Discussing Race and Education: From Plessy to Today

January 9, 2013  |  

Linda Brown Smith at the South Carolina State House on the 25th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education case. At right, Bejamin Hooks, the executive director of the NAACP. AP Photo

On Tuesday evening, Teach for American Outreach hosted an online discussion about race and education, looking at the historical context as well as the implications of current issues including No Child Left Behind and the Franklin v. University of Texas Supreme Court case.

Moderated by Teach for America manager of professional recruitment Christie Clark, “Civil Rights in the Classroom: The Past, Present, and Future of Race and Education in the U.S.” featured Dr. Sheneka Williams, assistant professor of educational administration and policy at the University of Georgia, Saba Bireda, policy and legal advisor for EducationCounsel LLC, and Justin Reid, associate director at the Civil Rights Movement-related Moton Museum in Virginia.

The event was part educational and part for recruitment, as Teach for America is still accepting applications for fall of 2013, with the final rounds of deadlines on January 11 and February 13.

The panelists looked at the historical context of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, with an eye toward how these decisions impacted the current state of education in the US.

“Start with Plessy and think about how segregation in public facilities was seen as an OK practice at that time,” Williams explained. That led to  “separate but equal” in the education system, which eventually led to Brown v. Board of Education.

Reid discussed how the NAACP spent years filing suits against “separate but equal” in schools. However, they realized that “in order to really make American schools equal, they had to be integrated.” Brown v. Board of Education was an “integration suit, which was at first a class action suit involving hundreds of plaintiffs saying we want integrated schools.”

“Brown really informed our whole understanding of what equal opportunities in education really means,” said Bireda. “After Brown, there was a transformative movement in education and Civil Rights. While progress to integrate was slow, there was a transformative effect on education.”

With the background laid out, the trio also discussed the recent achievement goals in Florida and Virginia, which seemed to include lower goals for black and Latino students compared to their white and Asian counterparts. Virginia has since revised its goals.

“If you set the bar differently for different races, are we saying that for poor little Johnny who is black or Latino, that this is the best he’s going to do? Let’s set the bar where he is and keep it there because it’s not likely he’ll get farther?” Williams said. “It’s the perpetuation of the achievement gap that we have. We need to think about how this would translate in the classroom. How will people respond to these students? There is a trickle-down element here.”

And the panel looked at the current Supreme Court case on race-based admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas, highlighting that Teach for America has joined with 100 other organizations to sign an amicus brief in support of the University.

“What is at stake here is the future of our economy and the future of the opportunities in this country,” Bireda said. “That has implications for what our workforce looks like and whether or not we’re going to be competitive globally.”

The panelists also answered attendee questions, including advice for first-time teachers. Answer: check your biases at the door and get to know the students without pre-judging.

“If we don’t get education right, we enter a new generation of slavery of sorts,” Williams said. “I know everybody cringes at that word, but we have to understand that we are a diverse country and what has been the norm is no longer. We have to embrace that and start there. Everyone deserves a chance at equal educational opportunities. If we don’t get this right, long-term, there is a trickle-down effect and we might never get out of this economic situation in this country.”

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