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Black History Program Examines Historic Decision on Education
By Carla Garnett
Photos By Bill Branson
A pipeline that actually functions more like a funnel. That's how one panelist at NIH's 2004 Black History Observance described the slow pace at which the U.S. education system is filling the pool with African American scientific researchers, academicians and physicians.
Case Western Reserve University associate dean of student affairs Dr. Robert Haynie asserted that instead of desegregation leading to a healthy, steady flow of black students moving from high school through college to grad school, pursuing careers in the sciences and constantly replenishing the supply of medical professionals, what the nation has is a large number of African Americans entering the educational system, but only a trickle navigating each level successfully to increase or even maintain the pool consistently.
"You can't separate health care from socioeconomic conditions it doesn't work," he said, describing lessons learned over the years from conducting medical interventions in poor neighborhoods [see sidebar]. "You cannot impact quantity until you deal with quality. In other words, the quality of life for this community has to improve so that people want to live longer."
He said that he once asked health survey participants what they wanted from their local hospital. To his surprise, Haynie said, they asked not for more mammograms, blood tests or pressure screenings, but for several things outside the traditional realm of health care: "They said, 'Get the drug dealers off of our streets. Change our environment, both internal as well as external. Give us jobs that have meaningful levels of accomplishment. Give us a quality education that will lead to better jobs.'"
That was the bottom-line message of NIH's observance of Black History Month that gathered a panel of seven speakers to address progress in education since the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education decision in 1954 to allow black and white students to attend public schools together. Although the Brown case dealt primarily with K-12 education, panelists were asked specifically to discuss the ruling's effect on post-secondary education, on efforts to recruit more minorities to the field of science and careers in medical research, and on other endeavors to close gaps in health status. The program also included music by Kim Jordan, a jazz keyboardist and vocalist, who performed the traditional Negro spiritual, "O Freedom," and the civil rights movement anthem, "We Shall Overcome."
"The historic Supreme Court decision became a signal and a turning point in the history of this country on the question of race relations," acknowledged Dr. Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, who introduced the program's discussion.
The movement to desegregate schools actually began far earlier than Brown, he noted, when a group of black scholars and NAACP lawyers, led by Howard University Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston in the early 1930s, declared that "they were going to deal with the question of integrated education, because it was important [and] that if you opened up the graduate professional schools, colleges and universities, you could then begin to propagate the arrival of a black middle class."
So started the long struggle for equal education among the races that consisted of numerous legal cases and eventually ended the flawed "separate but equal" school system, Walters said. At the announcement of the Brown decision, he continued, many believed that racial integration in public schools would lead to beneficial results for black students and would promote economic as well as "social equality, and afford blacks a quality education. Underneath this, however, was a naive faith that since the Supreme Court had decided it, it would be accepted by society."
In reality, progress occurs at a far slower level, said another panelist. "Jim Crow segregation laws barring integration are a factor of our lifetime," pointed out Laura Murphy, director of the D.C. office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This problem of race relations is ongoing, and is relatively recent in the law."
Dr. William Harvey, director of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education, agreed, offering statistics to document the long haul. "It's sobering for us to realize, according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, that we've essentially moved back to the same point in terms of the integration of our public schools that we were at when Martin Luther King was assassinated," he said. "We have essentially the same level of segregation in our public schools now that we did some 30 years ago. There has been some progress, but we have in fact seen a significant amount of resegregation, particularly in our public schools."
The result, he explained, is that a large concentration of students of color are in schools where "they do not have the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts and therefore are not receiving the same kind of preparation, motivation and stimulation" to move out of high schools and into post-secondary education.
Despite the fact that the nation has the largest number of African Americans receiving baccalaureate degrees than at any other time in history, the ratio of white college graduates to black college graduates has either remained the same or worsened in the last generation.
Still, he said, there have been accomplishments: In 1980, just over 60,000 black students earned baccalaureate degrees; in 2000, more than 111,000 achieved the same milestone. In 1980, more than 17,000 African Americans earned master's degrees; in 2000, the number had doubled to over 38,000. Newly minted black doctoral degree graduates numbered just over 1,040 in 1980; more than 1,600 were counted in 2000.
"We often think that the corporate community is a more conservative atmosphere than the academic world, [however] there is in fact greater representation of African Americans in the nation's top 100 corporations than there is at the top 100 universities," Harvey concluded, also relaying disparate statistics on the number of black faculty members at U.S. institutions of higher learning. Integration in the 21st century is not just about social justice, he emphasized, but more importantly it's about economic competitiveness. "The challenge is to make our universities look more like our population...It's in America's best economic interest."
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