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Jewish World Review August 21, 2001 / 2 Elul, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Back to separate and unequal -- AFTER an integrated team of lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall had engaged in a long march through the lower courts, the Supreme Court -- in May of 1954 -- unanimously ruled that segregated public schools are inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

In that decision, the Court cited the research of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark that showed such segregation from early ages generates in black children "a feeling of inferiority ... that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Dr. Clark was elated by the decision, and on that day, he said that white youngsters could now look to a future "in which they will not have to spend so much valuable energy apologizing for injustices which they did not invent, but for which they must share the responsibility."

And, he added, young blacks, freed of the stigma of segregation, could now "be proud of the fact that they are Americans."

In the years after, Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mamie, continued their distinguished careers in psychology and in working for integration throughout society. I came to know and greatly respect both of them. But over time, Kenneth Clark began to lose hope that Brown vs. Board of Education -- though still the law of the land -- would actually end segregated schools.

In July of this year, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University -- headed by professor Gary Orfield -- revealed that Dr. Clark's pessimism is decidedly justified.

"Our research," Gary Orfield told the Christian Science Monitor, "shows that schools are becoming increasingly segregated and are offering students vastly unequal educational opportunities."

While much attention is being paid in the courts and in the media to the intense debate about affirmative action in higher education, millions of children -- black, Latino and poor whites -- are likely to not even think of applying to a college, let alone a graduate school, because they have been locked so long into failing elementary, middle and high schools.

The Harvard study reports that some 70 percent of black students are now enrolled in predominantly minority schools. And more than one in three Latino students are in schools in which 90 percent of the youngsters are minorities.

The Supreme Court has never reversed Brown vs. Board of Education, but residential patterns in many parts of the country produce segregated neighborhoods, creating boundary lines based not only on race and ethnicity but also on class. Schools with high levels of minority students also have high levels of low-income children.

And much too often, the least qualified teachers are in those schools, which also receive resources, financial and otherwise, markedly unequal to schools in middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods.

It is important to underline that poor and many working class white children are also affected by this segregation not only of race but also of class. There ought to be more reporting on schools in low-income white neighborhoods.

As Gary Orfield says, our schools "are really our only tool to build an interracial society. ... We're not making any progress on the housing front."

Or, as Thurgood Marshall said when he had become a Supreme Court Justice, "Children who do not learn together will not know how to live together." A federal courthouse in New York will soon be named for him as the city's schools become more segregated.

The concentration on just racial segregation of the schools ignores the fact that many of those kids -- black, white, Latino, Native American and others -- who are getting unequal education in their bad schools are very likely to have dead-end lives.

This is not a question of "class warfare." It's about equality of opportunity. Children fail in poor schools in large part because teachers and principals have low expectations of them, and that leads to students having low expectations of themselves.

When we pack poor kids of whatever color into deficient schools, we forget them. Setting standards is only a start at getting at the class-segregated roots of unequal education. We can begin with money for smaller classes, by firing failing teachers and principals and integrating schools by class.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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