Just listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell about the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. By all standards of people who actually care about human progress, this was a landmark decision that started tipping the scales toward justice. No one questions that the integration of schools was a step toward equal rights for all citizens.
But in his customary way, Mr. Gladwell shows us “Not quite.” Turns out that families like the Browns were encouraged by the NAACP to try to enroll their black children in the neighborhood white school in Topeka, Kansas so they could start in motion the lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court. And that the Supreme Court affirmed that separate was not equal and that the black children were disadvantaged in their segregated school.
But closer investigation reveals that the all-black Monroe school in Topeka was actually a good school and black children had black teachers who cared for them, understood them and educated them. When the order to de-segregate came down from above, the local boards of education in places like Topeka chose to close the black schools and more importantly, not re-hire the black teachers. The missing piece was moving black teachers to previously all-white schools. In the years following the decision, more than half of existing black teachers in the country were “laid off.” Since a student’s success often comes from the interest the teachers take in them, the understanding of their needs, the dream of their future, this was a blow to black kids in schools, now in the hands of white teachers who could not wholly know them, often didn’t care to and held somewhere in their mind that powerful invasive narrative of difference and inferiority.
Were the white superintendents casually laying off black teachers “in this period of adjustment” (as they wrote) consciously stacking the deck to protect white privilege or simply unaware of the hold that damaging narrative had on their thinking? Probably a bit of both. But the deeper lesson is that when evil forces get set in motion and become part of a national psyche, it takes tremendous effort, intention, reflection, intelligence and open-heartedness to recognize their impact and root them out. And clearly we are doing terribly at the moment, with so many consciously denying even the need to do so.
I often show these twisted convolutions at work in the story of minstrelsy, where poor whites in the early 1800’s began to imitate the song and dance of blacks in a weird mixture of mockery, admiration, parody in the black-faced minstrel shows. Then some 50 years later, freed blacks began to join minstrel shows and blacken their black faces to pretend to be white folks imitating blacks. Then they would all do the Cakewalk dance, which is a dance black folks made up to mock white folks (without the white folks suspecting). So you can have a black man pretending to be a white man pretending to be a black man doing a dance that the black man invented to make fun of the white man. At which moment, my students say, “HUH?!!!”
It was also possible for Al Jolson, who actively admired and helped out black folks in the entertainment business, sing in black-face without feeling the contradiction. Likewise, Fred Astaire dancing a tribute to Bill Robinson in the movie Swing Time trying to make public his admiration—while dancing in blackface.
Brown vs. Board of Education was simply a question of the right to have the choice of school, not have the patriarchal white culture decide that black schools were inherently inferior and shut them down and fire the teachers. However well-intentioned, the Supreme Court ended up “whitesplaining” to the black folks and sending in motion bad decisions by local school boards that had a bad impact on teachers and kids alike. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for telling the story. Now who is capable of hearing it? Who has the courage and intelligence to start to unravel the twisted narrative that still has our nation in its grip?
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