Black Boys in Crisis: Dismantling “Separate but Equal”
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the watermark Supreme Court decision cementing segregation in US law, ushered in a new era of “separate but equal,” which in practice was anything but. The half century between Plessy and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which abolished segregation in schools, was coincidentally a time of dramatic expansion in US public education. This fact should not go unnoticed: Even as educational services in the United States were taking enormous strides, leading to what we now consider the norm of decent, high-functioning public schools, African Americans were by law being cheated of full participation.
In 1910, just 9 percent of eighteen-year-olds in the US graduated from high school; by 1940, half of young adults had earned a high school diploma, an unprecedented number, which far exceeded even the achievements in Europe at the time. However, this rise was not shared equally. The numbers of African Americans who graduated from high school remained extremely low even as the figures soared for whites. Nevertheless, school enrollment rates were increasing for blacks: the difference in enrollment rates between blacks and whites shrank from 23 percentage points in 1900 to 7 points in 1940. Compare this to the 93 percent enrollment rate for all comers—blacks and whites, boys and girls—in 1991.
The legal and emotional impact of Brown v. Board of Education cannot be overstated. The NAACP, in which Du Bois had played such a vital role, sponsored the case, as it had other cases around the country. The plaintiff, Oliver Brown, was an African-American man in Kansas whose daughter had to go to a blacks-only school a mile and a half from her home though there was a whites-only school just a few blocks away.
However, Brown was not the only case heard before the Supreme Court: four other cases were bundled into the hearing, which was viewed by the country, and indeed the world, as pivotal. The plaintiffs’ counsel before the court was the storied Thurgood Marshall, later to become a Supreme Court justice himself. Following astute behind-the-scenes manipulation and cajoling by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the justices delivered a surprise unanimous decision outlawing segregation.
The legal edifice had been toppled, but dismantling the apparatus of racism proved long and arduous. The process of desegregating the schools was fraught with tension, exemplified by trials of the “Little Rock Nine.” This was a group of black students admitted to Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, following the Brown ruling. In the face of fierce opposition from the local white community, the students entered the school in the fall of 1957, protected by the 101st Airborne Division, which had been mobilized by President Eisenhower. The chaotic scenes, which were broadcast on television, captured the imagination of the country.
The first years at the Central High, as they were for black students across the South, proved extraordinarily difficult. The standards were higher at the white-majority school, and the black students faced daily abuse and ridicule. However, they persevered. Ernest Green, the first African-American student to graduate from Central High, went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs under Jimmy Carter and received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1999.
Though Brown v. Board of Education is rightly cited as a watershed moment in the African-American struggle for equality, it took many years, and more lawsuits, before school integration became the norm. In 2017, K-12 schools are more segregated than ever before. What effect does this have on the black boy crisis?