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Brown v. Board of Education 50 Years Later

May 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court established a new doctrine in America: Separate could not mean equal. And although the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling was intended to desegregate public schools, its domino effect changed the complexion of the nation’s workplaces and neighborhoods.

But half a century later, most minority students still go to schools where they are in the majority. Did Brown realize its promise? For that we turn to Sheryll Cashin, professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author of the new book, “The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream”; John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at the University of California Berkeley; Franklin Raines, chief executive officer of Fannie Mae, the financial services and home mortgage company; and Roger Wilkins, professor of history and American culture at George Mason University.

Roger, I’ll start with you. Fifty years later, is it possible to say that Brown accomplished what it set out to do?

ROGER WILKINS: No. You can’t say that the nation’s schools are desegregated, but Brown accomplished an awful lot. There are a lot of people who try to say Brown was useless. That’s wrong.

If you were born in segregation, as I was, and went to segregated– legally segregated — schools and understood that segregation wasn’t simply “go to this water fountain or that water fountain” or “sit in the back of the bus,” but a massive, sustained, nationwide assault on the spirits of black people to disable us from being able agents of our own lives, Brown was enormously effective because the thing that made segregation so awful was that the government said it was so, that the government said it was right to treat us badly.

Brown flipped it and took the government from the wrong side and put it on our side. And that just made the civil rights movement explode. So Brown accomplished an awful lot.

GWEN IFILL: Sheryll Cashin, what’s your take on the accomplishments of Brown?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, I agree with Roger. The chief victory is that average Americans everywhere now embrace the view that America should be a free, open, integrationist society where no one is limited in their access to education or jobs or whatever, based on their race.

Where we’ve fallen down, however, is we haven’t yet made the beautiful integrationist vision of Brown true for people in their daily lives, particularly black and Latino school children, who are going on average to schools where they’re surrounded by minorities, people like them, and also they’re in… at least half of their classmates tend to be poor.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean that Brown was a failure, at least the intention for Brown was a failure?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Brown was a success in getting rid of a racial caste system. What I’d prefer to say, being the optimist that I am, is that we still have unfinished business and we shouldn’t give up on that beautiful integrationist vision. There’s a lot we still could be doing to try to make that a reality for all school children.

GWEN IFILL: John McWhorter, let’s talk about the unfinished business. Do you see unfinished business or do you see that Brown has met its possibility?

JOHN McWHORTER: Well, I agree with Professors Cashin and Wilkins about what a wonderful thing Brown was, but the fact that we still have segregation, I don’t think we necessarily need to link to Brown not having worked.

And I say that because I think sometimes we tend to forget that both in the past and now, all black schools can be very, very good schools. And the reason that so many of the all-black schools today are having the problems that they’re having is not, I think, because America still hasn’t fully committed itself to educating black people, it’s because of cultural shifts that we’ve seen since the 1960s.

It’s an irony of Brown in a way that once we got past that kind of naked segregation and white America woke up to an extent, the set was laid for what you might call an oppositional culture that is very focused now that couldn’t have been possible before the civil rights revolution because the urgencies were too great.

But we have it now. We see it among a lot of black schoolchildren and in many aspects of the system, and in my opinion, that is the main problem with predominantly minority education today. That’s not Brown’s fault, and that requires a different set of solutions.

GWEN IFILL: So, let me get this right. Are you suggesting that Brown, which its goal was integration, that even if re-segregation has occurred, that wasn’t the good legacy? Segregation might have been a good legacy as something that was intended to promote integration?

JOHN McWHORTER: Yeah, I would say that we tend to forget that the case that black children weren’t doing well in 1954 because they weren’t around white kids was rather tenuous. I can understand why that had to be said at the time. But an all-black school can be a wonderful school. The problem with education now is not that Brown didn’t work. It’s that we have other kinds of cultural problems besides segregation and the overt racism that we had at that time.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Raines, did Brown work?

FRANKLIN RAINES: Well, I think Brown worked for the narrow purpose for beginning the ending of racial apartheid in America. That was a very important goal.

But Brown was really just a precursor of the effort to really try to integrate formally enslaved blacks into American society across the board. And it began that process not in 1954 but really not until the 1960s because Brown really wasn’t enforced until much later. But we also had the civil rights acts at that point.

And so the process of integrating former slaves was held up for 100 years. Brown signaled that that 100-year period was coming to an end. And so really, the effort to seek progress is not that old. It really only dates back to the 1960s.

GWEN IFILL: So if you say that Brown was the beginning and not the final conclusion of the civil rights movement, you’re describing, then what has happened in the last 50 years to signal that Brown accomplished anything at all?

FRANKLIN RAINES: Well, I think we’ve seen significant progress and we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve seen black graduation rates from high schools increase, but if we had equality, we’d have another 2 million black high school graduates. We’ve seen college graduation rates increase but if we had true equality we’d see another 2.7 million college graduates. We’ve seen home ownership rates increase. But if we had equality, we’d have 3.5 million more minority, black homeowners. So we’ve seen progress but we have a long way to go because we’re overcoming 100 years of being held back from the starting line.

GWEN IFILL: Roger Wilkins, Frank Raines talks about equality, the difference between equality and movement, I guess, is one way of putting it. If re-segregation has occurred in the majority or in so many of the nation’s especially urban schools, is that necessarily a failure or is, as John McWhorter argues, is that necessarily a bad thing?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, John certainly is right that all-black schools can be extraordinarily good: Dunbar High School here in Washington, Morehouse College, Spelman College. But you cannot have good schools which are under funded and haphazardly staffed.

In this country what we do right now is we give the best resources and the best teachers to the places where the kids come to school and have the greatest amount of social capital. And we give the worst resources and the least able teachers to the kids who need it most.

So if we’re going to change what is occurring in this society, you don’t take away resources from the kids who are doing well in good schools. What you do is you increase very substantially the resources and the talent level of the teachers in the schools that are not doing well.

But as to… let me make two points about integration: I don’t think that Thurgood Marshall and his associates, most of whom I knew personally, believed that a black child had to sit next to a white child in order to get a good education. They understood that the resources followed white kids. So if a black kid was going to get a good education, you had to have integration.

The second thing is there is something enormously useful about integration, not only of classes but of teaching staffs. Black kids learn something really good from integration. That is, there’s no master race. That’s what I learned when I first went to an integrated school.

GWEN IFILL: What do white kids learn?

ROGER WILKINS: That black kids are really human, and they’re not these awful things that their parents told them, but they’re people — some good, some bad, but they’re people.

GWEN IFILL: Sheryll Cashin, we’re five African Americans, many of whom have benefited from the legacy of Brown, having this conversation around the table tonight. However, are we limiting ourselves by talking in a black-white paradigm even though that’s the way Brown was originally designed?

In 2004 how much more broad is the idea of what integration should or should not be?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, the rapidly growing diversity of America is one of the things that gives me hope that we actually may be able to live up to the vision of Brown. You know, something interesting happens when you interject a third race, often Latinos, into this tortured black-white dynamic. And part of the reason why we haven’t achieved as much as we should have in integrating schools is our neighborhoods are very segregated.

But I have a book out now and I feature this alternative universe of the 10 percent of American neighborhoods that I call multicultural islands, where they are achieving a stable being together of different types of races, and when you get a situation where no one group is dominant…and this is where America is going. Mid-century we’re going to be a majority/minority nation where no one racial group is dominant… that seems to raise the level of comfort with all races with difference. And my hope is as we become more diverse, people will get comfortable with difference and feel less inclined to flee diverse neighborhoods, and maybe they will reenter or enter for the first time what I call the multicultural fray. And that’s the only way we’re going to cultivate, I think, strong schools for everyone.

GWEN IFILL: John McWhorter, are we at the point where we can be talking comfortably as Sheryll is positing about the multicultural fray, or are we still locked in that black-white paradigm?

JOHN McWHORTER: Well, you know, actually, it’s interesting because one of the neighborhoods that Professor Cashin mentions in her book is West Mount Airy in Philadelphia. I grew up in West Mount Airy and so I know that world very well. I’m a product of it. And multiculturalism there was a wonderful thing.

But I must say that I find it very hard to imagine that we’re going to see that kind of neighborhood as anything like a default in America anytime soon. And therefore I want to work with what we have. And if it looks like that’s often going to be what we’re calling segregated schools, then let’s improve education for people in these “segregated environments” because in them they can at least get decent educations, and then we’ll work on becoming a more consistently multicultural country.

I’m interested in helping people and I’m interested in seeing people learn. And I’m afraid that sometimes we have a well-intentioned idealism that might detract us from really doing the work that needs to be done with those suffering schools.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Raines, if John McWhorter is right and maybe the focus should be on improving the schools as they are rather than striving any long for greater integration which as a definition for what’s successful, what are the goals here? You cited a few statistics earlier about inequality. What is it that should be approached? What is the remedy here for the situation as it stands now?

FRANKLIN RAINES: Well, let me speak to that as an employer, because in the end the workplace is one of the only diverse environments that most Americans encounter. They don’t encounter it at home. They don’t encounter it at church. They often don’t encounter it at school but they do encounter it at work.

Here at Fannie Mae we strive to look like America. That’s our workforce. That’s where we have to draw our strength. And we’ve been very successful in attracting to our company a wide range of people from different races and backgrounds because it makes us a better company.

Ultimately, I think in America, what will motivate us to try to make every citizen successful is the great American desire to create more wealth so it can be shared by everybody. We can’t create that wealth if we leave on the sidelines African Americans and Hispanic Americans and women and Asian Americans – we’ll be a poorer country financially if we do that.

GWEN IFILL: But if the people who control the wealth are people who don’t necessarily buy into the notion that integration is the way to achieve that wealth, how do you begin to fix that?

FRANKLIN RAINES: Well, I think the issue of integration by itself is not sufficient. What we have to do is try to figure out what works. How do we ensure that, in particular, black kids have a chance to succeed whether that be in an integrated environment or not? But what I think our history will show is that integration and the ability to work in a diverse environment will be a key to success in the future.

You’re not going to find work environments that are all going to be just whites or just blacks in the future. So along with the other things that people are going to need to learn to succeed, they’re going to need to learn to understand how to work and be successful in a diverse environment.

GWEN IFILL: I’m going to ask you all briefly just for one final question, which is whether… and I ask that your answer be brief as well… whether you think that integration ultimately as we stand here now in 2004, 50 years after Brown, is a failure or success?

ROGER WILKINS: I don’t think that’s the right question. I think… the answer is obviously it’s a success. All of us are sitting here doing all kinds of interesting things in an integrated world. There just – there needs to be more of it. We need to educate both whites and blacks to the point where we can have an integrated society.

GWEN IFILL: Sheryll Cashin, you can feel free to rephrase my question as well.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, I think that we need a model of integration that’s a 21st century multicultural model not one where blacks bear the burden of assimilating into white America, but more white people assume the responsibility of becoming comfortable living in a society where they’re going to be surrounded by very different people, different races, and getting comfortable with that. And I think that’s the key to developing a more integrationist society, where we live up to our values.

GWEN IFILL: John McWhorter, what’s the key?

JOHN McWHORTER: Integration is very important. And I think ultimately our goal is in a distant day to get past race altogether. But integration is not a necessary condition for success or personal contentment. Certainly we don’t want ugly vulcanization. But I hope that we won’t fetishize integration at the expense of other things that I think are equally important here in our moment.

GWEN IFILL: Frank Raines.

FRANKLIN RAINES: Well, the first question is integrate who into what? We have to remember where we started. We started with a people who had been enslaved and then for 100 years were denied the rights that were promised them in the law. So what we need to do is to integrate these people into the broader society.

I am convinced if we provide the opportunity, that black folks will provide their own success. But we’ve got to ensure that that opportunity is available so the success can happen. It will not happen overnight. Integration is a work in progress. It took generations to integrate Italian Americans and Irish Americans and Jewish Americans into American society. It’s going to take generations starting in the 1960s to integrate black Americans into American society.

GWEN IFILL: Franklin Raines, John McWhorter, Sheryll Cashin and Roger Wilkins, thank you all very much.