Race poses challenge 50 years after Brown

It’s been 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education put an end racial segregation in American public schools. But at a Monday night “Education Exchange” panel sponsored by Students for Teachers, professors and students agreed that the landmark case only marked the beginning of efforts to sort out the complex relationship between race and education.

All six panelists — four professors and two students — stressed that the passage of Brown and other integration legislation was not a cure-all for disparities in public education. If anything, the panelists said, integration demonstrated that the impact of race on education is even more complicated, and more powerful, than previously thought.

“Conversations about race and conversations about education have become tightly interwoven,” Jack Gillette, director of Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program, said. “One of the things you cannot do if you go through my program is escape confronting the issue of race.”

Citing his experience as a teacher at New Haven’s Hillhouse High School, Gillette said the racial composition of schools has a profound effect on how students see the world. To illustrate his statement, Gillette described asking his class at Hillhouse — where the student body is predominantly African-American — to guess what percentage of Americans they thought were black. Most of his class estimated that the United States was between 80 and 90 percent African-American, he said.

“Their world was filled with African Americans; the only white people they saw were cops and teachers,” he said. “Their whole world was shaped by the kind of racial isolation that the school had created.”

Ange-Marie Hancock, a political science and African American studies professor, said this kind of de facto segregation is common on a national level. Though segregation within overall school districts has decreased, she said, individual schools in many urban areas have become heavily comprised of only one racial group. She noted that while 43.5 percent of New Haven’s population is white, only 10 percent of New Haven public school students are white.

“You still have, in metropolitan areas, a major amount of segregation, and the continued imbalance has limited progress made in actually desegregating schools,” Hancock said.

Other panelists discussed school funding, recent education legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, and personal experiences teaching and working in schools. Jane Bernstein ’05, founder of the New Haven Cultural Awareness Program, spoke about her efforts to bring Yale’s cultural groups into local public schools. Echoing Gillette, she said schools produce students who would love to have discussions about race but are not given a forum for them.

“The idea is to get kids to think about what it means to make generalizations about someone and how it affects your interaction with them,” she said. “We realize we’re not going to eliminate racism, but we’d be a much stronger community if we’d begin to make these discussions happen.”

Jason Cabico ’04, a member of the student group Realizing Race, said there is a similar lack of forums for dialogue on Yale’s campus. He said one of the reasons for this is that Brown and other legislation have led people to think that legal remedies can automatically change society — that laws have, in effect, eliminated racism.

“It’s important for all students on campus to be educated and aware of racial conflict,” he said. “Students often box themselves in when thinking about these issues. We’re trying to break down that box, and we’re challenging other students to do so as well.”

A speaker participates in the “Education Exchange” panel held 50 years after the Brown v. the Board of Education decision.
Eleanor Sokolow
A speaker participates in the “Education Exchange” panel held 50 years after the Brown v. the Board of Education decision.

Comments