First lady Michelle Obama speaks about college education, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. The event which is to promote opportunities for students to attend and finish college and university, was attended by college and university presidents and leaders from nonprofits, foundations, governments and businesses. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Michelle Obama and American school segregation

IT’S ODD that anyone from Topeka, KS, would balk at having Michelle Obama speak at a high school graduation. It was Topeka, after all, that was at the center of Brown v. the Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that was supposed to integrate America’s schools.

[blocktext align=”right”]”Schools today are largely segregated. They are segregated in parts of Alabama. They are segregated in parts of Mississippi. And until five years ago, school segregation was still being litigated in my hometown, Philadelphia.” – Solomon Jones[/blocktext]

Yet here we are, on the cusp of the 60th anniversary of the ban on legal school segregation, and the nation’s first African American first lady is facing pushback from parents in Topeka. They say she’s taking the focus off their children. They say her speech, which would be tied to the anniversary of the landmark case, should be delivered in another venue.

But here’s what I say: Michelle Obama, who has spent the last six years focused on children’s health and education, is the perfect speaker for any graduation. This is especially true as we look back at Brown v. Board of Education, and face the sobering fact that schools today are largely segregated. They are segregated in parts of Alabama. They are segregated in parts of Mississippi. And until five years ago, school segregation was still being litigated in my hometown, Philadelphia.

Segregated schools in the north

In the early 1970s, some twenty years after the Supreme Court said, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” my city was a hotbed of school segregation. So much so that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) sued the School District of Philadelphia in an effort to desegregate the schools. The litigation dragged on for years.

A 1992 report stated that the Philadelphia School District was still unacceptably segregated, and Judge Doris Smith-Ribner found that the District was “failing or refusing to provide… a quality education to children attending racially isolated minority schools.”

In 1999, the judge tried to get the state to pay for the cost of reforms, but was blocked by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In 2009, the School Reform Commission voted unanimously to end forty years of desegregation litigation and said it would construct a plan to improve achievement in low performing and racially isolated schools.

In 2013, the School District closed 24 public schools. On average, more than 90 percent of the affected students were economically disadvantaged students of color.

Has school segregation really changed?

In less than a month, we’ll mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. The stories surrounding the anniversary will focus on the School District of Topeka, Kansas, which has gone from resisting integration to erecting a museum to celebrate it. The stories will focus on school districts across the South that returned to de facto segregation after being released from court orders. The stories will focus on the widening achievement gap between white and black students in the age of supposed integration.

But those of us who live in Northern cities like Philadelphia must be careful not to judge our Southern counterparts too harshly. That would be hypocritical, because the record is clear: Segregation flourished in our own school systems, and in many ways, it still does.

That inconvenient truth should be repeated every time we talk about low performing schools, or racial achievement gaps, or the underfunded school district, because I believe all those things point to what Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the Supreme Court opinion that was supposed to end school segregation for good.

To separate black children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Those words ring in my ears as we approach the anniversary of the landmark decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. They ring in my ears, and I don’t know whether to celebrate that decision’s survival, or to mourn its untimely demise. sj favicon 3

Click here to hear an audio version of this column on Newsworks.

Featured image:  First lady Michelle Obama speaks about college education, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. The event which is to promote opportunities for students to attend and finish college and university, was attended by college and university presidents and leaders from nonprofits, foundations, governments and businesses. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)


solomon thumbnailSolomon Jones is an Essence bestselling author and award-winning columnist. He is the creator and editor of Solomonjones.com. Click here to learn more about Solomon

Leave a Comment
placeholder_advertisement

Recent Posts

Recent Comments

Subscribe for More

The look on this border agent’s face as he grabs this #Haitian migrant at the border says it all. I am so hurt to see Black people treated this way. It looks like a scene out of #Roots.
My son and I carrying on the tradition. We just watched the @philadelphiaeagles win the first game of the season 32-6. We bleed green. Eagles for life baby!
Setting up now for Hope 4 Philly. We have free groceries for the community. Enough for hundreds of people. We start at 11. It’s all at 1858 E. Washington Lane, Pennypacker School and it’s all free! @classixphilly @rnbphilly @gccphilly
Join me and @ClassixPhilly for Hope 4 Philly, on Saturday September 11th from 11a to 3p at Pennypacker School, 1858 E Washington Ln. Free groceries, kids cuts, school supplies, jobs, healthcare, gospel, hot dogs, cotton candy and more. It’s all brought to you by @gccupdate, Brown’s Family Shoprite, BRN, and more. ⁦
At Hershey Park and I think this woman Kelly Ann Conway, #Trump’s former liar in chief, walking around like she didn’t try to burn down America.
After a pandemic, floods and gun violence, Philly needs hope. Join us on 9/11 at Hope 4 Philly - 11a to 3p at Pennypacker School, 1858 E. Washington Ln. Free groceries, hot meals, cuts for kids, school supplies, jobs, healthcare, gospel ministry and yes, cotton candy. @onwurd
Hope 4 Philly is Sept. 11th from 11a to 3p at Pennypacker School, 1858 E. Washington Ln. Free groceries, hot meals, cuts for kids, school supplies, jobs, healthcare, gospel ministry and yes, cotton candy. After a pandemic, floods and gun violence, Philly needs hope. Join us on 9/11.
This is  #BlackLove. My wife and I on the beach in Negril, Jamaica.
Join us at @barbersonbroad at 1220 N. Broad St. w/ @gethealthyphilly and @classixphilly and get a free haircut from Noon to 2 pm as we help brothers defeat #hypertension in our community. Come through!!!
Tonight at 11 @Manupphl will be featured on @nbcphiladelphia Channel 10. Fighting #gunviolence a life at a time. Tune in!
Today after 7 years of featuring her sharp commentary on my shows I finally met ⁦‪@iamroxannejones‬⁩ in person. We broke bread (ok we ate everything but the bread) and plotted our takeover of the media universe. Lol! Great times! @onwurd
Having a ball hosting at #WawaWelcomeAmerica with @ClassixPhilly 107.9 at #Philly City Hall. #IDanceMinistry is killing it!
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
4 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SteveChernoski

In New Jersey, we have some of the most segregated school districts in the US.

And those that are integrated might be only so, because they are in the middle of demographic shifts. Using the nytimes database, you can see the trends.

There are two districts in the state, that have remained consistently integrated since the 1980s. TWO.

It’s kind of like, if white people can move, they will. They worry about safety and their housing prices. Same old story.

Solomon Jones

That’s the point I was making. We like to talk about the South, but in reality, segregation was and is alive and well in the North, in education and in housing. It’s an issue we need to deal with if we’re ever going to reach our potential as a nation. Holding people back hurts everyone.

Skdamc Da Partystarter

It’s seems like every time Blacks make progress, Whites move to areas Blacks can’t afford or are made to feel unwelcome. I believe we should never force ourselves on anyone. We truly need to clean up our rhetorical house and make sure parents, taxpayers and those concerned become involved. There are too many problems and sometimes we like to point fingers. The sad part is, those of us who need it the most aren’t looking for solutions. I live near Bartram and, although it’s gotten better, it’s still crazy. All of these issues about behavior and decorum can’t be blamed on segregation. Not to go all Bill Cosby but we have plenty of work to do. My position is accountability in our communities, then we take the fight to them.

Solomon Jones

I can’t disagree with any of your points, but segregation is still wrong, and it hurts our children by denying them the resources we pay for through our taxes, and that children are required to receive by law. The situation at Bartram is heartbreaking to me, because Bartram was one of the schools I worked with in the Words on the Street program. There are a lot of immigrant students there. I met Africans, Pakistanis, good kids. Unfortunately, immigrants really grasp and understand the opportunity they receive through free education. Many American kids–no matter what their ethnicity–take school for granted. We have to change that, and it really does start at home. The Philadelphia School District has a great program called Parent University. They teach parents how to be better parents. It’s free to every parent who has a child in the School District. Lots of us need to take advantage of what’s offered there. Here’s a link: http://www.philasd-parentuniversity.org