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Brown v. Board revisited

Mills College Weekly

Fifty years after the desegregation of schools, children of
color are still struggling to receive an education equal to that of
their white counterparts in a public education system that expects
little achievement from them, according to the panelists at Mills
discussing the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Students, faculty, and community members gathered in the Student
Union last Thursday to hear Oakland educators, Dr. Pharmicia
Mosely, Alice Spearman, and Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, director of the
Women’s Leadership Institute here at Mills, address the current
state of public education in relation to the expectations of the
historic Brown decision, which desegregated schools in 1954.

The women attempted to answer two questions that Okazawa-Rey
posed at the beginning of the evening: What do you think
constitutes a quality education? And what is the purpose of
schooling our children?

A clip from the video “Eyes on the Prize” was shown, while the
audience sat in silence broken by the occasional gasp in response
to footage of the Little Rock 9—the first black students
integrated into schools in Arkansas—and the riots that ensued
when the Governor, in defiance of federal law, called in the
National Guard to bar their entrance.

“There was an assumption that [the Brown decision] would open up
an opportunity for African-American students that they’d never had
before,” Mosely said, “but in many cases you see schools that look
diverse on the surface, but are really multi-racial instead of

“People may occupy the same space, but that doesn’t mean they’re
integrated—you still see an internal re-segregation of
students and teachers,” she said.

Thurgood Marshall, who defended Brown in his work for the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund, wanted the education system to be the first
area to desegregate, according to Mosely, and the expectation was
always that it would spread to the rest of society. While legally
it did, “it’s a different game in 2004, but fundamentally it’s the
same. We’re just left in a position to challenge it in a new

Mosely said that one day she realized that she was “a product of
Brown” because college was not only an option but an expectation.
She chose to go into teaching, and got one of two responses from
people she told: “They asked me ‘Why teach when there are so many
other options?’ or ‘That’s so great’ like I’m doing some kind of
charity work.”

The responses she received led her to understand the different
set of expectations placed on low-income students and students of
color, and realize that social segregation in race and class had a
lot to do with those differing expectations.

“How are we making sense of our new multi-racial society and how
are we preparing ourselves to teach and educate in this space? [We
need] academic rigor in a context that recognizes and appreciates
the people in that school building, everyone from the
administrators to the students to the janitors and even the
parents,” said Mosely.

Spearman, a long-time Oakland resident and educational advocate,
is not a teacher but is the child of educators, and is currently
running unopposed for the Oakland School Board in Dist. 7.

“I believe the expectations for our children aren’t there
anymore,” she said, and went on to ask, “Teachers are afraid to set
boundaries and goals because children are poor or they’re black,
but what does that have to do with their brains?”

The result, she said, is that the children are then convinced
that they are dumb and poor. “Our children don’t know how to dream
anymore,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with the mind of a poor
child,” she said, and the root of the problem is the lack of
expectations from the educators and adults in the schools and at
home because of economics or race.

Schools are fighting a battle to integrate, she said, that
neighborhoods are not. She sees people pulling together in their
neighborhoods to protect their culture, creating more racial
segregation. She also said that economic segregation, in terms of
upwardly-mobile adults—both black and white—leaving
cities like Oakland as soon as possible, negatively impacts any
community that is trying to create a better space for those still

“The purpose of education has to be conceptualized differently,”
said Okazawa-Rey. “It can’t be education just for professional
advancement. It could be, but only if you added for what to the end
of that statement.” She said it is the responsibility of the
well-educated to give something back to the communities that have
supported them.

Prof. Julia Sudbury, who helped organize the event, said that
California is at the bottom of the list in terms of spending per
student, while the government continues to increase prison funding
while decreasing education budgets, resulting in things like school
closures here in Oakland.

The Women’s Leadership Institute and the Ethnic Studies Dept.
sponsored the event in conjunction with Black History Month.