The “Moving Target”of Black Educational Progress

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

As the fiftieth anniversary approaches of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Brown school segregation case—the decision which destroyed the legal underpinning of racial segregation in America—the very air itself seems to be humming with celebrations and discussions to mark the event.

There's no question that Brown is one of the great monuments to human beings' quest for freedom in general, as well as to the capacity for reform of the American system of government, and, most of all, African Americans' extraordinary faith in the democratic ideal.

The Supreme Court's unanimity that government could not continue to support racial segregation and the denial of full citizenship to African Americans pushed America fully into the modern era. It's very unlikely that the United States would have survived as "the land of the free"without it.

And yet, if this anniversary of the Brown decision underscores the many things it brought into being that America has reason to celebrate, it also reminds us that the quest which led to Brown—to build a society in which being of African descent produces no negative accounting—is itself not finished.

In the 2004 edition of the National Urban League's The State of Black America, which we just published last month, we marked out the gap between that goal and the current reality with our first-ever Equality Index.

What our Index shows is that in terms of access to the resources of American society, black Americans stand at less than three-quarters—73 percent, to be exact—of where White America stands.

This is a stark measure of what has always been the fundamental characteristic of the African-American Experience: the complexity of black progress.

That is, no matter how noteworthy, or even spectacular, the accomplishments of black individuals or segments of the black population may be, "black progress"has never been as unalloyed and clear cut in the long run as the contemporary trumpeting of "progress"makes it seem.
African Americans have always had to filter their progress through the prism of one reality and one possibility.

The reality has been the existence across the spectrum of American life of substantial challenges yet to be overcome.
The possibility—a distinct one—is that a significant reversal of fortune could completely erase all gains that had been made.

Indeed, the complexity of the progress blacks have forged in the field which was the focus of the Brown decision itself—elementary and secondary education—exemplifies how widespread and powerful that dynamic remains.
It's one reason The State of Black America 2004 has three essays and articles devoted to the education of African Americans which explicitly or implicitly consider the ramifications of that momentous ruling, while the spring issue of our general-interest magazine, Opportunity Journal, has four.

In The State of Black America 2004, Ronald O. Ross, a former superintendent of the Mount Vernon, New York public schools, and a former National Urban League Distinguished Fellow, examines the causes of the 200-plus point gap between the average combined scores of black and white students who take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for college entrance. Despite the considerable progress blacks have forged in higher education and beyond in recent decades, the black-white test-score gap remains a source of significant controversy in the debate about affirmative action and black college-going.

Drawing on information in the periodical, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Ross concludes that the gap is rooted in the substantial inequality of education that persists between black and white students in such key areas as family income and other circumstances; neighborhood quality of life; and the inferior physical plants, dumbed-down curricula, outdated textbooks, and high teacher turnover of predominantly black schools.

That latter fact—the continued existence of predominantly black schools: racial segregation in schools is now more pervasive than in 1954—puts in sharp relief Harvard professor Gary Orfield's assessment in Opportunity Journal of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.

"The problem with Brown,"he writes, "was that it was a unanimous decision with a brief, but inspiring statement of some basic truths—but which had nothing at all about what needed to be done … we now need a movement to bring down the color lines in metropolitan America and to support an array of reforms needed to produce equal outcomes."

Professor Edmund W. Gordon, another leading educational theorist, warns in The State of Black America 2004 that just such a broad and well-funded attack on "the complex and serious problems"of the academic achievement gap bedeviling black (and Latino) pupils is crucial because of the intellectual demands of the post-technological society and the global economy.

What Gordon calls "a moving target"—the global marketplace's requirement that individuals have the intellectual skill to be continually able to learn new skills, and the high-stakes testing regime now dominant in American education—in effect makes it imperative for America's future that it finally live up to the promise of Brown: equal educational opportunity for all.

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