Princeton teams up with the Post: Every ten years, we discuss, and/or pretend to discuss, the deeply important 1954 Brown decision.
This is one of those times! For that reason, yesterday’s Washington Post published this brilliantly muddled report by Princeton professor Imani Perry:
“Five myths about Brown v. Board of Education”
In our view, the professor’s piece leaves no muddle behind, though it isn’t all Perry’s fault.
In this high-profile weekly feature, the Post insists that writers debunk five myths about some topic—not four myths and not six. If the writer can only uncover four myths, she has to invent a fifth.
Also, the points of contention must all be “myths.” In comments, one reader suggested that Perry’s piece should have been called, “Five things some folks don't fully understand about Brown v. Board of Education.”
For ourselves, we wouldn’t say that Perry’s piece rises to that level. But sorry. That isn’t allowed!
To our eye, Professor Perry goes out of her way in this piece to create and extend points of confusion, rather than to dispel them. In fairness, the professor is largely reworking a set of standard claims.
These presentations are designed to heighten the drama about our current public school arrangements. They drive the sense that everything is bad about our racial culture—bad and getting worse.
What’s wrong or misleading in Perry’s report? For starters, she muddies the meaning of “segregation,” a practice which is now quite common.
At one time, analysts would work to clarify the distinction between “de jure segregation,” which Brown outlawed, and “de facto segregation,” which it didn’t address. Today, it’s much more common to blur the distinction. This helps create the sense that everything is worse, so much worse.
That said, how many myths about Brown did Perry manage to dispel? At most, we’d say she got to one. You know a “Five Myths” piece is in trouble when it starts like this:
1. Brown v. Board of Education was only about school segregation.In just her first two words, Perry acknowledges that her first “myth” is “true.” In the long history of this feature, that’s record time for admitting that you don’t really have “five myths.”
It’s true that the case concerned segregation in public schools, but its impact went far beyond education...
Perry’s second debunking is especially sad. Sadly, she seems to say it’s a myth to think that the Brown decision ended segregation.
Here you see the second “myth” and the bulk of the refutation:
2. Brown v. Board ended school segregation.Did the Brown decision “end segregation?” Pshaw, Professor Perry says. “American schools are as segregated today as they were 40 years ago.”
American schools are as segregated today as they were 40 years ago, largely because of residential segregation and the racial gaps in wealth and employment. In the 1970s, white flight to affluent suburbs weakened the tax base of cities, hitting black migrants to Northern cities hard. Their schools became under-funded and more isolated than in the Southern Jim Crow states they had fled. Today, the Northeast has the most racially homogenous schools; New York state and Washington, D.C., have the most segregated schools—by race and economic status. And since there is no constitutional right to an education, the federal courts cannot mandate that schools get equal funding. Within schools, advanced programs have become forms of segregation. One study found that, as of 2006, African American students were underrepresented by 48 percent in gifted education; Hispanic students are underrepresented by 38 percent.
Since Brown was announced 60 years ago, this doesn’t exactly address the basic question. Meanwhile, if Brown didn’t “end segregation” in some basic way, you’ll have to explain these enrollment figures from six Tuscaloosa high schools (city and county):
Bryant High: 19 percent white, 75 percent blackBefore the Brown decision, black kids and white kids didn’t attend school together in Alabama at all. Today, large numbers of Alabama kids go to school black-and-white together.
Hillcrest High: 57 percent white, 41 percent black
Holt High: 44 percent white, 51 percent black
Northridge High: 35 percent white, 61 percent black
Sipsey Valley High: 73 percent white, 25 percent black
Tuscaloosa County High: 60 percent white, 36 percent black
Did “ancient aliens” make this happen? The History Channel might want to consult this high-ranking Princeton professor.
In fact, the Brown decision did “end segregation” in some fairly obvious ways. It’s sad to see the Washington Post let a Princeton professor denounce that claim as a “myth.”
Meanwhile, just for the record, is that other claim true? Are American schools “as segregated today as they were 40 years ago” in some sense?
In support of her claim, Perry links to this lengthy report; you’ll have to fumble through it looking for the evidence she has in mind (Table 7 may be your best bet). That said, Professor Perry seems to mean that American schools are as “racially unbalanced,” by certain measures, as they were in the 1970s, twenty years after Brown.
We’ll examine that (somewhat slippery) claim as the week proceeds. But even if that claim is judged to be true, that doesn’t mean that American schools are “segregated” in the way they were before Brown.
At any rate, that was Perry’s second myth; it’s a “myth” to say that the Brown decision “ended segregation!” On that basis, we had to chuckle as we perused her discussion of her third myth. It seemed to us that her third debunking conflicted a bit with her second:
3. School segregation was a problem only for African Americans in the South.We’ll guess that many Post readers already know that dual school systems were maintained in the District of Columbia and in “border states” like Delaware (and Maryland) before the Brown decision.
Although the starkest Jim Crow laws were found in the Deep South, school segregation was practiced all across the United States. Oliver and Darlene Brown, the lead plaintiffs in Brown v. Board, brought the case in Topeka, Kan. Two of the other cases joined in the Brown litigation were in Delaware and the District...
Brown v. Board of Education had national and multiracial impact. Before the Supreme Court decision, Mexican Americans were segregated in practice, if not by law, in California, Arizona, Texas and Colorado, with the justification that they were native Spanish-speakers. And in several parts of the country, Asian Americans and Native Americans were also segregated.
(In the passage we’ve posted, we’ve omitted a chunk about segregation in Boston schools before the time of the Civil War. This was an informative chunk which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with the Brown decision.)
That said, note the professor’s statement about the Brown decision’s “national and multiracial impact.” In her debunking of Myth 2, she seemed to say that the Brown decision didn’t “end segregation.” In this, her debunking of Myth 3, she seems to hail the way it did exactly that for Mexican-American kids.
Or something! The professor never exactly makes sense. Here’s our best guess at the reason:
For political reasons, all presentations on this topic must paint a gloomy picture. In her segment about Myth 2, Perry is saying that things are gloomier now than you might have imagined. In her segment about Myth 3, she is saying that things were gloomier then than you might have realized.
All things must be gloomier than you would have suspected! That explains the passage from Myth 2 about “gifted education” programs. Black kids aren’t “underrepresented” in such programs because of their academic profiles. They’re “underrepresented” because of segregation!
In this way, “segregation” becomes our Benghazi! Feel bad, feel very bad!
Perry’s fourth “myth” includes information which may be surprising to many people. Her fifth “myth” has nothing to do with the Brown decision at all. All in all, the Princeton professor presented a rather large puddle of piddle. Even worse, the Washington Post was willing to put it in print.
It’s a myth that Brown ended segregation! Feel bad, feel very bad, for kids who go to Princeton.
Feel bad, feel extremely bad, for people who get their heads all muddled up by things they read in the Post.