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.
It is a puzzling fact that in the last quarter of the twentieth century, 25 years after the historic Brown decision, reasonable Americans are still talking about American education in terms of racial qualifications. Otherwise intelligent Americans - black and white - still talk, act and vote in terms of "white" schools and "black" colleges, as if these terms and the incredible realities they reflect are God-ordained.
At the turn of the century, the late W. E. B. Du Bois prophesied that the problem of race would be the dominant problem of the twentieth century. His prophecy is now seen to be alarmingly accurate.
Given our heritage of racial segregation and racially segregated schools, America is not now prepared to deal intelligently with the problems of race throughout the world. In spite of the emergence of China as a major world power; in spite of our recent embarrassment in Vietnam; in spite of the imminent racial confrontation in southern Africa, Americans are still casually talking about a role for "black" colleges. Those who control our social, political, economic and educational destiny, and our press and media, continue to discuss American education in terms of the racial traditions and qualifications of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Desegregation of American public education will come. It must come if America is to survive economically, technologically and morally as a stable and effective democracy in a contemporary world. Recognizing this fact, and recognizing that it is inconceivable that we will retreat in the struggle for the desegregation of American public education, there remains the question of what must be done in the meantime. White and black children are not expendable on the altar of racism. We must now ask ourselves what must be done to prepare the present generation of students in America to continue and intensify the struggles for the desegregation of American education.
In seeking the answer to this critical and challenging question, we must first understand that as long as race is the important factor which determines what school a student attends, then there will be limits on the quality of education for that child, whether white or black. We must understand that we cannot educate, in a true meaning of the word educate, American children for an effective and constructive role in a contemporary world by accepting the superstition that some children belong in a "black" school and other children belong in a "white" school.
About 18 years ago, I stated to a group of Negro college presidents my belief that almost all Negro colleges should face the fact that they were not able to function on a single standard collegiate level because most, if not all, of their students were the victims of segregated and inferior elementary and secondary education. I suggested that these Negro "colleges" reorganize their facilities, curricula, methods and staff to face head-on this fact. Specifically, I suggested that these schools become academies with the educational objective of seeking to compensate for the previous 12 years of educational inferiority and prepare their students for a single standard high level of collegiate, graduate and professional education.
These suggestions were rejected then and probably will be rejected now for many reasons - not the least of which is the matter of the maintenance of the pretense of status associated with the designation "college." The fact that a college degree from most black colleges is a racially determined double-standard, non-competitive degree had to be subordinated to the vested interests inherent in the maintenance of American racism.
A clearer perspective concerning the depth and persistence of American racism as it dominates American education requires a re-examination and a search for additional specific interim roles and responsibilities for predominantly black colleges. First, they must still seek to compensate for the educational deficit resulting from the 12 years of segregated and inferior education which were imposed upon the majority of their black students. This compensatory educational role cannot be accomplished by words, or the rhetoric of such terms as "enrichment," "compensatory," "remedial," or "special educational programs for the disadvantaged." It can only be done by tough, hard, realistic educational programs which set clear, obtainable standards and which insist on their attainment as indicated by the measured achievement of the students.
The fundamental purpose of these compensatory programs has to be to build in our black students the foundation necessary to make them truly competitive in future academic, vocational and professional careers, and to provide them with the substance and the solidity essential for a productive and gratifying life. Such a program, if successful, would remove from many of our young black people the necessity for the posturings, the pretenses and the mouthings of the rhetoric of pride which pathetically lack the substance of genuine pride based upon achievement.
To obtain these goals will require drastic rethinking of the traditional structure, organization, objectives and goals of higher education of American blacks which were inherited as part of the legacy of American racism. We will be required to reorganize our thinking on the very nature of higher educational institutions attended by the majority of black students.
Above all, we must have the courage to free ourselves from the myth, the magic, the assumed sacredness of the four-year limit for the attainment of a college degree. The task we have set for ourselves in this more realistic and difficult approach must define a college degree not in terms of the appearance of academic courses, not in terms of a stated amount of time, but in terms of actual academic achievement. Each student must be provided with the time he or she needs to reach a level of academic performance which would make him or her able to compete with others on a single standard of academic competition.
Black colleges can no longer be accessories to American racism by being content to provide black students with a second-class education which is "good enough for blacks." Nor can we continue to imitate blindly the traditional rigidities of white colleges. To do so will merely reinforce the racist hypocrisies, the frauds, the normative dishonesties inherent in the designation and present realities of "black" and "white" colleges, and "black" and "white" education.
There is a second challenge. Black colleges can facilitate and deepen the meaning of education for their students by involving them in programs designed to deal directly with the problems which blacks must face and solve in their communities. This role of black colleges would not only provide them with a valuable community educational laboratory in the model of the agricultural extension programs of the land grant colleges of the past; it would also give meaning and substance - and a demonstration of the inextricability of trained intelligence and social responsibility - to a college education. A successful college community cooperative program would add an empathic, socially sensitive dimension to education in America which all levels of American education now seriously lack.
In daring to educate their educationally damaged students; in daring to make the process of higher education an integral part of the quest for rational solutions to the problems of the community and the market place, black colleges will give "soul" and "relevance" to all aspects of American education. Soul and relevance do not have to mean the dilution of standards. Soul can mean empathy and social responsibility; relevance can mean a demonstration of concern. These are the missing ingredients of the present products of the prestigious "white" American colleges and universities.
This dual responsibility, or obligation, which the continuation of American racism now imposes upon black colleges, is indeed a formidable one. I have no illusions that it will be easy to accomplish. Neither do I believe that the majority of black colleges, their executives, their faculties or their administrations will eagerly embrace this difficult task. Problems of status and of posturings at the expense of substance and honesty can be expected to prevail in the majority of institutions organized and controlled by mere mortal human beings.
It is my belief, however, that only through this kind of drastic educational re-examination, reorganization and insistence will we be able to raise the quality of education in our predominantly black schools and colleges to the point where black students will be able upon graduation to compete on a single standard of academic ability with students from more privileged segments of our society. If we do not move toward and obtain this goal, our black colleges, for the most part, will remain a cruel hoax and crumbling monuments to the continued and deepening racism of American society.
Kenneth Clark’s pioneering research on segregated education became the scholarly foundation for the NAACP’s litigation leading to the Brown decision. He continues to speak and write prolifically, is a trustee of Chicago University, member of the NY State Board of Regents, and partner of the consulting firm, Clark, Phipps, Clark and Harris. (1979)