Project 21 New Visions

The Benefit of Brown: Providing Opportunity for Those Who Want It


by David Almasi


At a recent press conference in the U.S. Capitol, black political activist Mychal Massie noted: "I stand here cognizant of the fact that, not many years ago, my mother could have hoped only to scrub the floors here. But, today, I stand here addressing the nation. I am aware than my son can one day stand here and address the world."

Massie was a year old when the U.S. Supreme Court integrated public schools through its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. His mother, a single parent, was a maid.

Because of the opportunities provided by Brown 50 years ago this May, Mychal received a quality education and started his own business. His son will represent the United States at the Olympics this summer and is expected to bring home medals in cycling.

The Brown ruling didn't guarantee Mychal the life he's enjoyed. His mother warned him: "Mychal, the world's your oyster; it's up to you to figure out how to open the shell."

By tearing down racial barriers to education, Brown let all children take advantage of the best in American learning. Once they applied themselves, black children could compete fairly in the job market. With added skills and wealth, the remaining racial barriers soon fell.

There was an immediate improvement in black education. In 1960, the percentage of blacks with a high school diploma or more was just 20.1 percent. Those with at least college degree was only 3.1 percent. Both figures were less than half of the proportion of their white counterparts. By 2000, 78.5 percent of blacks had a high school education or better, and 16.5 percent had at least a college degree. White numbers rose to 84.5 percent and 26.1 percent, respectively.

In 1990, black college graduates had an unemployment rate of only 1.9 percent.

Incomes naturally rose. In 1959, a two-adult black family earned just 57 percent as much as their white counterparts. By 1990, this figure rose to 84 percent. Since Brown, black family incomes have risen three times faster than the nation's families as a whole.

Poverty rates have fallen. In 1959, 61 percent of black children in stable families lived in poverty. By 1995, it was only 13 percent. A correlation exists between poverty and education. Blacks without a high school degree are four times as likely to be living in poverty than those with at least a college degree.

No one ever said Brown eradicated racism. Petty jealousy and muddled thinking will forever fuel racism, and those with racist intent will sometimes achieve positions of power. The Brown precedent, along with civil rights laws and enforcement agencies, protect Americans from the tyranny of these individuals.

But what about the "soft bigotry of low expectations"?

After an early surge in standardized test scores of black 17-year-olds, scores are now dropping in subjects like math, reading and writing. There is no similar drop among these students' white counterparts.

Massie, a member of the black conservative network Project 21, blames "parental failure, the inclusion of negative cultural ideologies to the exclusion of sound biblical truths, the lack of discipline and the unwavering acceptance of failure as being the fault of someone else." He adds: "Today's educational system is much like today's political system. It is about self-preservation. The more failures they can point to, the more money they can ask for to fix said problems."

Massie worries about the disincentive of "getting good grades [and] being like 'whitey.'" Massie's concerns are echoed by Mike Green, another Project 21 member. Green laments: "Our ancestors died in slavery, dreaming of the day when their descendents would be able to read, write and compete in this country on a level with the best of white children. That day has come, and far too many squander those opportunities."

Brown opened the schoolhouse doors for Otis Brown's daughters in 1954. Mychal Massie, Mike Green and countless others all received a quality education as a result of Brown and subsequently enjoy their own personal and professional successes. They also benefit from a motivation to succeed.

Black America has benefited greatly from the legacy of the Brown desegregation decision, but it's a stepping stone on a long journey. It opened doors surging with takers, but the tide shows signs of waning. Turning around this disappointing trend is not something that can be achieved in a courtroom. It can only come from inside.

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David Almasi is staff director of the African-American leadership network Project 21. This commentary is condensed from a longer essay appearing in the May 2004 issue of The World and I. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published May 2004 by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


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