Our house had a cottonwood tree in the backyard. In the excruciating Texas summer, it bloomed and cotton flew around the house like a summer snow. It caked over the window screens and blocked the wind from coming into the house.
Some of our neighbors had water cooler fans that blew out a cool mist. It made the whole house feel like a swamp and made everyone in the house feel like they were trying to breathe underwater. I hated those fans and was grateful we couldn’t afford one.
We were poor, but not in the ways that mattered. No one went hungry. No one was homeless. There were no drugs. No gangs and no neighborhood blight. The front door to our house was never locked. And everybody owned the home they lived in. My parents purchased our home in the 1950s, and it was a significant accomplishment for them.
When I enrolled in elementary school, all of my teachers were Black and they preached excellence like a well-rehearsed Sunday sermon. By the time I began middle school, in sixth grade, I was a track star, held first chair in the band and was among the top five grade earners.
But all of that changed in 1974, when I was in seventh grade. As part of the mandate issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, my classmates and I were among the first group of Dallas students to take part in a new busing program.
On May 17, 1954, the Brown case signified a cultural reconstruction project of huge proportions for our country. It successfully ended legal segregation in education and laid the groundwork to dismantle segregation in all sorts of other areas, including housing, transportation, voting, employment and public accommodations. It is viewed as the most significant case on race in America’s history. The ruling was marred, however, by violent confrontations delaying its implementation in some parts of the country for more than 20 years.
But when the Brown ruling finally etched itself upon the country, the social stuff of that imprinting behaved in ways other than intended.
“As I took in the palaces of white people that I passed, a question occurred to me: 'Do I need new dreams?'”
My fellow students and I were bused to the north side of town to attend a school with a predominantly white population. While riding through their neighborhood in the big yellow bus that took me and my neighbors out of our community to experience what educational authorities called “excellent education,” and then back to our neighborhood to live where no good thing could come from, it occurred to me that something was wrong. The scene outside my window rolled by in slow motion. The large and lavish houses struck me as something out of a fairy tale. As I took in the palaces of white people that I passed, a question occurred to me: “Do I need new dreams?”
The experiment only lasted one semester for me. For others it lasted longer — some a year, some two years. My classmates and I were divided into three groups, based on where we lived, and assigned to different trial periods and different schools. A seemingly random sampling of all three groups never participated in the busing program at all. What happened to the data from the experiment is still unclear.
I returned to my neighborhood school after that trial semester at the predominantly white school, but it had changed. More than half the teachers had been replaced with younger white women and disaffected Black teachers, who seemed to have lost something. The academic program was so weak, I went to school only two or three days per week, yet I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class.
I didn’t return to the running track or to the band. I hadn’t been allowed to join the running team of my new school because though I had been seen as talented in my old school, I was not at my new school. I wasn’t even allowed an opportunity to try out. And though I had been first chair in the band at my old school, in my new school I was relegated to eighth chair. So I stopped doing both activities for the semester I was there. The break proved to be too disruptive and I lost interest in the band and never played again. I considered rejoining the track team at my old school, but my confidence had been unsettled and I decided against it.
Five years after I graduated high school, just a decade after the Brown initiative went into effect in 1974, my mother had sold the family home and it became the neighborhood crack house. I moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, but returned home to visit my old neighbors and to see the place where I grew up. The wretchedness of the block disoriented me. For the next decade, I had nightmares in which I tried to go home but could not find my house. It was simply missing.
My childhood neighborhood was a product of what happened when 1970s “integration” replaced the 1954 fight for “equality,” which would have been better translated as “equity.” Black Americans, who were prepared to “integrate” into mainstream America, began to move out of Black neighborhoods in the ’70s — and these neighborhoods, as a consequence, began to deteriorate. Black neighborhoods across America were quickly and unexpectedly shifting as the professionals moved out — shifting from homeowners to renters, from single-family homes to massive subsidized multifamily projects, from professionals to low-wage earners.
By the 1980s, crack cocaine found its way into many Black communities and rendered them utterly incapacitated.
In 2003, I conducted an anthropological research project in a Houston neighborhood that offered a unique opportunity to follow three different types of families: the working poor (in an area colloquially known as The Bottoms), upper-middle-class African American families (near Texas Southern University, a historic Black college with a legacy that extends back to the emancipation from slavery), and upper-middle-class white families (who worked at University of Houston).
I discovered that white families served as the model for all reform efforts — they served as the “norm.” Governments, nonprofits and private efforts used and still use this central place to determine how to create and implement all reform programs.
And this is where Brown went wrong.
A 2004 presentation at the University of Michigan by Linda Brown Thompson, who was the 7-year-old at the center of the Brown case in 1954, makes it clear that her parents, Oliver and Leola Brown, didn’t want their daughter to go to a white school because it was better than her Black school, but rather because it was closer to where they lived.
What Brown was really about was choice and equal access.
But the implementation of Brown compared Black neighborhoods to white neighborhoods and that comparison ended up devaluing Black schools, values and life. The architects of the Brown initiative wanted Black Americans to have the right to choose where they would live, go to school, work, eat ― just like white Americans! But the way that idea was executed announced to the world that no good thing could come from Black neighborhoods.
Thompson recalled that Monroe Elementary, the school that both she and her mother attended, was a good school. The teachers were wonderful and paid a lot of attention to the students. However, the principle of the matter was that her parents should have had the right to choose where their daughter went. In contrast, however, the Supreme Court said, segregation of white and Black children in public schools had a detrimental effect upon the Black children. There was no mention of the effect of segregation on white children.
In other words, the Browns were saying there is a structural problem in our society with how race is used to make laws and other social decisions. The court’s decision said racial conflict is a psychological problem and signaled that the problem is with Black people: They are being damaged by their inherently inferior schooling.
The 1970s integration process was therefore the failure of Brown. But the values of integration itself deserve to be reconsidered.
Integration should be, and has been for me personally, an important process to access places where we build networks and make connections that provide us with opportunities to compete in the world. Without the principles of integration, I never would have been allowed to even apply to, let alone attend, Columbia University. Without the exposure to classmates from around the world, it never would have even occurred to me that I could travel the globe to study how people interact in complex social environments.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying that schools should be segregated or that Brown in and of itself was a bad thing. Of course it was not. Segregation locks Black people out of the places where social power resides and it denies a fundamental freedom of any democracy.
What I am saying is we have an important opportunity at this time in the history of our nation to reconsider what we want this country to look like. How we want its citizens, including those who happen to be Black, to be treated. Because of the racial justice uprisings that erupted across our cities in recent years, and especially in the last year, and the learning and awareness that has come with them, people are paying attention and listening in ways they haven’t ― maybe ever before.
“We have an important opportunity at this time in the history of our nation to reconsider what we want this country to look like. How we want its citizens, including those who happen to be Black, to be treated.”
Now is the perfect time to be inspired by and reinvigorate the original ideals of Brown. Now is the perfect to time remember what was at the heart of Brown ― the right to choose and the fight for true equity, not a mandate for merely checking boxes and creating programs that simply add underrepresented individuals to spaces that had previously been denied to them. That wasn’t, isn’t ― and never will be ― enough.
We must continue to push forward and fight to affect real change in this country. We must harness the power of the social movements that have risen and we must do more than the bare minimum. We must remember how the implementation of the Brown ruling hurt many communities, like my childhood neighborhood, and let those memories serve as a reminder that good intentions without true understanding, clear and just goals, and commitment and follow-through can have unthinkable consequences.
Sixty-seven years ago, the Brown ruling not only offered Black Americans, but all Americans, a dream that is yet to be realized. It is well past time for us to stop dreaming of true equality and start living it.
Sharon Washington, Ph.D. is an anthropologist who has traveled the world exploring human capacity as imagination. She attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York City and speaks regularly at universities and conferences on issues of social justice, race, economic insecurity, education and media influences. Her Ph.D. dissertation, “The Educational Contract,” recounts her travels in the U.S., sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Sharon currently lives in Houston, Texas, and has written for the Dallas Times Herald, New York Newsday and the Akron Beacon Journal.