By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Separate but equal?
It never was.
In education, we still have a long way to go.
In technology, are we there yet?
It is nearly exactly sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place in the field of public education. The promise of an equal education remains unmet for too many of the nation’s students of color and Native students. Inner city schools are crumbling and losing educational leaders. Rural schools are often technology challenged as well as economically challenged. The new ideas and wonderful examples of best practices are not a part of these schools’ learning landscapes.
How long will this go on?
In my early school days, like many Southern students I went to school with Hispanics, Dark Italians, Native Americans, and Black students. We were all called colored. The nuns had us capitalize “Black” and names of minority groups to give them importance, to show their importance. There were a few Chinese students, but they were allowed to go to other schools. We did not know why. We accepted it. Change was coming, they said.
There was a confusion about race. There always has been. I still have the bad habit of capitalizing any minority name. However, there has never been an illusion about the economic differences in communities and what that means for students of color.
In my culture, we thought that Brown v. Board of Education was going to be a positive thing that heralded change that would come soon. I imagined going to the best schools and colleges in Virginia. The world, we thought, had changed for the better. University of Virginia, I was thinking. The change took so long that I matriculated at Virginia State College. Never was there a chance to go to the University of Virginia. I got an education, but it was not a match for the learning that many others were getting in the colleges and universities of excellence. Too many fellow students had to have their needs attended to. I got great grades, but not a great education. I think this happens today with students of color. Patchwork education does not make up for that solid beginning.
Brown v. Board of Education
On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read the decision of the unanimous Court:
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. . . . We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
It took a while for change to happen all over the United States. In Virginia, schools were closed for a period of 20 years in some places so that minorities, the coloreds, could not go to school. Academies and charter schools were financed by communities that excluded the minorities. Some of those communities are still in catch-up mode, i.e., schools in these areas are struggling to meet modern demands.
Few people have a memory of the disparities in the Jim Crow era, but they lasted long after Brown v. Board of Education. There were not just Freedom Riders. There was a wave of change that slowly transformed parts of America.
Education was changed, but how? There were improvements in the headline cities where some efforts were made. However, nothing much changed for many minority students for many years. History makes me wonder if the change that is needed for the minorities, who are working and learning in schools that are not the best in America, will ever happen.
We talk about access to the virtual world when in reality lots of people have very limited access to technology or technology literate teachers, to a technology infused learning landscape at home or at school. We talk about the Cloud when in some areas access to public libraries and community centers is still a problem. The solution to the schools problems was purported to be the use of community facilities. In West Virginia there are initiatives to help in the firehouses.
Did you ever hear of sit-ins for library use? There were!
Back in the day, we students of color used to get the used books from the White schools, and there was a janitor at the library who saved discarded books for some of us. We also had garbage men who would find books and magazines and contribute those to the schools and community centers. Our school libraries were small and not diverse in content. Sometimes there were women who would bring their discarded books to the libraries. Sometimes they gave the books to their maids, who shared them with the churches and schools.
You will probably never see any press on the Sit Ins for Library Use in the towns of the South. They, too, happened more than 50 years ago. The nation’s first sit-in at a public library began on the morning of February 27, 1960:
On a crisp, cold winter morning 50 years ago, a group of African-American protesters, led by the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker and the Rev. R.G. Williams, did the unthinkable. They entered the strictly segregated Petersburg Public Library at 137 S. Sycamore St. through the front door on the first floor, which was reserved for the exclusive use of white patrons.
Walker approached the counter of Petersburg’s central library and asked for a biography of Confederate hero Gen. Robert E. Lee. That simple walk up the steps of the William R. McKenney Central Library on Feb. 27, 1960, marked the beginning of racial integration in Petersburg, a city with a total population of 38,500, among them 18,000 African-Americans.
I liked going to these sit ins. They were fairly safe. Oh the books we could read! One initial outcome of that first sit in was that we could check out the books, though we still were not supposed to be in the library. This was the only sit in my parents approved of for me.
Wyatt T. Walker was a friend of the family, and my mother’s family was from Petersburg, Virginia. I went there in the summer and on holidays. Petersburg was a city with a total population of 38,500, and nearly half were African-Americans. It was in the Black belt of tobacco, farming and industry. It had a thriving economy.
Here and Now
You cannot Freedom Ride in technology. There are some basic needs. Connection is the first thing; knowledge and professional development are the next. Then there is the need to become involved in the cultures of practice. As we head toward the Cloud, what groups are we leaving behind? Those who are not tech savvy, tech interested, or tech literate. Rural and distant groups suffer, as do those in urban locations.
I often attend very interesting workshops and panel discussions in Washington, D.C., that are presented by a variety of groups, foundations, and government sources. The message that I’m receiving is that we have a digital divide in the power structure of those who are sharing technological ideas. I guess that is to be expected. There is not so much broadening engagement in the leadership of those with the responsibility to distribute the power of technology. The race to the top has left a lot of people floundering around at the bottom. It is possible that the lack of inclusion and disparity in levels of schooling create a vacuum at the top. In “Will Technology Trickle Down to Rural America?,” Kalyani Manohar says:
Today the concept of a “globally networked village” is euphemistic, as the information super highway primarily connects cities, excluding towns and villages from its network. Much of the hype surrounding the Internet has been diminished by evidence that information and communication technologies (ICTs) tend to be implemented in ways that reinforce prevailing power hierarchies.
This trend is not indicative of the ineffectiveness of the Internet as a medium with the potential to knock down traditional social and economic barriers. It is however, indicative of the fact that forces behind the deployment of ICTs are avoiding regions that are sparsely populated. Access to the Internet is turning into a powerful criterion for growth and development. So much so that communication networks are divvying up the country into parcels of haves and have-nots, with the latter living in the leeward side of the digital divide. (NetAction Report, Feb. 19, 2001)
Gender equity is also still a problem. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, inAchievement Trap, reports:
Today in America, there are millions of students who are overcoming challenging socioeconomic circumstances to excel academically. They defy the stereotype that poverty precludes high academic performance and that lower income and low academic achievement are inextricably linked. They demonstrate that economically disadvantaged children can learn at the highest levels and provide hope to other lower-income students seeking to follow the same path.
Sadly, from the time they enter grade school through their postsecondary education, these students lose more educational ground and excel less frequently than their higher-income peers. Despite this tremendous loss in achievement, these remarkable young people are hidden from public view and absent from public policy debates. Instead of being recognized for their excellence and encouraged to strengthen their achievement, high achieving lower-income students enter what we call the “achievement trap” — educators, policymakers, and the public assume they can fend for themselves when the facts show otherwise.
I wonder what ideas or comments readers have for those of us who are still treading the waters of inequity in education or seeking to make change?