A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, policies that give minorities more seats in educational programs, but do not help them acquire knowledge, are of little value, at least one African American public official says. “At the end of the day … we don’t care about your sheepskin on the wall; what we care about is what you know and what you can learn,” Gerald Reynolds, a deputy associate attorney general, said at the Heritage Foundation Monday.
Speaking at a Heritage forum on the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Reynolds argued that differing views of racial justice are held by two competing camps. One group consists of those who believe in preventing government from “distributing benefits and burdens on the basis of race,” as it did under Jim Crow. The opposing camp holds that racial justice requires the “equitable distribution of resources,” which the government must take action to ensure.
Both sides, he added, are unsatisfied with the educational status quo, in which increased racial balance is often offset by deficient academic achievement. Litigation was an effective means for ending state-sanctioned racial discrimination, “but for improving academic performance in schools … the litigation model is not effective,” said Reynolds, who previously headed the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
“When we misleadingly label schools with few whites ‘segregated,’ the implication is that learning is likely to be compromised,” added Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “The doomsayers today who moan about Brown’s failure would have people believe that the problem with urban schools is they aren’t white enough, that whites are needed if children are to learn.”
“The whole emphasis on segregation is a distraction from the real issue, which is quality education for all public school children,” Thernstrom said. She spoke of a Boston high school she recently visited where teachers dare not even assign students homework.
“There are a lot of stakeholders in the educational process,” Reynolds pointed out, and “not all of them have the interests of the children at the forefront.”
There are still plenty of educational problems left to be solved, said Peter Kirsanow, Thernstrom’s colleague on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, but the solution, contrary to teacher unions’ demands, is not more funding. He gave the example of Kansas City, Missouri, where a court-ordered infusion of $2 billion into predominantly black schools yielded “no discernible improvement in academic achievement.… If the Kansas City example doesn’t forever banish the notion of more money as a magic bullet for academic incompetence, then nothing will.”
Kirsanow discussed research that has attributed the lack of minority achievement to two major factors: “family environments incompatible with academic proficiency” and “miserably performing schools.” Although the former problem is obviously not easily solved, the latter would be improved substantially by the introduction of principles of school choice and competition, which would benefit students of all races.
“The promise of Brown will never be fulfilled,” Kirsanow concluded, “if the educational establishment, its enablers, [and] its cheerleaders resist reforms proven to elevate black educational achievement. Neither racial preferences, political correctness, self-congratulations, or good intentions are going to get the job done.”
In the years since Brown was decided, Americans have dismantled the “intricate state-sanctioned caste system that exalted the position of whites and rendered unmistakable the subordinate status of blacks,” Thernstrom said. “American apartheid is gone.… America has experienced a most remarkable revolution in race relations, unique in world history.”
Arguing that genuine educational reform should be the legacy of Brown, Reynolds paraphrased a recent statement by the Rev. Calvin Butts: “In this era of global competition, the folks in India, Russia, China … really don’t care about the fact that you were enslaved,” Reynolds said. “They are competing, and either you are prepared or you’re not.”
Thernstrom criticized the popular notion that the low percentage of whites in urban school districts means that the educational system has been “resegregated.” Pointing out that students today are not assigned to schools based on their race, as they were at the time of Brown, Thernstrom argued that the racial makeup of urban schools “simply reflects demographic reality, which is an entirely different story.”
Kirsanow likewise criticized the notion that Brown has been a complete failure: “No one can credibly deny that the condition of blacks in this country has advanced dramatically.” On the other hand, Kirsanow said, there are those who seem to “credit the decision with virtually every good thing that’s transpired since 1954, except perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.