And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation

Beacon Press

Copyright © 2007 Beverly Daniel Tatum
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-3284-8

Chapter One

The Resegregation of Our Schools and the Affirmation of Identity

In September 2004, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday-a significant occasion under any circumstance, but it felt especially so because it coincided with the observation of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. It gave me the opportunity to reflect not only on what I optimistically regard as the first half of my life, but also on the significance of having been born in 1954, just a few months after that momentous Supreme Court decision outlawing the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation. I often call myself an "integration baby," because the struggle to desegregate American educational institutions has shaped my life from the beginning. I entered the world in Tallahassee, Florida, where my father, Robert Daniel, taught in the art department at Florida A&M University. Eager to obtain a doctorate in art education, my father hoped to study at nearby Florida State University, but in 1954 the State of Florida still refused to open the doors of FSU to an African American graduate student. Instead the state paid his travel expenses to Pennsylvania rather than desegregate the Florida graduate program. In 1957 he completed his degree at Penn State. A year later he became the first African American professor at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the community where I grew up. There the ideal of integration was more often the reality of tokenism, as I was frequently the only Black student in my class.

For those who were in school in the 1950s, it is not hard to recall the inequities associated with school segregation. However, when I think of my own children, both born in the 1980s, I realize that the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s is seen as a set of events in a far distant past. It is worth reminding them that it was not so long ago. As I have said to my children, it was all in my lifetime, and I am not that old.

Certainly we know that the "separate but equal" doctrine -which legally sanctioned segregated schools while spuriously promising equal educational opportunity-ensured separation but never provided equality of resources. Southern states routinely spent more money on White schools than on those serving Black children. According to data presented by Charles Clotfelter in his 2004 book, After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, the differences were apparent in the quality of the facilities, the training of the teachers, the equipment available, the size of the classes, and the courses offered. For example, in 1945 the state of Mississippi had 2,120 one-room, one-teacher schools, and while only 50 percent of the students in the state were Black, 95 percent of the one-room schools were attended by Black students. While 54 percent of the teachers in the White schools in Mississippi were college graduates, only 10 percent of those in the Black schools were. Or consider the example of Durham, North Carolina, in 1950, where the White schools had gymnasiums and music and art rooms, while not one Black school had such facilities. The science laboratory in the White high school had 136 pieces of lab equipment, while the Black school science laboratory had only 21.

Although these are southern examples, legalized segregation was not limited to the South. In addition to Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia (the eleven former Confederate states), the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia) and the District of Columbia also required school segregation. Prior to the 1950s, even in the West and the North there were states that had school districts requiring school segregation. Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania all were in that category.

In those states where there were no laws requiring segregation, separation still occurred because of residential housing patterns. Such patterns were not accidental, the result of free-market selection on the part of homebuyers. On the contrary, these patterns were the orchestrated result of housing ordinances, and the racial steering of real estate brokers, the lending practices of bankers, and the collective actions of White homeowners. Clotfelter writes,

One of the most potent tools for maintaining residential segregation, a California innovation of the 1890s that was approved by the Supreme Court in 1926 and used widely following World War II, was the restrictive covenant, the insertion into deeds the promise not to sell a property to Blacks or members of other specified groups. Although ultimately declared unenforceable in 1948, its effects were solidified in the segregated patterns of residential development in the large cities of the North. More extreme was the practice of some suburban communities to exclude Blacks altogether.... Combined with other policies, in particular the selective location of public housing projects and the largely unchecked discrimination in the housing market, many of the urban areas of the North became highly segregated. Perhaps the epitome of such segregation was Detroit, which as late as 1970 had fourteen suburban communities with populations of 36,000 or more, none of which had more than fifty Blacks. Such residential patterns led quite naturally to substantially segregated schools.

In parts of California and Texas, Mexican American students were also subjected to systematic segregation, while the educational experience of Native Americans in the twentieth century was certainly shaped by the aftermath of the nineteenth-century creation of reservations and nonreservation hoarding schools, designed to separate Indian children from family and tribal influences. All were affected by the civil rights movement and the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.

Although the Brown decision occurred in 1954, in 1955 the Supreme Court weakened its own decision by instructing the lower federal courts to "enter such orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases." The Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, in his 2004 book, All Deliberate Speed, writes, "these three critical words would indeed turn out to be of great consequence, in that they ignore the urgency on which the Brown lawyers insisted. When asked to explain his view of 'all deliberate speed,' Thurgood Marshall frequently told anyone who would listen that the term meant S-L-O-W."

In the 1950s and 1960s there was no reason to ask the question that in the 1990s became the title of my book: "Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" The answer was self-evident. African Americans weren't allowed in the school, never mind the cafeteria, or, as in the case of Bridgewater, the small Massachusetts town where I grew up, there were so few Black students present in White schools, there weren't enough to fill a cafeteria table.

The pattern of widespread school segregation did not begin to change substantially until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not only did this congressional act open public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, water fountains, and other public Facilities to Black people, it also authorized the U.S. attorney general to bring lawsuits against school districts that were resisting the law, and allowed the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to withhold federal funds from any school district that was excluding students on the basis of race. On May 27, 1968, the Supreme Court finally put an end to the delay tactics of many southern school districts in Green v. New Kent County. The historian Peter Irons writes:

Justice William Brennan wrote for a unanimous Court that school districts were "clearly charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps may be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch."... A school district must "establish that its proposed plan promises meaningful and immediate progress toward disestablishing state-imposed segregation," and judges "should retain jurisdiction until it is clear that state-imposed segregation has been completely removed." Brennan drove the final nail into the coffin of "deliberate speed" as a delaying tactic. "The burden on a school board today," he wrote, "is to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now."

And plans went into effect. Remarkable change occurred in the South in just a few years as the result of the desegregation plans implemented during the period between 1969 and 1972. For example, in 1968, 78 percent of Black students in the South were enrolled in schools with 90 percent or more students of color. By 1972 only 25 percent of Black students in the South attended such highly segregated schools. In the catty 1970s, urban school districts in the border states were also under court order to desegregate, with Oklahoma City and Prince George's County, Maryland, among the first to be affected by judicial action. Busing orders were not limited to the South or the border states, however. Growing up in Massachusetts, I vividly remember watching the local news coverage of White Bostonians attacking school buses filled with Black children in response to court-ordered desegregation plans.

Change was also taking place in higher education-the 1970s marked the beginning of what we might call the "affirmative action" era in higher education, with many White institutions that had previously limited the enrollment of students of color now actively seeking to diversify their student bodies. I was one of those students they sought to recruit. I graduated from high school in 1971, an honors student with high SAT scores. Because I had grown up in a family of educators, college attendance was a clear expectation. Howard University, Morris College, Spelman College, Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta), and Tuskegee University are all part of my family history-historically Black institutions where my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were educated. Had I graduated from high school ten years earlier, I probably would have followed in the family tradition of attending a historically Black college. However, in 1971 my mailbox was full of college offers from many predominantly White colleges, and given that the door of opportunity was now open, it seemed important to walk through.

What I have called here the "affirmative action era" officially began in 1965. The term "affirmative action" became part of our language and legal system in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11246. This order required federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." By law, contractors were obligated to make a "good faith effort" to use procedures that would result in equal employment opportunity for historically disadvantaged groups. The groups targeted for this "affirmative action" were White women, and men and women of color (specifically defined by the federal government as American Indian/Alaska Natives, Asian or Pacific Islanders, Blacks, and Hispanics). In the 1970s, legislation broadened the protected groups to include persons with disabilities and Vietnam veterans. Although Executive Order 11246 required affirmative action, it did not specify exactly what affirmative action programs should look like.

Given this lack of specificity, it is not surprising that there is great variety in the way affirmative action programs have been developed and implemented around the country. The executive order had as its goal equal employment opportunity. But in practice, because of continuing patterns of discrimination, that goal could not be reached without positive steps-affirmative action-to create that equality of opportunity. And in the 1970s, historically White institutions of higher education were taking positive steps-affirmative action-to extend opportunity to those who had been previously denied.

When I entered Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as a first-year student in 1971, I was part of a cohort group of Black and Latino students who were infusing racial and ethnic diversity into the institution for the first time in any significant way. And most of us sat together in the cafeteria. Given the social history that I have reviewed, it is not surprising that we did. Both casual interracial contact and close interracial friendship are positively associated with having attended racially mixed schools as a child. Most of us-born in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s-were children of Brown's promise, not its eventual implementation, and were products of segregated schools, as were our White classmates. My own experience of growing up as a young Black woman in a White community was not a common one then, and it had been socially isolating for me, especially in my adolescence. I was thrilled to escape it in college, and relished every day that I sat at the "Black table" in the cafeteria.

Why were we sitting together then? It was an affirmation -a time to relax-a creation of community based on a shared experience of being one of few in an environment unaccustomed to our presence. Did all Black students share in it? No. Were White students intentionally excluded from it? Not in any active way. They were not usually the focus of our attention. We were primarily interested in ourselves and the experience we were having as what W. E. B. DuBois would have called the "talented tenth," exploring our dual consciousness as young Black men and women in a predominantly White college setting. We were having what has been described by the psychologist William Cross in the terms of racial identity development theory as an "immersion experience." This particular phase of identity development is characterized by a strong desire to surround oneself with symbols of one's racial identity, and actively seek out opportunities to learn about one's own history and culture with the support of same-race peers. Anger and frustration experienced as the result of encounters with individual or institutional manifestations of racism might fuel the impulse to gather together, but the connections are sustained through the joyful exploration of one's own culture and the positive affirmation of one's group. Such reasons are still relevant today, perhaps even more so in some places.

When I entered college in 1971, the opportunity for interracial contact was a new experience for most, but such opportunities were expanding in our public schools. Under President Johnson, the federal government began vigorously enforcing desegregation laws, and by 1970 the schools in the South were far more racially mixed than those in any other region of the United States. However, the election of President Richard Nixon in 1968 marked the end of such vigorous enforcement and the beginning of the ideological reconfiguration of the Supreme Court, with four Nixon appointees.

In a tape-recorded conversation with the attorney general, John Mitchell, President Nixon discussed his criteria for selecting a new Supreme Court justice: "I'd say that our first requirement is have a southerner. The second requirement, he must be a conservative southerner.... I don't care if he's a Democrat or a Republican. Third, within the definition of conservative, he must be against busing, and against forced housing integration. Beyond that, he can do what he pleases."


Excerpted from CAN WE TALK ABOUT RACE?by BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM Copyright © 2007 by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Excerpted by permission.
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