As a Black mom, aka mama bear, and an education advocate for equity and educational justice, I often reflect on Black history. Why? Because I am afraid if we do not learn from the past, as a people and as a country, we risk bringing back Jim Crow hidden in neatly packaged 21st century laws. And I, for one, will not accept that for my children, your children or the generations to come.
These Black history reflective moments have me thinking about the protective “papa bear” instincts of Oliver Brown, a Black father, pastor and welder who was also the plaintiff in the 1954 US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka , which ruled state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students to be unconstitutional.
Oliver Brown’s daughter Linda Carol Brown, a third grader, had to walk several blocks to her school bus stop just to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile away, while Sumner Elementary, an all white segregated school, was just seven blocks from her house.
Mr. Brown felt this was unjust, so one day, he walked his then 7-year-old daughter Linda to the nearby Sumner Elementary, but was not allowed to enroll her because of the color of her skin.
While I may not have been born yet, now that I am a mom, I get it. Mr. Oliver risked everything because he believed he had an obligation to protect his daughter by ensuring the very best education for his child.
Fast forward 35 years later to April 27,1989 in Hartford, Connecticut, Elizabeth Horton Sheff , acting on behalf of her fourth-grade son Milo Sheff, and ten other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit alleging that their constitutional rights were being violated because their children were denied the fundamental right to an education and to equal protection under the law. The reason for the case was that the state of Connecticut spent less on schools in the Hartford area with majority black/Latino populations than they spent on suburban schools in majority white neighborhoods.
This long parent-led journey resulted in the July 9, 1996 court ruling that determined that Connecticut had a legal obligation to provide Connecticut’s school children with a substantially equal educational opportunity and that this constitutionally guaranteed right must provide access to a public education which is not substantially and materially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation. As a result of the Connecticut Supreme Court decision, in 1997 the Connecticut State Legislature passed legislation titled “An Act Enhancing Educational Choices and Opportunities”, which encourages so-called voluntary actions toward racial integration. This act resulted in the construction of dozens of high quality Magnet schools to promote integration by way of racial quotas; these magnet schools could only be 75 percent Black and Hispanic children from the neighborhood and had to be at least 25 percent out of district white and Asian.
Now, fast forward again to present day and the history of Oliver Brown and Elizabeth Horton Sheff ‘s quest for educational justice is repeating itself all over again. Robinson v Wentzell was filed in February of this year by several Hartford Black and Hispanic parents whose children are now being denied access to available empty seats in high quality magnet schools because of the color of their skin.
The very historical laws that were designed to protect the educational rights of Black children throughout the country are now being used to harm them in Connecticut. And the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the legal arm of the oldest civil rights organization in the nation, has decided to fight against these Black and Hispanic parent plaintiffs in the Robinson v. Wentzell case. That’s right—the NAACP Legal Defense is defending the policy of barring Black and Hispanic students from filling seats that sit empty, throughout the school year, in Connecticut’s magnet schools.
In addition to the NAACP Legal Defense fund, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Children’s Advocacy, the largest children’s legal rights organization in New England, have filed motions in support of racial quotas that deny Black and Hispanic children on waiting lists access to hundreds of available empty seats in quality urban magnet schools.
These racial quotas that were designed to foster so-called voluntary integration in Connecticut classrooms are actually forced integration practices that allow for racial discrimination against Black and Hispanic students thus denying them access to the very classrooms meant to justly educate them.
The Tale of Two Connecticuts
If an urban magnet school is found to be in violation of the racial quota law, it can be hit with fines in excess of $100,000, if white children from neighboring suburbs do not fill these, sometimes hundreds, of empty seats. In addition to the fines, these urban magnet schools can be demagnetized, a process by which they lose their magnet school status and additional funding. They are labeled a traditional school and given less resources – unbelievable yet very believable.
Let me emphasize. These urban magnet schools, even if they are schools of excellence, closing achievement gaps and meeting most of the academic and social emotional needs of their students, will be punished if out of town suburban white children do not attend.
But in Suburban towns like Fairfield, there are no threats of $100,000 fines and punishment when they struggle to fill just 36 seats allocated through Racial quotas for Black & Hispanic students.
“We don’t want to create ghettos in Fairfield” Allan Taylor, Chairperson, State Department of Education. “In response to filling 36 open seats at McKinley Elementary with students from outside of Fairfield to compensate for glaring racial imbalances in the school. “
No one can convince me that these actions were the intent or spirit of Brown v Board of Education.
Let me be clear, as a Black mom and Connecticut resident, I am very concerned that Connecticut and other states across this country will use these forced integration laws of Connecticut to bring back Jim Crow racial discrimination laws in education and all the bad behaviors that continue to foster hate based on ones skin color.
Let us not forget the unintended consequences of Brown v Board of Education with the mass firing of Black teachers and the closures of very successful Black schools under the guise of integration and desegregation efforts “when the Supreme Court began to mandate that southern states comply with Brown v. Board of Education, more than 30,000 black teachers and administrators were fired to ensure that white teachers kept their jobs.”
For the sake of our children, we, as a country and state must do better!
There are many high quality schools that have majority Black kids like the rigorous Philadelphia Shoemaker Campus-Mastery Charter School that are yielding great results thus dispelling the myth that Black kids must be in the proximity of white kids in the classroom to be scholars.
There are even more high quality majority white neighborhood schools, due in part to their greater access to resources.
Both scenarios are fine, as long as resources are equitable and access to diverse educators is brought to scale, with the end goal being to ensure every child, regardless of skin color or zip-code, has access to a safe and quality education.
A blog by Michael Johnson entitled The School Segregation/Integration Debate is Really About Black & Latino Students Having a Quality Education, not white Classmates sums it up the best “A school’s teaching-learning expectations and environment matters, not its racial demographics”
One cannot escape this truth in education which Marian Wright Edelman so eloquently expressed when she said, “the future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.”
And so the struggle continues – sigh….