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Third Eye

Sappy Anniversary

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 5/12/2004

For months now, the 50th anniversary (May 17) of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision has been the cause of celebrity speeches, erudite musings, and mushy tidings like Sun education columnist Mike Bowler's May 2 wet-hankie piece. Taking readers down a segregated memory lane, Bowler recalled the "extraordinary pains whites took to avoid racial mixing" in public schools, and how far we've come since then.

Of course, the National Education Association also has been blowing celebratory horns, with Web pages chock-full of information about the "evils of racial segregation" and the adverse impact it had on minority children who now enjoy social and educational benefits like "better opportunities for learning how to function in integrated environments" and more "cross-racial understanding." And while those types of messages float around in cyberspace, political celebrities like President Bill Clinton have been making guest appearances at prestigious law schools, like the one at Columbia University--which spawned some of the civil-rights attorneys who argued the case--to ballyhoo a half-century's educational progress.

As a product of the civil-rights era and beneficiary of desegregation, I've pondered jumping on the Brown v. Board celebratory bandwagon--save one thing: I'd sooner celebrate my trifling ex-husband winning a Mega-Million Lotto. In other words, I'm just not feeling it. Why? Because while I wholeheartedly agree with the legal and moral principles of racial desegregation, I'm at a loss for tangible signs of the good it's done anybody. Yeah, today's pupils can certainly join hands and sing "We Are the World," all day, any day. But given the national dilemma of poor public school funding, perennially crowded classrooms, and a teetering economy that holds no promise of a picket-fenced future, my hunch says most kids would sooner see my ex win the lotto, too.

Writing this, I can hear liberals--African-American and otherwise--screeching inside my head about past sacrifices made to bring the Brown decision to bear. So certainly, I must acknowledge that while I was busy buying penny candy and playing hopscotch, people were getting beat down, jailed, and, especially down South, coming up "missing"--all prices paid for the larger good. However, I also recall a level of community pride and parent-teacher involvement inside segregated schools that somehow became sadly and, it seems, irrevocably diminished after Brown.

If I sound ambiguous, it's because I feel that way. Moreover, I'm surely joined by many Americans who look back on the glory of civil rights, the rightness of it, only to realize that life in the 21st century seems relatively antiquated when it comes to social concerns. In recent years, the topic of resegregated public schools has surfaced from time to time in the media and among grass-roots groups, only to be overtaken by the larger issue of trying to keep such fiscally strapped schools open (the theme sound familiar?).

Though cited as a common cause, suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations. Another signpost showing people's dismay with public education are ethnically oriented private schools that have cropped up in recent years--a trend that nearly cost me my job. Several years ago, while working as a reporter in North Carolina, I did a feature story on African-American former students of newly desegregated schools who, let's say, offered unflattering portraits of life-after-inclusion. I then talked to several owners of black private schools who offered proof, using standardized test scores, that kids labeled as troubled or learning deficient in public schools were succeeding in "segregated" environments.

My publisher, a sweetheart of a guy and a fierce liberal who'd been jailed while fighting to desegregate schools in Durham, N.C., was nearly apoplectic when he read the story. Immediately, he fired off a scathing three-page letter to my editor, and barely spoke to me until a company Christmas party where we kept meeting at the bar. Through his actions, I saw firsthand how passionate the issue was (and is) for people who believed in and stuck their necks out for the cause. He couldn't see that, in my own way, I was doing the same thing.

On a personal level, that controversy may help explain why I've steered pretty clear of the subject in the past few years--until all the recent hoopla about Brown got me stirred up again. And while my disillusioned words might garner harsh criticism from people who'll think me a heretic trying to turn back the hands of time, truth is that I--not to mention scores of disillusioned students in schools--feel way caught up in, and let down by, today's public education system.

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Living Dangerously (4/28/2004)
The recent death of Johns HopThe recent death of Johns Hopkins University student Christopher Elser cast a lingering pall over Charles Village kins University student Christopher Elser cast a lingering pall over Charles Village residents, myself included.

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