Our house had a cottonwood tree in the backyard, which bloomed in the sweltering Texas
summer and sent cotton flying
around the house like summer snow, caked over the window screens, and blocked the wind from coming in.
Some of our neighbors had water cooler fans that blew out a cool mist, making the entire house feel like a swamp and everyone in the house feel like they were trying to breathe underwater. I despised those fans and was thankful 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. No neighborhood blight. And everyone owned the home they lived in. My parents bought our house in the 1950s, and it was a significant accomplishment for them.
When I started elementary school, all of my teachers were Black, and they preached excellence like it was a well-rehearsed Sunday sermon. By the time I started middle school, in sixth grade, I was a track star, first chair in the band, and among the top five grade earners.
My classmates and I were among the first group of Dallas students to participate in a new busing program in 1974, as part of the mandate issued by the United States Supreme Court
in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education
of Topeka, Kansas
On May 17, 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education case successfully ended legal segregation
in Education and laid the groundwork for dismantling segregation in a variety of other areas, including housing
, transportation, voting
, employment, and public accommodations. It is regarded as the most significant race case in American history
However, when the Brown decision was finally etched on the country, the social stuff of that imprinting behaved in unexpected ways.
As I passed by the white people
's palaces, I wondered, 'Do I need new dreams?'
My classmates and I were bused to the north side of town to attend a predominantly white school. It occurred to me 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, that
My classmates and I were divided into three groups, based on where we lived, and assigned to different trial
periods and schools. A seemingly random sampling of all three groups never participated in the busing program at all.
After that trial semester at the predominantly white school, I returned to my neighborhood school, but it had changed: more than half of the teachers had been replaced by younger white women and disgruntled Black teachers who seemed to have lost something; the academic program was so weak that I only went to school two or three days per week, but I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class.
I didn't return to the running track or the band because I wasn't allowed to join my new school's running team because, while I was seen as talented at my old school, I wasn't at my new school, and I wasn't even allowed to try out. And, while I was first chair in the band at my old school, I was relegated to eighth chair at my new school.
My mother sold the family home five years after I graduated from high school, just a decade after the Brown initiative went into effect in 1974, 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 see the place where I grew up, and the wretchedness of the block disoriented me.
My childhood neighborhood was a result of what happened when 1970s “integration
” replaced the 1954 fight for “equality,” which would have been better translated as “equity.” In the 1970s, Black Americans who were ready to “integrate” into mainstream America began to move out of Black neighborhoods — and these neighborhoods began to deteriorate as a result.
Crack cocaine had infiltrated many Black communities by the 1980s, rendering them completely incapacitated.
In 2003, I conducted an anthropological research project in a Houston
neighborhood that provided a unique opportunity to follow three different types of families: working-poor families (in an area known colloquially as The Bottoms), upper-middle-class African American families (near Texas Southern University, a historic Black college with a legacy dating back to slavery
's abolition), and middle-class African American families.
I discovered that white families served as the model for all reform efforts — they were the "norm." Governments, nonprofits, and private efforts used and continue to use this central location to determine how to create and implement all reform programs.
This is where Brown blundered.
Linda Brown Thompson, the 7-year-old at the center of the Brown case in 1954, made it clear in a 2004 presentation at the University of Michigan
that her parents, Oliver and Leola Brown, wanted their daughter to attend a white school not because it was better than her Black school, but because it was closer to where they lived.
Brown was primarily concerned with freedom of choice and equal access.
However, 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, and eat, just like white Americans! However, the way that idea was carried out announced to the world that no good thing could coexist with racism
Thompson recalled that Monroe Elementary, the school that both she and her mother attended, was a good school with wonderful teachers who paid a lot of attention to the students; however, the principle of the case was that her parents should have had the right to choose where their daughter went.
In other words, the Browns were arguing that there is a structural problem in our society with how race is used to make laws and other social decisions. The court's decision stated that racial conflict is a psychological problem and signaled that the problem is with Black people: they are being harmed by their inherently inferior Education.
Brown's failure was thus the integration process of the 1970s, but the values of integration themselves merit reconsideration.
integration should be, and has been, an important process for me to gain access to places where we can build networks and make connections that allow us to compete in the world. Without the principles of integration, I would never have been allowed to apply to, let alone attend, Columbia University.
I want to be clear: I am not saying that schools should be segregated or that Brown was a bad thing in and of itself; of course not. segregation keeps Black people out of places where social power resides and denies a fundamental freedom of any democracy
What I mean is that we have an important opportunity at this point in our nation's history to reconsider what we want this country to look like and how we want its citizens, including those who happen to be Black, to be treated. This is due to the racial justice
uprisings that have erupted across our cities in recent years, particularly in the last year, and the learning and awareness that has resulted.
At this critical juncture in our country's history, we have an opportunity to reconsider what we want this country to look like and how we want its citizens, including those who happen to be Black, to be treated.
Now is the time to be inspired by and reinvigorate Brown's original ideals. Now is the time to remember what was at the heart of Brown: the right to choose and the fight for true equity, not a mandate for simply checking boxes and creating programs that simply add underrepresented individuals to spaces that had previously been denied to them.
We must continue to push forward and fight for real change in this country, harnessing the power of the social movements that have risen and doing more than the bare minimum. We must remember how the implementation of the Brown ruling harmed many communities, including my childhood neighborhood, and let those memories serve as a reminder that good intentions without true understanding can lead to failure.
The Brown decision offered not only Black Americans, but all Americans, a dream that has yet to be realized, and 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 studied at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York City and speaks frequently at universities and conferences on issues of social justice, race, economic insecurity, Education, and media
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