Pushing onward for racial equality

Monday, May 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

The information coming from the examination of racial progress 50 years after the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision has not produced many surprises. Racial equality remains as elusive as it has always been in the areas of employment, housing and, still in many cases, education.

Among other things, we have learned from a study by the Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization, schools populated primarily by minorities are more likely to have less qualified and less experienced teachers. This, of course, leads to a predictable outcome. Overall, minority students, by the time they reach eighth grade, tend to be “three years behind other students.”

Although I certainly believe that desegregation of the public schools was the right thing to do, I have to admit I had very few expectations that it would meet with any great success. The whole point was to assure that African-American children would have an education equal to that offered to white students.

From the very beginning, I thought the ruling was poorly implemented. Apparently, many of the people given the responsibility of making the program work didn’t have a clue in the area of human relations. Starting the process with the children instead of with the teachers was inane. The amount of emotional abuse inflicted on many of the young children early in the implementation was unconscionable. Even today, I encounter individuals who have never recovered from the ordeal. Closing the black schools, even those that were structurally sound, was stupid and indicated those involved were primarily interested in making the situation look better than it was. Failure to change curricula was idiotic. African-Americans certainly share some of the blame for not being more aggressive in monitoring the situation.

Lately, I’ve found myself explaining to a lot of people why black schools were such highly disciplined institutions. Some people find this strange. But actually, there was a very sound and logical reason for this phenomenon. Black administrators, principals and teachers understood that young blacks who grow up in racially hostile environments are extremely vulnerable and their ability to adhere to strict discipline is not only necessary for them to avoid trouble but very often to their survival. While leniency might seem like an attractive way to operate with minority children or children who sometimes come from impoverished dysfunctional backgrounds, in too many minds these kids already have a strike against them. Unfortunately, these children are born at-risk. Self-discipline is, therefore, crucial to their well-being.

People who learn early in life how to interact with people of other races have a distinct advantage in the world. When one has to function in a society imbued with more than 300 years of social injustice, becoming entrapped in its inherent customs and traditions is sometimes difficult to avoid. For example, a company that has been practicing racial discrimination in its employment practices for 100 years might do what is necessary to give the appearance of obeying the laws against discrimination but will often, in practice, continue to discriminate.

Folks who oppose affirmative action because they say it gives minorities unfair advantage to educational opportunities have always intrigued me. I know one fellow who contends that he was shut out of an academic placement because a black person, of what he considered questionable academic standards, was selected. It never seems to bother these people when white children of questionable academic standards are selected because their parents are rich and make contributions to the institutions in exchange for preferential treatment.

Probably the greatest thing that came out of the Brown ruling was that it opened the door for other civil-rights legislation. When those doors opened, many Americans came to believe that racial justice automatically became the rule. The fact that some schools remain segregated and that blacks have a 60 percent higher unemployment rate than whites suggest there is still a lot of work to be done in the area of race relations.

Now that the gap between perception and reality regarding equality of educational opportunity has been brought to the attention of the public, school boards across America should take heed. Public schools are supposed to operate for the benefit of the public, not the benefit of the parents. I believe that if schools take this mandate seriously, we could make better progress in this area.

Johnny’s ability to read a map and a bus schedule should not depend on the color of Johnny’s skin. Another 50 years is too long to wait for equal access to education to catch up with Johnny.

Let’s give every child a chance.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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