to the overwhelming majority - more than 90% of us - who are ordinary. Eddie Blue deserves the same chance to challenge himself, to strive to achieve his dreams, as do ordinary white children.
Selma is not unique, as the ABC report showed. Throughout this nation, children of poverty and children of color are placed in lower, non-college prep tracks solely on the basis of class and race. Since this nation's birth, people of color and the poor have been targeted for the bottom, since the land of opportunity seems to require that some group must be at the bottom. When color is not a factor, as in a single-race school, class dominates the tracking selection process.
Like Jim Crow segregation, tracking is a system of education that pervades every aspect of a student's life. "Integrated buildings" were never the goal of Brown and those who challenged the core of American racism. Even "integrated classrooms" will not assure the end of the Plessy doctrine in American schools. In many systems, especially in elementary education, students are grouped and provided inferior knowledge and treatment even though the Redbirds sit in the same rooms as the Bluebirds.
The answer, therefore, is not integration. The answer is in an education offering all children the opportunity to learn on an equal basis - "to all on equal terms," as Chief Justice Warren said. The assumption that some children are inferior must be replaced with an assumption that all children can learn. This means that all children in public schools must be offered, and required to take, a multicultural curriculum rich in math, science, art, and literature that will prepare them to pursue life choices in a technological society.
Brown is about giving students a sense of self worth and an equal opportunity to pursue mature life choices. Education should be about expanding not limiting choices, and raising not lowering self esteem. A student may be fifty years old when the decision to pursue a college career is made. The preparation to make such a choice, however, should have been given to that student in public school. If properly prepared by the public schools, each person can always change a life-work pattern, make a new choice, decide to better fulfill one's abilities and interests. If ill-prepared, however, the student's choices will be accordingly limited, or far worse, the ability to choose to succeed may have been robbed during the most vulnerable period in that student's life. This is what tracking does for people. Without equality of basic preparation, there can be no equal opportunity or education "on equal terms" as mandated by Brown.
When such students fail, it is the system's failure. and when, despite tracking, a student of color and poverty succeeds, it is a miracle, not a product of the system. When a school system provides a proper opportunity to be challenged, it provides both the opportunity to succeed and the opportunity to fail. Some students will still fail. such failure, however, will not be the system's failure, since it will not be predetermined by the color of the student's skin or the size of his pocketbook.
Unlike the pre-Brown system, some Blacks are allowed into the higher, mostly-all-white tracks. (Indeed, most middle-class African-American children now receive a far better education than their much more numerous and less fortunate Black counterparts.) Now the "color only" signs are invisible and deceptively dangerous because of the presence of a token few faces of color on the other side of the sign. Elizabeth Humphrey, a brilliant Black recent college graduate who grew up, as she says, "in the projects,' publicly states that she was endowed with a false sense of superiority when she was placed in the high track in a predominantly white high school in Alabama: "I actually looked down on my peers and friends of many years who were not on the higher track. I blamed them for their low self-esteem and low ambitions, until I realized what tracking does to the human spirit." Liz is now an outspoken critic of tracking. Why don't more Black leaders join her?
When the United States Commissioner on Civil Rights came to investigate the Selma school tracking crisis, he was told by a frank Black counselor that Black teachers were proud to be teaching at the "integrated" high school - though few of them taught higher track courses - and they all accepted things the way they were without question. There had been only one Black valedictorian in the twenty years before Eddie Blue entered predominantly Black Selma High School, but no one said a word. Students on Track One were given extra grade points which made it impossible for an all-A Black student on one of the lower tracks to compete, but no one said a word. When Eddie and his community at last begun speaking out against this insidious system Selma began to listen. But the state and the nation remained deaf.
In 1993 Gene Reese, a courageous, fair-minded, elected Alabama state judge - who is white - declared that tracking be eliminated under the Alabama Constitution. In finding that many school districts and schools were inadequate - overwhelmingly those in poor areas - he was re-sounding the doctrine and the democratic themes of Brown. The Governors of all 50 states, at a conference, have declared tracking unfair and unneeded. Yet, tracking continues, and is assiduously defended in the Alabama legislature as school reform is debated. More than thirty years after the Voting Rights Act was won through blood, sweat, and tears, some Black legislators and educators are actually opposing education reform that is aimed at ending tracking and implementing Brown v. Board of Education.
Meanwhile our children continue to suffer because of their lack of self esteem, their poor academic preparation, their poor direction. Politicians and educators focus their pinched, self-righteous attention on discipline in schools with total disregard for the factors which actually produce disciplinary problems. Few view tracking as the chief cause of the myriad problems that plague our schools, Black youth, and particularly young Black males. Few have taken on the "new segregation" issue with the same fervor and commitment that they rightfully adopted to fight segregated schools and segregated public accommodations.
Most of Eddie's classmates accepted their placement in Track Three without question. They are a part of the mis-educated masses of people of color academically prepared and destined by design to be servants, fast-food workers, unskilled factory workers, welfare recipients, dropouts, never-employed persons, and prison inmates. Many leave school out of boredom and low self esteem while their man-labeled "superior peers" receive an education which is not in fact superior but merely what any child in a democratic, technically-advanced nation should receive. Why don't more tracked Blacks protest?
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, one of the founders of African-American history, described this conspiracy of silence as follows: "If you treat a man like he is inferior, he will begin to act inferior." Then he and only he can be blamed for his actions. He blames himself and assumes he deserves nothing more. Thus, he loses his will to change his condition. We have blamed the breakdown of the Black person, the Black family, and the Black community on black people, but ironically no national Black leader or politician has pointed to the breakdown of public education as a contributing cause of those breakdowns. It is easier to blame the victim and to teach the victims to blame themselves, than it is to place the blame upon the villains and system which rob humans of self-worth, dignity, and the opportunity to make choices to be lawyers rather than prison inmates, to be artists rather than members of the chronically unemployed.
The most alarming reason for the appalling silence is the massive acceptance by Blacks, including Black leaders, of the inferior status of Black people. To the descendants of slaves, this remnant of slavery proves crippling: whites are supposed to be prettier, smarter, and better. The standard is always "white". Emancipation only removed physical chains. Mental chains remain, enforced by all the commercial and ideological strength the white power structure can muster, enforced primarily and powerfully by an educational system that has structurally and explicitly been founded upon the supposed inferiority of Blacks.
The massive absence of Black history, art, and literature from America's school curriculums is no accident. Other social institutions, particularly the historians and the media, also have long supported the notion of Black inferiority and white superiority. But Chief Justice Warren stated it well in Brown: "education is a principal instrument in awakening a child to cultural values." When those cultural values are centered around the dominance of an economically powerful white race, the educational system has naturally treated Black children as having no values of their own worthy of awakening. And thereby the self worth of Black children has been and still is being shaped and affected in negative, insidious, destructive ways from childhood onward.
As the African-American community stares face to face at apparent self-destruction, it is high time that we insightfully analyze how we got where we are today. Only then can meaningful solutions be forged.
We do not need Peter Jennings to tell us that the doctrine of separate and unequal is alive and well in America's public schools. It is killing our children softly, slowly, violently. We can feel, hear, and see their pain. We must surely know that their pain is our pain, their future is our future. That pain cannot be healed, that future cannot be changed for the better, unless we demand a permanent end to separate and unequal education. Until then, all we can say is that Chief Justice Warren's magnificent opinion is an unimplemented masterpiece, a source of wisdom and justice that we continue to fail to follow, an empty promise of democracy and wholeness for children of color and children of poverty who remain victims of a society that has so much, but fears there is not enough to educate all of its children.
Community action supported Eddie Blue's sturdy sense of self and future and, through long struggle with much risk, won him the right to a de-tracked education. We can join in struggle to implement the court order of Judge Reese and end all tracking in Alabama. the same struggle can be carried through to the same victories elsewhere throughout this realm where Brown is supposed to be the law. Until it is the land of the brave, the United States will not be the home of the free.
All children can learn. Let us get off tracking and on track to implement Brown once and for all.
Wyeth Holt is a professor of law at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. With Rose Sanders he co-founded CARE (Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education), a grassroots organization working for a reform of public education that is of substantive benefit for all children.
|Published in In Motion Magazine October 20, 1997.
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