Brenda Shum,deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights,said the legacy of Brown has room to improve.
“I think that,in spite of the fact that we do have more diversity and opportunities at the professional level,our K-to-12 data confirms that we remain troubled by a dual and unequal system of public education,” she said.
She spoke Wednesday at the Arent Fox law firm as part of a panel of civil rights activists,lawyers and education experts. They discussed the legacy and impact of the 1954 Supreme Court decision to do away with the so-called “separate but equal” schools for black and white students.
Deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights Robert Kim echoed her sentiments about the decision’s landmark rhetoric but insufficient action.
“High school achievement rates for black students now are at the rates for white students in 1973,” Kim said.
He said not much has changed in terms of racial tension in schools,and what keeps him up at night are the tens of thousands of complaints he receives each year as part of his job.
“You’d think we’d be beyond the days where we have swastikas on walls,or students in KKK robes or students using blackface or making threats with the N-word,” Kim said.
Asked if children are being prepared to have a quality life in the 21st century,Kim answered with statistics.
“One out of two high schools in this country does not offer calculus,” Kim said. “And two out of five do not offer physics.”
School disciplinary policies toward students of color were discussed when American University Washington College of Law Professor Lia Epperson talked about the punishment to prison pipeline. She said this is “the era in which we find ourselves with very harsh school discipline policies,which have been disproportionately,negatively affecting black and brown students.”
She said that the legacy of any law could be mixed.
“We think of law as something that shields us from violence,but it can also be a weapon,” Epperson said.
At the National Archives on Thursday,the dialogue on those policies in relation to Brown continued in a panel discussion organized by the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero showed a video clip about a 14-year-old Michigan boy who was handcuffed and suspended for 180 days because he pulled a piece of paper from his teacher’s hand.
Catherine Lhamon,assistant secretary of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights,said she finds it troubling that the country still needs laws that ban segregation.
“It’s so upsetting to me as a mom,as a civil rights lawyer,as a human being,” Lhamon said. “That we tell our children that they are not valued.”
ACLU Racial Justice Program Dennis Parker said the civil rights data collection and its reports show that not enough minority students are enrolled in advanced placement courses. He said he believes the zero-tolerance policy in school discipline is fueling the pipeline.
“We know that it is ineffective,” Parker said. “A child bringing a butter knife to school to spread peanut butter on his sandwich shouldn’t be getting suspended. That’s not an AK-47.”
Parker said that Brown was a good start,but more action is needed.
“There’s no question that Brown was a success. It was one of the biggest successes in American history,” he said. “What the failure is that we have become somewhat complacent. We need to recognize what is unfair and address that however we can.”
Reach Ricardo Guillaume at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.