Cornerstone for Democracy

Black and white portrait of Black man with glasses, in suit, and hand on chin posed in front of bookcase

Raimondo Borea

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

One of the fascinating dilemmas of contemporary American society is the fact that the burden for maintaining the strength and the power of American democracy, the struggle to improve the quality of education as the foundation for a strong and dynamic society, is being borne disproportionately by American minorities. 

During the past five decades black Americans, through the planning and work of NAACP lawyers, have brought a series of cases before the federal courts demanding equality and democracy in our educational institutions. The work of these lawyers culminated in the historic decision of the United States Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, when in the Brown v. Board of Education case that Court stated unequivocally that the myth of separate but equal in American education would no longer prevail. But the Brown decision also articulated in bold, though often forgotten, words the role, purpose and function of education in American life: 

Today education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments .... It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today, it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. 

History demonstrates that the American public school system has been the chief instrument for making the American Dream of upward social, economic and political mobility a reality for the influx of minority group youngsters into our urban public schools. The advocates of mass democratic public education argued persuasively and with justification that public education was the cornerstone of a stable American democracy. Depressed immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe could use American public schools as the ladder toward the goals of assimilation and success. 

The fact that American public schools were effective mobility vehicles for white immigrants makes even more stark and intolerable their present ineffectiveness for minority group children in our central cities. It now appears that the present system of organization and functioning of urban public schools has become the chief obstacle in the mobility of the masses of black and other lower-status minority group children. Public schools, especially those in our Northern urban centers, are no longer instruments of upward mobility for minority and lower-status children. They are for the most part institutions breeding despair, frustration and sowing the seeds of self-destruction and social instability. The inefficiency of the segregated and inferior schools to which these children have been relegated are now clear threats to the viability of our cities, if not the stability of our nation. 

Thus, the fight against racially segregated schools for these many years has not been only a fight for black children. We have been fighting not only to provide our children with the quality and type of education which will prepare them to compete with other children who are more privileged, but also, in a larger way, we have been fighting for the survival and the effectiveness of a democratic nation which places education at the cornerstone of its commitment to equal opportunity and equal justice. 

It seems obvious to me that, in the interest of democratic stability, everyone connected with public schools must confront segregationist practices and boldly assert that education must dare to challenge and change society toward social justice. But in the 25 years since Brown, a number of educational specialists, school administrators, scientists, social scientists and pseudo-scientists have made an assortment of disturbing and fascinating attempts to deny minority children the right to an education which would increase their chances of becoming constructive members of society. Some of these apologists for the status quo make the irrational and antidemocratic argument that the consequences of segregated and inferior education for these children are irremediable. They either contend that minority children are genetically inferior, or, rejecting the flagrant approach to white supremacy, coldly state that public schools are incapable of remedying the effects of generations of environmental and cultural disadvantage. 

The net effect of the cultural deprivation theorists is indistinguishable from the effect of those who claim genetic inferiority for minority children. Both assert these children are doomed to educational inferiority. While the schools were instruments for upward mobility of European whites who also came, interestingly enough, from deprived backgrounds and environments, it is now asserted that they are limited in their ability to help culturally deprived dark-skinned minority children. This seemingly liberal environmentalist view also has the consequence of supporting and reinforcing the do-nothing rationalization of educational personnel. Those who are now responsible for the education of our children in our public schools have and communicate such low academic expectations and standards to minority children that they establish a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Another group of formidable, sophisticated adversaries of equal education claim that they are without racial prejudice and that they are in favor of school desegregation - but that they are realists. They justify their realism by pointing out that they are so much in favor of desegregated schools that they insist that the most effective way of obtaining non-segregation is by maintaining segregation. They argue that busing to desegregate schools would increase racism because it would inconvenience whites and arouse their prejudices. They argue that existing segregated schools in our cities should remain segregated because attempts to desegregate them will cause white flight. In observing the present controversy related to the desegregation of Northern urban public schools, one is confronted with a fascinating Orwellian inversion of language and meaning five years before 1984. 

The collective effect of this opposition to the obvious reasonableness of desegregation adds up to a serious erosion of a democratic America - by those who have benefited most from its liberties. We are confronted with the fact that unless this present sophisticated pattern of evading Brown and seeking a functional repeal of Brown is effectively countered, not only will the damage to minority children persist and increase, not only will the damage associated with the stigma and the inferiority of segregated schools continue and expand, but our cities will also deteriorate, the pathologies associated with institutionalized racism will proliferate, and the foundations of democratic society will be destroyed. 

In the face of this gloomy prospect, the white leaders of our public schools and government are incapable of providing the vision, moral guidance, compassion or wisdom required to move the nation forward and assert the democratic foundation of American education. We must now recognize that the resistance to the desegregation of our urban public schools is a reflection of the negative effects of racial segregation on whites. In attending the segregated schools, they internalized irrational fears and hatreds. The consequence of segregated schools which the whites attended made racism so much a part of them that they insist upon inflicting the disease of racism upon their own children. They resist any attempt to allow their children to learn to cope effectively with others who differ from themselves in such superficial characteristics as skin color. They make it impossible for their children to come to grips with the reality that two-thirds of the peoples of the world are nonwhite and that these two-thirds are no longer silent, passive and subordinate. 

Ironically, it falls upon the minority in America to force the issue of segregation in public education and to insist upon desegregation for the very survival of American democratic society. Any educational agenda for the future must prepare all our children and our society for the latter part of the twentieth century and for the type of genuinely democratic education which will make it possible to complete the unfinished business of the American revolution. What follows are a few aspects of such an agenda. 


The first item on the agenda for the future stability of American education for all children, black and white, is that we must now redouble our energy and our efforts and must mobilize all of our resources to continue the struggle for the desegregation of American public schools. It is not possible to have education for democracy in America and prepare our children for effective functioning in a shrunken one world by maintaining the anachronistic, dehumanizing form of racially dominated, segregated education. The function of education is to broaden the human mind, to free human beings from tribalisms and parochial isms, to free human beings of constrictions or superstitions and fears and hatreds. This cannot be done in segregated schools. 

The second item on the agenda is that as we continue and intensify the struggle for the desegregation of the schools, we must spend an equal effort on improving the quality of education in all of our public schools. There must be basic education for all American children of normal intelligence and above. These children must be taught to read, to write, to deal with numbers and to think creatively and critically. These are absolutely essential elements for preparing human beings to cope with the problems and the requirements of a contemporary and future democratic world. The ability of each child to learn if properly taught must be respected as the essential index of the respect for that child's humanity and capacities as a human being. Educational personnel must be held accountable for providing children with the academic equipment to cope, to strengthen democracy and to resist the seductive appeals of demagogues who have always tried, and too often succeeded, to exploit human ignorance. 

The third item on the agenda will require that we find ways of assuring that the financing of public education is equitable. In the present approach to the financing of public schools, the fact of economic injustice determines the perpetuation of educational injustice. Rich, more affluent communities can and do provide their children with a higher quality of education than poor communities can now provide. This remains a mocking violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Reasonable interpretations of th is Amendment would seem to lead to the conclusion that where the state has assumed the responsibility for providing public education for its children, all of the children should be provided equal educational facilities and equal educational opportunities. This is not now possible when a large percentage of the cost of education must be borne by the tax rolls of local school districts. The state, and eventually the federal courts, must find some way of assuring equal expenditures for educational purposes for all of the children of the state. 

The fourth item on the educational agenda for the future requires a reexamination of the goals, the methods, the style and the atmosphere of public education. Specifically, the American public must somehow find the formula whereby it can insist that those responsible for the most important function of our society - namely, that of educating our young - understand that education cannot be defined in the restricted terms of mere academic performance and future economic success. Children must be taught from the earliest elementary grades that intelligence and academic ability are a social trust. Those human beings who have been provided with greater academic talent, intelligence and rapidity of learning have a responsibility for helping their fellow human beings to develop up to the maximum of their ability. The goal of education must be made to include as a core component of the educational process social responsibility, sensitivity and empathy. 

This goal can be attained by building into the educational process cooperation among the pupils and a sense of individual responsibility for classmates. Bright students must be taught to help in tutoring students who may not be as bright. Students with special talents must be taught to use their talents and creativity to increase the enjoyment of their classmates and to encourage the expression of special talents in others. Education must be defined in terms of critical concern with problems of justice, with reason, logic and the understanding that morality is an integral part of constructive intelligence. 

In the elementary grades, in the middle school and in the secondary school, and in our colleges, universities and professional schools, we must teach history, the social sciences, and the humanities in such a way as to make it an integral part of the understanding of every educated human being that the chief danger facing mankind today, the chief threat to a functioning democracy of equality and decency among human beings is the threat of high intelligence devoid of moral and ethical sensitivity. This threat revealed itself in the Watergate scandal: The cast of characters in the Watergate obscenity were all educated men of privilege and of status, who had the advantage of attending our better schools. Watergate revealed that the past pattern of isolated, segregated, morally deficient education only temporarily obscures the dry-rot of moral insensitivity which erodes democracy's foundations. 

The future stability of American democracy will depend upon our developing the vision and the strength to reorganize and revitalize American education. This must be done if American democracy is to be strengthened and if America is to contribute to the stability of human civilization throughout the world.