May 14, 2004

Commentary

The Hip-Hop Generation and Brown v. Board of Education

By Farai Chideya

May 17th marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which was designed to desegregate schools. But despite the fact that the Hip-Hop Generation is the most diverse this nation has ever seen and that Hip-Hop culture itself has been a force for desegregation since its inception, schools have actually been resegregated.

The numbers may shock you. The Harvard Civil Rights Project reports that about three-quarters of African American students and Latino students attend schools that are majority of color. By contrast, they found that the average white student attends a school that is 79% white. Many education observers say that schools in the South, in particular, are more racially segregated than they were in 1954.

It gets worse. After a slew of anti-affirmative action measures and court rulings, numbers of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in higher education have plunged. In 2000, the Justice Policy Institute estimated that 800,000 black males were in prison, while 600,000 were in college.

New York University law professor Derrick Bell is the author of the new book, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. He argues in the book that the court made the wrong decision-focusing on “separate” instead of “equal.”

In a mock decision he writes from the point of view of the Court, Bell states: “The Court recognizes these cases are an opportunity to test the legal legitimacy of the `separate but equal’ standard, not as petitioners urge by overturning Plessy, but by ordering for the first time its strict enforcement.”

Bell’s book provides provocative questions if not answers. Would the courts have enforced a decision that focused on “equal” any more than one based on “separate”? And was Brown a victory or a failure?

By the time I entered elementary school, Brown v. Board of Education was already two decades old. But in many ways, it still hadn’t taken effect.

My mother went out of her way to put me in “magnet” programs. In my Baltimore elementary school, our magnet was an oasis of integration in a huge school where all the other children were African-American. Even at my young age, I knew something about this was wrong.

The question Derrick Bell and others are asking is “are we better off now than we were fifty years ago?” If “we” means the majority of children of color, then I would have to say no.

My grandmother and grandmother went to segregated, underfunded, but exceptional public schools. Today, the schools are still underfunded, but rarely excellent. Some of today’s teachers are barely qualified. Even the good ones are expected to be social workers, police officers, and educators at the same time. Many parents have checked out of the system. And yes, the schools are still de-facto segregated.

We can’t turn back to pre-integration days, nor do most of us want to. But communities of color have a choice: go along with the fiction that someone somewhere will fix this, or take the reigns of power on the local level-and craft schools that bring students real hope and opportunity.

Farai Chideya is an award-winning journalist and author and is the host of “Your Call” on San Francisco’s KALW 91.7 FM. She will soon be relaunching her ground-breaking website, www.PopandPolitics.com. Farai will be speaking at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention.

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