50 years later, and where are we?
In the eyes of Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School, not as far as we might think.
“Blacks and whites still live very separate lives,” she said, and “essentially, legally compelled segregation gave way to socially acceptable separation.”
Guinier and Michael Wenger – a former Deputy Director for Outreach Program Development on President Bill Clinton’s initiative for race – spoke separately at the College last week about Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that ended legal segregation in public schools.
“If you sit here today as a white child of white parents, you are reaping the advantages incurred on your parents by the unequal treatment that occurred during the years of Jim Crow racism,” Wenger, who was an activist during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, said.
Both Guinier, who spoke Wednesday at Kendall Hall, and Wenger, who spoke Thursday at Forcina Hall, agreed that race is a charged issue in the United States today.
To Guinier, the problem is obvious, but not so simple.
Black families with incomes of $50,000 or less a year are twice as likely to live in neighborhoods with high rates of crime and poverty than white households earning less than $20,000 in the Boston Metropolitan Area, according to Guinier, who is the former head of the voting rights project at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund.
As author of “The Miner’s Canary,” a book about racial inequality and class structures in America, Guinier compared the experience of blacks to that of the canary, which miners would send into mines to determine whether or not the atmosphere was toxic.
“People of color, especially African-Americans, are highly visible,” she said, but “rather than heed the signal of people of color that there is a problem, that is potentially affecting all of us, we pathologize the canary.”
We blame minorities for our problems, Guinier asserted, and rather than taking blame for our own individual failures, we look to people of color to help explain them.
As a result, when Little Rock Arkansas’ Central High School integrated its student body in 1957, working-class whites were resentful. Affluent whites left the public school for the newly-opened, all-white Hall High School, leaving the lower and middle-class whites behind.
“Both schools were segregated by race, but both schools were integrated by class,” Guinier said, and the whites left behind were “experiencing this not as racism per se, but as downward economic mobility.”
Lower-class whites lost the opportunity to associate with the wealthier whites, according to Guinier, but they did not have the “language” to express their resentment.
“To these working-class whites, integration timed to coincide with the flight of the city’s elite was a stigmatizing force that interfered with their ability to pursue the American dream,” Guinier said.
Britnei Wilkins, freshman English major, agreed. “It’s an economic issue that has placed not only minority people but the working-class whites into a type of glass ceiling,” she said, and so “they blame other people – which is the minority.”
According to Wenger, improving the situation starts with self-awareness. “Become aware of your own behavior and your own biases, conscious and unconscious,” he said, encouraging a crowd of mostly students to “identify ways of channeling your energies in constructive ways to narrow our division.”
Racism and racial separation are still problems, he said, as evidenced by disparities in educational opportunities, employment and income, an unfair legal system and the absence of quality healthcare for many minorities.
Wenger said he believes that we need to launch a decade of racial milestones and accomplishments similar to that of the 10 years from 1955 to 1965 that immediately followed the Brown v. Board of Ed. decision. Starting with Rosa Parks’ sit-in on a whites’ only bus and ending with President Johnson giving blacks the right to vote, it was an era that gave rise to leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers.
“But somehow and somewhere that spirit of common cause and common sacrifice died,” Wenger said.
For Wenger, the problems minorities face are all too familiar. His biracial son, a producer on “The Today Show,” has been dealing with them his whole life. According to Wenger, his son, who is 31 years old, has trouble hailing taxis in cities and falls victim to racial stereotypes every day.
“We’re clouded by the privileged environment in which most of us live,” Wenger said. “In a nation where white people will become a minority in this century, where a global economy challenges our standard of living, where recent studies indicate that our schools are re-segregating, and where unscrupulous political candidates use fear to try to provide us for their own selfish gain, we have to heed the words of Dr. King.
“We cannot rest,” he said.