Brown ruling wasn't victory that people think it was

May 15, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

MONDAY, May 17, 2004, will be exactly 50 years to the day and date of the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

You'll hear a lot of talk about a 50-year celebration of the decision, and much flapdoodle about the "victory" black folks won on Monday, May 17, 1954, when separate but equal education was ruled unconstitutional and integrated schools became the law of the land. The sad truth is that African-Americans can ill afford many more "victories" like Brown.

Years before Brown, back in the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of the organization's magazine, The Crisis, suggested it wasn't integrated education that black people needed, just good education. He was bounced from the group for not supporting the party line, proving that the only thing that snaps shut faster than a conservative mind is a liberal one.

Fifty years after Brown, the achievement gap between white and Asian students at the upper level and black and Hispanic students at the bottom has been called "the most important civil rights issue of our time" by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. Whites and Asians, the Thernstroms wrote, leave high school with the equivalent of a 12th-grade education. Blacks and Hispanics leave with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.

For Maryland, the results of the Maryland School Assessment tests for geometry and 10th-grade reading are perhaps the most glaring example of that gap. When, in my last column, I gave the figures of black and white 10th-graders who scored in the "basic" category for reading at Baltimore County's Franklin High School, many students and faculty there took it as an attack on the school.

I didn't help matters by misinterpreting Franklin junior Shannon Johnson's statement about being the president of the Class of 2005. Johnson is the first African-American to run for president in her class, not the first to run for an office in the history of the school, as I implied in my column. Franklin's Class of 2004 has three black officers, according to Jean R. Lillquist, an English teacher at the school, and the number of black students holding office over the years runs into double figures.

I apologize to Franklin's students and faculty -- and especially to Shannon Johnson -- for the error, which obscured the point I was trying to make.

At Franklin, 46.7 percent of black 10th-graders scored in the basic category -- defined as being "unable to adequately read and comprehend grade appropriate literature and informational passages" -- on the MSA reading test, compared with 13 percent for whites and 7.7 percent for Asians. Those figures are better than the ones for all of Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, Carroll County, Prince George's County and even ritzy Montgomery County, and they sure as heck beat all of Baltimore City.

But if moderate indications of a racial gap show up at Franklin, a good school with a multiracial, colorblind student body that elects black class officers regularly, what does that say about schools not as good as Franklin?

Those numbers -- and that gap -- are much worse at other schools. There are some bright spots: little to no racial gap in achievement on the MSA 10th-grade reading test exists at Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore or at Eastern Technical High School and the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Baltimore County.

But overall, the disparity still persists. The experience of a Franklin High suggests that the reasons for it may be the classic riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Actually, the reasons -- and remedies -- may be quite simple.

African-Americans can do two things immediately to close the achievement gap.

First, we have to lose white racism as an excuse. Franklin has, according to Lillquist, a faculty and administration dedicated to helping all its students get the best education possible. Frankly, that's more than I can say for the faculty and administration I had when I was at Baltimore City College.

Black people have to admit that we have to change some things about ourselves. In No Excuses, the Thernstroms devoted several pages to the disproportionate amount of time black students spend watching television compared with whites and Asians, which may be a reason for the racial gap in the MSA reading scores. But black leaders will dismiss the Thernstroms' claim as "blaming the victim." Which brings us to the second thing black Americans can do.

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