Saturday, May 17, marked the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, holding that state-mandated racially-segregated schools violated the U.S. Constitution. Fox News celebrated this historic event by slamming Attorney General Eric Holder and First Lady Michelle Obama for discussing the role of systemic racial discrimination in modern American society in commencement addresses over the weekend.
On the May 19 episode of Hannity, host Sean Hannity was joined by Town Hall reporter Katie Pavlich to discuss the speeches, saying that he found it “suspicious” that Holder's commencement address at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD, and Michelle Obama's to graduating seniors in Topeka, KS, discussed race at all, even though Brown is known as ushering in modern civil rights law by condemning the racial caste system of white supremacy. In his remarks, Holder pointed out that despite the holding in Brown, “in too many of our school districts, significant divisions persist and segregation has reoccurred -- including zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.” The first lady warned that “today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech,” and that “many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools, and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs.”
But Hannity was unmoved, criticizing these speeches that discussed the “subtle” institutional discrimination that leads to severe inequalities of opportunity for persons of color. Pavlich, meanwhile, blamed Holder and President Obama for the spike in resegregation, because they have fought “school choice” and voucher programs.
This is not the first time that Fox News bizarrely complained about these commencement addresses because they discussed race on the anniversary of Brown. On the May 18 edition of Fox & Friends Sunday, co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Anna Kooiman complained about Holder's accurate description of the discrimination currently facing minority students, and claimed that his speech was not sufficiently “uplifting.” Kooiman went on to argue that Holder should have included a “call of action for African-American fathers to actually be fathers and not be baby daddys” instead of calling zero-tolerance policies that unfairly funnel students of color into prison “racist.” Carlson agreed with Kooiman's assessment and argued that Holder's speech didn't “acknowledge reality.”
What Fox ignores is that not only is the 60th anniversary of one of the most significant civil rights victories in history a perfectly appropriate time to discuss race, but that Michelle Obama and Holder were correct to point out that there is still work to be done to fulfill the promise of Brown. According to a recently released study by UCLA's Civil Rights Project, “segregation increased substantially” after federal court desegregation orders were terminated and ignored under Republican administrations and conservative Supreme Court rulings, leaving devastating and lasting effects on America's students and future leaders.
From the report:
Segregation, in short, has strong and lasting impacts on students' success in school and later life.
On the other hand, there is also a mounting body of evidence indicating that desegregated schools are linked to profound benefits for all children. In terms of social outcomes, racially integrated educational contexts provide students of all races with the opportunity to learn and work with children from a range of backgrounds. These settings foster critical thinking skills that are increasingly important in our multiracial society--skills that help students understand a variety of different perspectives. Relatedly, integrated schools are linked to reduction in students' willingness to accept stereotypes. Students attending integrated schools also report a heightened ability to communicate and make friends across racial lines.
Studies have shown that desegregated settings are associated with heightened academic achievement for minority students, with no corresponding detrimental impact for white students. These trends later translate into loftier educational and career expectations, and high levels of civic and communal responsibility. Black students who attended desegregated schools are substantially more likely to graduate from high school and college, in part because they are more connected to challenging curriculum and social networks that support such goals. Earnings and physical well-being are also positively impacted: a recent study by a Berkeley economist found that black students who attended desegregated schools for at least five years earned 25% more than their counterparts from segregated settings. By middle age, the same group was also in far better health. Perhaps most important of all, evidence indicates that school desegregation can have perpetuating effects across generations. Students of all races who attended integrated schools are more likely to seek out integrated colleges, workplaces, and neighborhoods later in life, which may in turn provide integrated educational opportunities for their own children.
But Fox seems happy enough pretending that racism, prejudice, and segregation are scars of the past, rather than issues that persist in the present. This ahistorical disregard of the lessons of Brown is enabled by the current conservative majority of the Supreme Court -- led by Chief Justice John Roberts -- that has made it nearly impossible for public schools and parents to pursue voluntary integration efforts to maintain diverse student bodies.
In 2007, the Court decided Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, where Roberts reinterpreted Brown to support his theory that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” -- a line that quickly became a conservative rallying cry to oppose everything from robust voting rights to affirmative action. Roberts' devotion to the myth of colorblindness has also cropped up in the Court's subsequent decisions dealing not just with K-12 schools, but higher education as well, including its decision in Schuette v. BAMN, upholding Michigan's state ban on affirmative action in college admissions. This was inevitable -- the holding of Brown was broadly used to dismantle apartheid across American society, not just in elementary schools. Rewriting its meaning to fit a nonsensical colorblind ideology of the right-wing is having the same cascading effect, not just in case law, but more perniciously in real life.
Take higher education, for example, where the students who were supposed to attend integrated K-12 and develop “critical thinking skills that are increasingly important in our multiracial society” instead experience a resegregation that is repeated in college. As diversity begins to disappear on college campuses, serious racist incidents or heightened racial tensions begin to crop up. The most recent affirmative action case of Fisher v. Texas, for example, directly involved the race-conscious diversity initiatives of a school that was struggling to ameliorate not just past but present white hostility toward its students of color. In February, three white fraternity brothers at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) hung a noose and a confederate flag on a statue commemorating James Meredith, the first African-American student to enroll at the school. At the time, Fox News completely ignored the story and how a lack of campus diversity can lead to such horrifying incidents.
More recently, but hardly reported, black law students at Washington and Lee University urged their school to address the "alienation and discomfort" that minority students face on campus every day as a result not only of a lack of diversity, but of the school's ongoing commitment to displaying confederate imagery on campus. Robert E. Lee, who served as president of the university after surrendering his rebel army at the close of the Civil War, is still a large and honored presence on campus and his chapel is adorned by confederate battle flags. The university also celebrates Lee-Jackson Day, renting out Lee Chapel to a group of neo- confederates who hold programs there and march across campus carrying confederate battle flags. The students have asked that the university acknowledge and condemn its participation in slavery as other universities have done and cease allowing neo-confederate celebrations on campus, instead fully recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr. day. As explained by student Dominik Taylor, “A lot of students of color have felt sort of ostracized during their time here ... When things such as Lee-Jackson Day happen, you're just sort of feeling left alone and isolated and alienated.”
This is what Fox is missing when it pretends race doesn't matter.
Given these frightening campus events, as well as the prejudice and segregation that persist in K-12 schools, it would seem more important than ever for leaders like Holder and Michelle Obama to draw attention to the work that remains to ensure that the goals of Brown are met in the 21st century. But as far as Fox is concerned, this important anniversary is no time to talk about the reality of race.