All children need to develop a sense of the unique capacity of human beings to shape and create reality in concert with conscious purposes and plans. This means that our schools—both within and way beyond the existing institutional spaces called “school”—need to be transformed to provide children ongoing opportunities to exercise their resourcefulness, to solve the real problems of their communities, to imagine and invent. Like all human beings, children and young people need to be of use—they cannot productively be treated as “objects” to be taught “subjects.” Their cognitive and emotional juices will flow if and when their hearts, heads and hands are engaged in improving their daily lives and their surroundings.
Education is always an arena of struggle as well as hope—struggle because it stirs in us the need to look at the world anew, to question what we have created, and to wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and experience; hope because we gesture toward the future, toward the impending, and toward the coming of the new. Education is where we ask how we might engage, enlarge, and change our lives, and it is, then, where we confront our dreams and fight out notions of the good life, where we try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even change the world. Education is contested space, a natural site of conflict—sometimes restrained, other times in full eruption—over questions of justice.
Let’s take a look backward to understand a bit of falseness: on October 26, 1992 the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated Black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, Brown v. Board of Education. The National Archives includes several documents from the case in its digital classroom.
Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessey v. Ferguson and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools; it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inherent goodness and its inevitable upward trajectory: America the beautiful; Brown as sign and symbol. Americans are devoted to Brown, myth or icon, just as we’re dedicated to Superman’s motto: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” as Frederick Douglass said. “It never has and it never will.”
Brown was decided in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom, and, critically, with the return of young Black veterans from Europe and Asia. Whenever you read or hear that Brown unleashed years of struggle for civil rights, flip the script and remind people that years of struggle for civil rights resulted in Brown. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands and mobilizations by African-Americans that the country live up to the promise of full citizenship encoded in the Fourteenth Amendment:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
And Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with Black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African-Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant hypocrisy and an embarrassing fact of American life that was effectively wielded against the US in the UN and other international forums as an escalating Cold War raged on. White people needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown.
The language of Brown includes the language of justice. It repudiates racial segregation and says—correctly—that separate is inherently unequal. It affirms the full humanity of African Americans. It endorses core principles of democracy. It cries out for equality.
To take Brown to heart would require a hard look at the racial landscape we inhabit—a system with institutions operating at every level to construct Black “inferiority” and to deny full participation in social and political and economic life. That hard look could lead to an iron commitment, then, to smash the institution of white supremacy. No such luck—yet.
Brown also embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the harm suffered by Black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself. Black people—not racism—became the exclusively acknowledged concern; Black pathology, not white privilege, was the focus of action.
And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown II. Brown II was the implementation phase of the decision, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial in America—the remedy fitted neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys.
The Supreme Court had never in history issued an order to implement a constitutional right that was so vague, and “all deliberate speed” turned out in practice to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: racially isolated communities of color were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and strengthened even if the result was re-segregation; on and on and on. Recently the Supreme Court ruled against voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville in which race was one of several factors used to maintain a diverse student body in public schools. Almost 60 years after Brown, school segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more segregated. Brown is all but dead, and the structure of white supremacy rules.
As usual white supremacy is hiding in plain sight. The most dissembling hypocrites—Chief Justice Roberts (there’s an oxymoron!) among them—argue that anyone who sees race is a racist, that race-conscious integration is the equivalent of Black-hating segregation—an invented and wholly fictitious symmetry.
The problem in America is not and has never been race consciousness per se; the problem has always been white supremacy in fact. Anything that undermines white supremacy and fights for inclusion and equality sides with humanity; anything that excludes, segregates, or subordinates is on the side of oppression and exploitation. And so, using the lofty language of Brown, ordinary white supremacists continue to herd Black children into unnatural and inferior schools, build walls, and lock the gates.
Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic Site—may as well be turned into a mausoleum: here is one more place where African-American aspirations and the on-going struggle for justice and liberation were laid to rest. But it’s not over. The struggle continues.