Opinion | The Ugly Backlash to Brown v. Board of Ed That No One Talks About

In conducting research for my new book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership, I discovered the purging of Black educators happened even though Black principals and teachers were more qualified than the white educators who replaced them. Proven Black principals and teachers were replaced on a near one-to-one basis with whites who held fewer or no qualifications. Even in segregated all-Black schools, Black educators were more likely to hold bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, certification, and higher levels of licensure than their white peers. Yet after Brown, they were deemed unfit to teach white students for racist reasons, losing both their jobs and their ability to directly influence education policy and practice.

The loss inflicted four traumas still felt today. The first trauma was economic. As I estimate in my book, the low end of calculated salary losses is about $250 million for elimination of 30,000 Black educators’ jobs. Over time, 100,000 Black principals and teachers were shunted off the payrolls due to white resistance to Brown, leaving Black educators nearly $1 billion poorer. Adding to the salary losses from firings were those induced from lack of hiring. Between 1968 and 1971 alone, a total of 23,000 new principal and teaching jobs were created in 11 southeastern states. Black educators were placed in fewer than 500 of these new jobs. In these post-Brown firing and hiring equations, Black educators were desegregation’s prey and white educators its beneficiaries. They lost their jobs — and they were blocked from newly created positions producing income losses and wealth transfers from Black people to white people totaling approximately $2.2 billion today.

The second trauma was the damage done to school systems because of the loss of a high-caliber principal and teacher workforce. The mass exodus of Black teachers and principals yielded school systems led by racist fearmongers manipulating the system to maintain white power and jobs at the expense of Black people. The assault on the professional stature of Black educators ensured that the desegregated school system would be held captive by the same Jim Crow power structure that had fought vehemently against desegregation for decades.

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The third trauma resulted in the “near total disintegration of Black authority in every area of public education,” according to a 1972 report by the National Education Association. That served to greatly diminish the aspirations of Black educators and young people. It is reasonable to conclude that Black youth observing the fate of their elders, would worry (and be advised) that they would have limited futures as principals and teachers. The loss of leadership symbols, success symbols and symbols of aspiration were known and felt in the Black community.

The fourth trauma was the cruelest cut of all. If schooling is about the children, as all the sentimental slogans profess, Black children did not seem to count. Ushered into “integrated” schools without Black models of intellectual authority who could serve as guides and protectors, Black students were subjected to physical violence and emotional abuse, racial intimidation and hostility and illegal suspensions, according to numerous reports by the National Education Association and the American Friends Service Committee, a human and civil rights organization. In 1965 Time magazine published an article about the firings, quoting then-U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel, who said, “We must not deceive ourselves that the exclusion of Negroes is not noticed by children. What can they assume but that the Negroes are not deemed by the community as worthy of a place in mixed classrooms? What can the white child assume but that he is somehow special and exclusive…How can the world of democracy have meaning to such children?” Even today, public school students of all races are taught curriculums that are nearly all-white in content, imagery and authorship.

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We think about Brown as ancient history. It’s not. School segregation was still in full effect well into the late 1970s and early 1980s. At some point in their histories even those non-Southern states that we today categorize as liberal leaning had laws prohibiting the education of Black and white students together, including California, Iowa and Ohio, among others. At least 17 states fought with all their might against Brown for more than 20 years. In Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, all that might include outright law-defying governors, state legislatures, local school boards and superintendents, and white citizens groups that illegally hijacked state budgets and statutes to steer tax dollars and white students away from desegregating schools.

Most folks don’t want to talk about failures and failings. Americans especially seem to prefer stories about the triumphant underdog, the up-by-my-own-bootstraps tale, and any narrative that advances an American exceptionalism void of evil intent and outcomes. It is this psychological persuasion that keeps the nation falling into the racial sinkholes that some would like to pave over, but never excavate to resolve and seal. The American myth histories that we are taught, and our schoolbooks tell, are filled with outright lies, as our (mis)understandings about Brown exemplify. So, what’s not true that we think is true about Brown? And why does any of this matter in 2022?

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