By LaKeshia N. Myers
I have always been fascinated with the colloquialism of “Midwest nice”—I think it is one that has clothed the Midwest with a sense of entitlement. Historically, when one thinks about segregation and abhorrent racially charged segregation, the north is often portrayed as a utopia of equality. This was far from the truth; because the north—and the Midwest specifically, was equally as segregated and laced with racist policies as the south.
With the decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” educational facilities for students were unconstitutional. While the decision was lauded for its declaration that separate but equal was unconstitutional, the high court did not give any guidance on how or when desegregation in public schools would take place. The lingering question of “when” was paramount, as many school districts (especially those in the south) sought judicial relief from immediate desegregation.
Response to the original Brown decision was divided along racial lines; Blacks heralded the decision. They felt their children would have the opportunity to attend schools that had updated facilities, books, science laboratories, etc. The likes of which were denied to them under the status quo. Whites, on the other hand, responded with extreme hostility and furor. This was evident in the case of the Clinton 12—twelve negro students who integrated the high school in Clinton, Tennessee; and the more infamous Little Rock Nine (1957). The white power structure in many southern cities decided to fight school desegregation through the court system. While some elected officials decided to suspend school altogether, virtually ignoring the court order. In 1955, Brown II arguments were heard, and the high court stated desegregation had to take place, “with all deliberate speed”. The ambiguity of this language has languished in the shadow of this ruling ever since. How fast was “too fast” and how slow was “too slow”?
In my academic opinion, I believe the ambiguity of “all deliberate speed” was one that instituted changes that were too slow. The speed at which many districts integrated, allowed anti-immigration advocates ample time to “rethink” desegregation. Due to the indefinite timeline of desegregation, whites were able to legally separate their children from Blacks through the creation of magnet programs, specialty programming, and even the creation of private, all-white, academies. These actions effectively re-segregated many public school systems. Furthermore, it created community division in both the north and the south, as most school boards were made up of white representatives, while the vast majority of pupils were African American, or other racial minorities.
For example, in the 1970s, Boston Public Schools was forced to desegregate and the court remedied desegregation through busing. This meant, white students were forcibly bused to traditionally Black schools, and Blacks were bused to predominantly white schools in South Boston. This caused an uproar amongst working class Whites in South Boston.
There were protests by parents, students were removed from school, and rocks and bottles were thrown at Black students as their busses passed through white neighborhoods. In other cities, like Milwaukee, busing took on a different meaning; entire classrooms of Black students would be bussed from their home schools and transported—intact—to a predominately-white school. The Black students (and their teacher) would then return to their home school for lunch and be transported back to the white school for afternoon classes. This form of “intact busing” was a deliberate response to integration, while also maintaining “separate but equal.” African American students, who were transported, were unable to interact with the white students, even at recess and lunchtimes.
In his book Educating Milwaukee, James K. Nelson states “the Milwaukee school board received a judicial order to integrate its students in 1976. MPS developed magnet schools, under its new superintendent, Lee McMurrin. The magnet program was supposed to integrate the schools in a way that would avoid the problems that arose in Boston, which had integrated using involuntary busing and was rocked with protest and violence” (Nelson, 2015). The magnet plan did not integrate Milwaukee Public Schools as originally thought; residents were far less reluctant to send their children outside of their racially homogenous neighborhoods to attend school. In response, the school board created a complicated and equally expensive busing program that forced students to crisscross the city in order to integrate schools. Also, at play during this time, were the effects of “white flight”—a massive population decrease in white residents from many American cities. These families moved to suburbs, which had their own school districts, effectively helping to shift the student populations in many urban centers. Leaving districts with disproportionately higher numbers of students of color and fewer white students.
The decision by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the federal courts to limit the scope of the equal protection clause for the purposes of arguing Brown was necessary at the time, however its ruling, while ending defacto segregation in public schools, did not reconcile mechanisms for ending dejure segregation, which can be caused by institutional patterns, policies, and social restrictions. Nelson, using Milwaukee as a prime example, outlines the systemic ways in which African Americans were placed on a trajectory for poverty through housing discrimination; he states, “additionally, banks promoted segregation by engaging in a practice called redlining—encircling poor Black neighborhoods in red and denying mortgage loans to the residents within the red area. The federal government cooperated with the banks through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which did not guarantee mortgage loans to people who were in those redlined areas. Restrictive covenants, clauses in deeds that prevented land from ever being sold to African Americans, were also used to keep African Americans out of the suburbs. One study by an African American attorney in the 1940s found that 90 percent of the plats had these restrictions after 1910. Additionally, an ordinance was enacted in 1920 that zoned the area on the southern end of Milwaukee’s Black district for commercial and light manufacturing, instead of housing, effectively blocking African American migration until World War II” (Nelson, 2015).
The strategy to use such a narrow scope was necessary, legally, to challenge just one aspect of segregation. I am certain that the attorneys for the NAACP felt that if they could challenge segregation in small feats, they would eventually end the process altogether. While this was true (evidenced by the fact that today, we live in an integrated society); I do not think they took into account the multifaceted variables that would produce intrinsic forms racism. This is a direct correlation to the rhetorical distinction between de jure and de facto segregation and why most Americans cannot truly understand the difference between the two. In American history, both defacto and dejure segregation were often committed in concert with one another. While people and places were often segregated by law in this country, they were separated (and in many cases still are) separated by custom.
After reading White Rage, by Carol Anderson, I now know and understand “transformative racism”—the use of policy, procedures, and the law as a form of protection for whites. Anderson posits, “White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular—to what it can see. It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively” (Anderson, 2016).
This is exactly what occurred after the Brown decision—whites figured out a way to legally separate their children and we are left with segregation that some argue is worse than the defacto segregation experienced prior to 1954. And then there are the cases of southern school districts who had yet to desegregate their schools. As late as 2016, the Cleveland School District of Cleveland, MS, was ordered by the federal courts to desegregate its school district. While its district had not been segregated in a defacto sense, it was truly a case of dejure segregation. The federal courts settled with the school district after they agreed to consolidate its high schools into one school for all students in Cleveland (CNN, 2016).
While the Cleveland School District consolidation happened in 2016, the school district has experienced the loss of white students from the district. This harkens back to the days of old when “white flight” was an expected response to integration. While this has been a challenge for the district they have moved forward and report that school operations are running smoothly (CNN, 2018).
While the issue of race continues to rear its head in many of the institutions we deem necessary, it is my only hope that slowly we as people become more comfortable with each other and begin to understand and embrace our own biases against each other. I believe that only after we know and understand our unconscious bias that only then we will be able to truly move forward and begin to erase racism from our American fiber.