As unpopular and unorthodox as it may sound, there is a minus as well as a plus when you talk about the Brown decision, May 17, 1954.
The most concrete loss was the termination of the jobs of tens of thousands of black teachers in the South.
And then there was also a more delicate loss of self-esteem that was implicit in the Supreme Court’s determination that the only way black children could get an education equal to that of whites was for blacks to sit next to whites in the classroom.
In the end – after all the legal inter-position and-nullification practiced by white Southerners to delay, if not prevent, school desegregation – it was the previously underfunded all-black schools, with black faculties, and principals and nurses, which were closed. black children were sent to previously all-white schools when desegregation was “officially” achieved.
Those are the issues that causes Dr. Anderson Thompson, professor of history and inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois to see the momentous decision as both minus and a plus. “There are some basic assumptions that go along with the idea that separate-but-equal facilities are unequal,” Dr. Thompson told BET.com. “And that would be that there is some kind of underlying position that being black is a negative if you search deep enough for the meaning behind the intent of the Court.
“We had segregated institutions in this country in the public sector,” he continued, while “[we] were still taxed uniformly. But when it came around to benefits, of course, the black community fell short.”
Correcting that imbalance was the positive aspect of Brown, Dr. Thompson said.
“But in the other sense, which is very delicate, because many of the all black, or all-Afro-American institutions in the South, and to some degree in the North, were developed out of segregation and assumptions of racial inferiority. Consequently, when you hear people say, ‘We had our own black schools, and our own black banks and black businesses,’ well, yes, you had them mainly because the society said we were not desirable, not good enough to be a part of the larger society.”
Those institutions, even though they were born out of our segregated, second-class experience, were the only institutions the black community had. Therefore, desegregation ushered in the demise of most of those black institutions.
That was not too high a price to pay for what blacks and everyone in the society got in return, according to Theodore Shaw, the new director general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, whose first general counsel, Thurgood Marshall, argued the 1954 case.
“Well, you know, there is nostalgia on the part of some people now for the days before Brown vs. Board of Education,” Shaw told a National Press Club luncheon recently, when asked if there were any negative consequences of Brown. “It is true that black communities had professionals living side by side with working-class people. But, you know, there's kind of an artificial bubble that segregation created that doesn't exist anymore, because people can live, for the most part, wherever they want. But we can't go back to those days. And I don't think any of us want to really go back to those days. What we want to do is create stable communities, even if they are majority African American or majority people of color.
“With respect to regrets, I think that the desegregation struggle was a noble one and a worthy one in that the desegregation of public schools has a lot to do with how people interact as adults in all of our society, in all of the walks of life in which we find ourselves. Certainly, some black teachers and professionals, and principals, lost jobs. I think that a lot of people regret that. There's no perfection in this world.”
The Brown decision may have had some unwelcome psychic effects on blacks as well.
“Its progeny included a tracking system, wherein blacks were academically tracked, resulting in inferiority complexes that many of them did not have that when they were in majority black schools;” attorney Nkechi Taifa, co-chair of the Legislative Commission of the National Committee of blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), said in an interview.
“Just because you’re sitting next to someone in a classroom, doesn’t make the situation equal, particularly since, by and large, it was black children who were bused long distances to white communities and white schools, as opposed to the other way around,” she continued. “There were disadvantages, after disadvantages, after disadvantages. We need to look in the long run, was it worth it?”
There was also an exclusion of blacks from social activities where they would have been welcome in a majority black school, Taifa explained.
“Where a 14-year-old might have been captain of her neighborhood school’s cheerleading squad, but after being bused into a predominantly white environment, she might not even been able to make the team.
“We also now have the tracking from the public school system to the prison system. Could we say that this is also a progeny of Brown? I don’t know. But, after 50 years that should not be a forgone conclusion. But that is happening with many, many youth these days.”
Fortunately, blacks did not set out to desegregate all of their community’s institutions, Thompson said. blacks did want to maintain the identity of the Historically black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as Tennessee State, Florida A&M, and Texas Southern, and other institutions, like the black Church, while at the same time they wanted to desegregate the schools, he said.
If blacks push to desegregate all those institutions, we would, in fact, be put “in a very serious bind,” Thompson said. “There’s still a battle over the attempt to maintain the integrity of the HBCUs. They could very well go under if we follow this [ntegration] out to the last decimal point, and if you’re really fighting for this kind of racial-free society.”
“My philosophy is that Brown only addressed part of the situation. The other part of it is still out there with a promise un-fulfilled,” Taifa said. “You ask many people during this 50-year anniversary of Brown how did it hold up--all of the achievements and all of the gains? But there were definite aspects of our uniqueness [as black people] that were lost, and I’m not sure if they will ever be regained.”