By James Hall and Barbara Miner May 10, 2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It is time to fulfill the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education — the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century.
Sixty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Equally important, the court’s decision overturned the Jim Crow doctrine of “separate but equal” that had upheld segregation in all aspects of life, from jobs to buses to drinking fountains.
“The movement for African-American civil rights began long before the Brown decision and continues long after,” the Smithsonian National Museum of American History notes. “Still, the defeat of the separate-but-equal legal doctrine undercut one of the major pillars of white supremacy in America.”
Jim Crow took aim at the gains of African-Americans after slavery. Today, this country is witnessing a “New Jim Crow” that attempts to undermine the gains of the civil rights movement. This New Jim Crow fosters both racial and economic inequities.
Segregated schools and housing are the norm. Voting rights are under attack. Mass incarceration is destroying families and communities. Deadly “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws are proliferating. Deportations and anti-immigrant prejudice are on the rise.
Milwaukee, unfortunately, has become a poster child for the New Jim Crow. Consider:
■Black-white residential segregation in greater Milwaukee is the worst in the country.
■Greater Milwaukee’s residential segregation based on poverty is the worst in the country.
■Wisconsin is last among all the states in protecting the well-being of African-American children, based on 12 key indicators ranging from birth weight to family poverty to teen pregnancy to high school students graduating on time. (Most of the state’s African-Americans live in Milwaukee.)
■Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of African-American men than any other state — in a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation.
■The achievement gap between African-American and white students, based on what is known as “the nation’s report card,” is the worst in Wisconsin in every test category.
■The disparity gap in African-American and white employment among women in Milwaukee is the widest in the country. For men, is it the widest among the top 40 metropolitan areas.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that a growing number of people throughout the Milwaukee region want to do something. Two indications:
First, on May 17, the Schools and Communities United coalition is holding events to honor public education and to underscore the inherent links between strong public schools, healthy communities and a vibrant democracy. (Its forthcoming publication, “Fulfill the Promise,” has details on the issues outlined here.)
The coalition includes community, education, civic, student, labor and religious organizations — from the NAACP to Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, Centro Hispano Milwaukee, Voces de la Frontera and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.
Second, an initiative known as “Greater Together” is launching a summer-long media campaign focused on dismantling segregation and promoting social justice throughout greater Milwaukee. This unprecedented campaign is a unique collaboration between the creative and activist communities.
America’s journey of democracy always has been a work in progress. This is the challenge of the 21st century. Will we build a multicultural democracy, or will we build ever-more sophisticated structures that divide white from non-white, rich from poor, city from suburb, Democrat from Republican?
Predictions are that by next fall, for the first time, most of the children in our public schools will be non-white. By 2050, the majority of the U.S. population is expected to be non-white.
America has a chance, once again, to prove to the world that we are a beacon of hope and inspiration. We have a chance to build a multicultural democracy. But it is not a foregone conclusion.
Which brings us back to Brown.
In the decision on segregation in the public schools, the court noted that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” The justices went on to recognize “the importance of education to our democratic society,” calling education “the very foundation of good citizenship.”
Milwaukee, unfortunately, is not just a poster child for the New Jim Crow. It also is a poster child for school privatization— in particular the school voucher movement, under which public tax dollars pay the tuition at private schools.
Milwaukee, perhaps more than any other city, forces the question: If public education is a bedrock of democracy and an essential governmental function, why are we privatizing our public schools?
May 17 provides a chance for a new beginning throughout the Milwaukee region — to learn from the past to build a better future. The time has come to work together to dismantle segregation, rebuild our public schools and ensure equal opportunity for all.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said 50 years ago when he visited Milwaukee: “The time is always ripe to do right.”
James Hall is president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP. Barbara Miner is a writer and photographer. Both have been involved with Schools and Communities United and the Greater Together initiative.