Perspectives: 'Separate but Equal' Sounds Bad, but May Be Better for Black Students

Yellow Bus

Cleveland, Mississippi, found itself in quite the dilemma after Judge Deborah Brown finally ordered the city to fully integrate East Side High School (predominately black students) with Cleveland High (split with 48 percent of students being white, while 45 percent are black). The same was also ordered for the local middle schools. Yes, somehow Cleveland School District of Mississippi was able to continue separating the population of 12,000 residents by a train track and, of course, race for 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education was passed.


If hindsight is 20/20, then I truly have no desire for these schools to merge -- in fact, I only wish that we hadn't prematurely decided that "separate but equal" (meaning equal funding, opportunities, and so on) didn't have a place in public schools all those years ago. That may put many off, including my black counterparts, but my logic is the very reason HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) did not become extinct the moment schools were integrated. They understood that black students would always need a safe haven -- despite being merely tolerated by a white population.

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Unrealistically, the deputy assistant attorney general Vanita Gupta believes "[t]his victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play and thrive together." And, sorry, but I'm just not buying it, because thriving and actual learning are the last things that came out of my education in an integrated school where I was only one of a handful of black students. Sadly, I wasn't alone. 

I'm not sure when it was that I stopped and considerably questioned my education and upbringing in a predominantly white school system, but I'd say I began to realize in my last year or so of high school when I got my first taste of HBCU Spelman University's Early College Program. I had always excelled in English (or so I thought), until the professor failed me. All summer long, my papers were viciously murdered with red ink. This prompted me to go into my senior year, guns blazing, and challenge myself. I took AP English, so as to make sure I was being as challenged as I could -- that way when I was crowned the greatest, I'd know it was real. 

The next time the subject crossed my mind was four years later, at Hampton University (my beloved alma mater and another prestigious HBCU). There I was again, hanging on by a thread -- after nearly failing a very basic college math course prior to graduation.

It forced me to realize that I was just about remedial in the subject because for years and years my math teachers wouldn't force me to rise to the challenge. They would accept my underachievement and relax their standards for me in a way that they'd never done for my white friends.

I was 21, about to fail math because none of my teachers had believed in me enough or thought I was worth the time it took to stay the extra hour or so -- they'd passed me with mediocre grades in spite of the fact that I was far from them, and they allowed me to carry on without ever truly learning the basics.

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While math had never been my preferred subject, my teenage self never set out to question or push myself -- being young and ignorant, I was content with teachers discounting me. And, while my older self regrets not being wiser, I also realize that to a certain extent this falls on the teacher. I would've appreciated it so much more if there had been more teachers who cared enough to flunk me -- cared enough to recommend tutors and summer school. But many of them failed me in a far more disappointing way by not showing up for me.

In the name of full disclosure, I truly don't think that my teachers were viciously racist by any means -- I do think there were preconceived notions and thus an unknowing discrimination. But rest assured that I'm not the first to feel this way, as recent information has found what I've often felt: There's information that suggests white and black teachers have different standards for their students.

To this day, I fear math and remain infuriated with my teachers -- but I carry this knowledge hoping it makes a difference when it comes time for me to decide on education for my own children. And that is why "separate but equal" isn't always a bad thing.


Pieces in our Perspectives series reflect the views of the writer.

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