Demyth-ifying the Road from Brown v. Board - Myth 2

(If you haven’t had the chance to check out the first part of the series with Myth #1, you can head here!

Myth #2 - Everyone has the chance a great education!

Coming into the present, the calculated, piecemeal, chipping away at the mandate for school integration is still, sadly, very much alive and present. But as our country now lives with the identity of a ‘post-civil rights era’ society (and all of the ways that this both true and false), the racist policies are cloaked in the morality of the day, and often put under the guise of individual freedom. 

Today, the exercising and prioritization of “individual choice” continues to drive segregation in at least two powerful ways: moving and opting out altogether. Parents with economic privilege prioritize moving to neighborhoods with "good" schools, even if those neighborhoods and communities lack a variety of features and lifestyle factors that are otherwise important to them. These "good" schools are only available to families who can afford the high property taxes and home values and are often spaces that were historically segregated and unavailable for families of color by legal ordinance, and who are able to navigate that predominantly white space with reasonable assurance of their safety. The wealth of these communities is funneled into the education system through a variety of avenues (property taxes, PTOs, foundations) which in turn leads to schools that are able to invest more in its student body and staff. Those investments go on to yield the type of high-quality “payouts” that you would expect - AP classes galore, extensive extracurricular activities to produce more rounded kids, or school alums off at an array of prestigious colleges. Other families remove their children from the realm of public school all together, and place them in private schools - where the classroom sizes can be controlled by the school, and teachers can then give each child more individualized attention. Done one way or the other, the explanation is usually tied to wanting to do everything possible and within their power as parents to make sure that their kiddo receives a top notch education - whether that means having a culture of rigorous academics or finding a school with a philosophy that aligns with the values that parents want their kids to receive from home and school.

On the surface, I more than get it. I grew up with an immigrant dad who believed that the “American Dream,” and the opportunities it promised, was achieved through education, and he made sure that his kids did too. 10/11 of my pre-college years were spent in private schools selected to give me a “good education.” And it worked. I graduated from a 4-year university, a master’s program, and I know that should I want to continue my education further down the line, I absolutely can. Because in addition to getting that private school education, I also got the implicit and explicit messaging - from school and at home - that I was being equipped to handle all the education I could want, and would therefore be able to access boundless opportunities as a result.

I have been so educationally privileged. Full stop. And the expectation that I receive a “good education” is one that I grew up believing that I was entitled to. And it should be true, for me and all kids. However, when the most common ways to ensure that children are receiving a “good education” is to either send them to private school, or move into a district that’s well resourced - there’s a considerable cost to the kids without the means to obtain option A or B.

This cements education not in the category of civil right but commodity. With money in the mix, “good” education gets auctioned off to the highest bidder, leaving the promise of an equal education for all in the dust. Because education is a key to some important life outcomes - better job opportunities, better earning potential, better health over a lifetime - it’s hoarded just like a precious resource and meted out only to people (often white) with the ability to access it.

The commodification of education makes way for some pretty pernicious justifications because even for the people who can access it - there’s an inherent cost involved. A widely-held scarcity mentality (there is not enough opportunity, accolades, recognition, or available spots to go around), creates a scramble  to access “good” education whatever way you can, but also, to keep that prize away from people who can’t pay the steep price of admission. And behind those actions, is the thinking that if my child is worth moving and shifting resources around and away from other children, then my child must be more special, more precious, more valuable than the child who was unfortunate enough to be born outside of my family.

While the notion that kids of color are worth less is nothing new, wrapping the choices and individual freedoms that are available (to some) up in the idea that it is really a system doing all work, sounds and feels a lot better. But at the end of the day, white families are making choices that prioritize their kids at the expense of kids of color.

To see this, we don’t need to remember all the way back to the integration fights of the 60s. There are plenty of present day examples of white families resisting efforts to integrating schools.The fight for keeping schools segregated is still alive and well, and still leading the charge are white families. In 2015, in the town of Gardendale, Alabama’s school district of Jefferson County and its affluent, 88% white population, decided that it wanted to leave the 2nd largest school district in Alabama for a school district of their own, that only served their town. 

The only problem was that Jefferson County is one of the few hundred counties in the US that is still under a desegregation order from the federal government, and therefore any changes to the district had to be approved by a federal judge. A task, that to the township at the time, seemed insignificant, since many other towns in the surrounding area were granted the same exception that they were seeking. Unfortunately for the town of Gardendale, their case landed with a judge who wasn’t nearly as permissive as other judges had been up to that point. 

What ensued was a court battle that could’ve been fought in the 1960s. The residents of Gardendale stated in their case that they wanted to create their own neighborhood school district. Opposing the case were the black students from the surrounding area, who made up roughly 25% of the Gardendale High School population, because once the new district became a reality, thanks to Milliken v. Bradley, the newly formed district would not need to make any effort to integrate across district lines. And the new district that they were looking to form, would be composed of mostly white students, essentially segregating the children of Gardendale from the larger Jefferson County school district. 

In the end, there was no clear cut solution, and the judge wound up issuing a verdict that did two things: firstly, it clearly named race as the motivating factor for Gardendale’s succession, BUT, it also allowed for the town to gain local control of 2 of the 4 elementary schools. The judge did this because she “worried that Gardendale residents would place the blame on the black students bused in because of the desegregation order, and those students could face marginalization and mistreatment” from the white families that pushed for the town’s succession from the largest school district in Alabama. Or written another way, she was worried about the black and brown children having to endure yet another cost just to pursue and education equal to that of the white kids in Gardendale.

This all played out in court less than 5 years ago. 5 years! Not a lifetime, or decades and decades ago, but just 5 years. A deliberate, coordinated, community effort to deny black and brown children a quality education, to be included in the sharing of abundant resources - so that white children could be ensured the benefit of their absences. 

That’s where our present day finds us. 65 years after the initial Brown v Board ruling, and almost 50 years after the ensuing court battles that contorted the original intent of the verdict, we’re still in a landscape that separates black and brown kids from white kids. A landscape that has been achieved, time and time again, by white parents doing everything in their power to keep “good education” accessible to primarily white kids. 

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:

  • Anyone who grew up with an idea of a “good” school must have also been aware of “bad” schools. What were your assumptions of why some schools were “bad,” and what kept them that way? What did you assume happened at “bad” schools and why? Did any of those things happen at “good” schools?

  • Think about the messages you received and internalized about “good educations.” What are some of the defining characteristics of that?

  • What traps do you hope to avoid when it comes to how your kids think of a “good education?” How? What messages can you use?

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Books for family conversation

Resources for Parents:


Picture Books for Family Conversation:

  • Someday is Now. Clara Luper and the 1985 Oklahoma Sit-Ins - Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Jade Johnson (AOC)

  • Separate is Never Equal. Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation - Duncan Tonatiuh (AOC, IOC)

  • As Fast as Words Could Fly. Pamela M. Tuck, Eric Velasquez (AOC, IOC)

  • Busing Brewster - Richard Michelson, Robert Roth

  • Freedom’s School - Lesa Cline-Ransome, James E. Ransome (AOC, IOC)

And for the older kiddos, check out these chapter books and graphic novels:

  • This Promise of Change. One Girl’s Story in the Fight For School Equality - Jo Ann Allen Boyce, Debbie Levy (AOC)

  • Little Rock Nine - Marshall Poe, Ellen Lindner


This blog post was written by Rhema Anazonwu, Program Manager for We Stories. We are grateful for her work, perspective and contributions.