“We are playing poker right now and the little chips we are offering at the table is not enough to call the other player’s bluff.” — Dr. Daniel Upchurch, psychologist
After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the period of legal racial segregation in the school system came to a close. At first glance, this decision may look like a step in the right direction: The racist “separate but equal” doctrine that had physically divided Americans for decades was finally overturned, and children — Black and white — would sit side-by-side in classrooms across the country. In reality, while school integration did end an era of state-sanctioned segregation, it also paved the way for other harmful forms of discrimination to take root and produced unforeseen consequences and disparities. School integration came at a high price — and Black America is still paying for it today.
Dr. Daniel Upchurch, a psychologist with the Nashville school system and adjunct professor at Fisk University, spoke to Atlanta Black Star about the historical context surrounding school integration and explained how the shock waves of this momentous decision can still be felt in the education system today — often at the expense of Black students and teachers.
Upchurch, whose doctorate focused on school psychology, centers his research on testing and education-related disparities facing the Black community. His articles and presentations have been featured at the local and national level, and his book “Pyrrhic Victory: Cost of Integration” reflects on the far-reaching and dynamic impacts of the Brown v. Board decision. While he’s not an advocate for returning to a segregated world, he believes it’s important to acknowledge the “high costs,” that have been associated with integration. “We’re not talking about going back [to segregation], we’re talking about addressing the issues that transpired after integration,” he said.
In regards to the issues that led to school desegregation, Upchurch explained, “it was always about resources.” Prior to school integration, Black schools lacked access to the resources available at predominately white schools, and were unable to educate students effectively. This included anything from books to adequate and safe gymnasiums. “They needed more textbooks, more resources, and more support from the federal government,” Upchurch explained. Meanwhile, white schools typically “had enough resources and teachers.” In the Black community, the desire to integrate stemmed more from the need to gain access to resources than it did from enthusiasm about integration itself.
The prospect of equal pay also played a significant role in getting Black teachers to support integration. “Black teachers weren’t getting paid as well as their [white] counterparts,” says Upchurch. However, these teachers expected to receive better pay after desegregation.
When the Brown v. Board decision was made, Chief Justice Warren shared the court’s unanimous decision: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Unfortunately, this decision produced consequences Black educators hadn’t anticipated. Many school professionals “didn’t retain the titles they had while in the Black community” after desegregation. As a 2019 article published in Education Week put it, school superintendents “balked at putting Black educators in positions of authority over white teachers or students.” When Black schools shut down to facilitate the process of integration, thousands of Black experienced principals, teachers and administrators were dismissed, demoted, and forced to resign.
A 2019 paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research explains how desegregation efforts following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened the Black employment base by forcing Black teachers out of schools. Author Owen Thompson estimates that between 1964 and 1972, a typical “school district transitioning from fully segregated to fully integrated education, which approximates the experience of the modal Southern district in this period, led to a 31.8% reduction in black teacher employment.” The study also concluded that these displaced Black teachers often ended up taking on lower-skill jobs, and that school districts compensated for the loss by hiring more white teachers. As this trend continued, Black men all but disappeared from the classroom. A 2019 report showed Black men make up just 2 percent of all public school educators. “They didn’t want Black males teaching Caucasian students,” Upchurch remarked.
In all of this, Black students have suffered tremendously. Although integration did allow Black students to gain access to what Uphurch referred to as “big name schools,” with Black educators and administrators out of the picture, white school leaders called the shots in the classroom, and as it relates to testing and assessments. A 2016 study of Denver Public Schools highlights the adverse impacts of the lack of teacher diversity on Black students. The study resulted in an 82-page report which concluded that “teachers who are not Black don’t expect Black students to do well in the classroom,” and that young white female teachers, in particular, are oftentimes “outright afraid,” of Black students.
Segregation continued even within individual school systems. “The body integrated, but they segregated the mind,” said Upchurch. Black students were disproportionately assigned to special education curriculums on the basis of a single biased IQ test.
In 1968, a group of Black psychologists organized to prevent districts from using the IQ test they described as “culturally biased.” A U.S. District Court in California decided in the 1979 Larry P. v. Riles case, that this racially and culturally biased test could no longer be used to assign Black children to the “educationally dead-end, isolated, and stigmatizing classes for the so-called educable mentally retarded.”
Upchurch spoke of how an ability grouping system called “tracking” extended education-related racial discrimination beyond students’ K-12 years. A simple test was used to say, “for Black students, your predictive outcome is trade school, and for whites, yours is college. … That’s why you see a lot of your great aunts and uncles were welders and beauticians.” In the 1967 Hobson v. Hansen case, Julius Hobson, a civil rights activist, filed a suit against Washington DC’s Board of Education and its superintendent Carl Hansen, claiming that tracking was a discriminatory practice used to disproportionately assign minority students to lower-ability tracks and lesser educational opportunities. A federal judge ruled in Hobson’s favor and decided that tracking was in fact unconstitutional, and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. He also found the system to be culturally biased.
Ultimately, school integration set in motion a series of practices and consequences that proved detrimental to Black educators and students. “It’s imperative that we address the cost of integration, so that we can fix these issues and service our community.” In reflecting on Black people’s primary motivation for supporting integration — equality, Upchurch says, “we didn’t get what we asked for.”
“I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.