Public Education: Best Hope for the “New South”

Public Education: Best Hope for the “New South”

By Monte Piliawsky

Vol. 1, No. 8, 1979, pp. 5-7, 25

The Myth of the “New South”

In the early 1970s, the media celebrated the emergence of a “New South” which was characterized primarily by the most successful advances in racial equality in American society. Some observers even viewed the South as the redeemer of the American soul. In 1971, Marshall Frady wrote: “It may be the South after all where the nation’s general malaise of racial alienation first finds resolution.” This dramatically changed interpretation of the South was capped off by the election of Jimmy Carter, a Southerner, to the White House in 1976.

Yet, despite all the talk about a “born again” South, the tone of hopefulness which characterized articles written about the South only a few years ago is changing. In midJune 1978, one could read an article entitled “Old Problems Persist in the New South’ ” in the Chicago Tribune, as well as a first-page article in Time magazine entitled “in Mississippi: The KKK Suits Up.” In October 1978, Tommy Lee Hines, a 26year-old mentally retarded Black man, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison by an all-White jury for allegedly raping a White woman in Decatur, Alabama, the site for the trial of the “Scottsboro boys,” and exactly parallel case 40 years earlier. Clearly, there is need for an objective appraisal of the South to measure exactly how much progress has been made, and whether that progress is substantial or superficial. Where does the South stand today?

The issue of the New South is partly a definitional one. Contrasted to the worst excesses of the pre-1954 period, racial conditions have improved markedly. In the most significant areas of the Civil Rights Movement-political participation and access to public facilitiessubstantial progress has been made. Blacks have registered enormous political gains if measured in terms of registered voters and Black elected officials. Blacks have general access to public facilities. There is more school desegregation in the South than in the North. It may he, however, as Lerone Bennett, Jr., senior editor of Ebony, cautions, “wrong to extrapolate from these surface changes to changes in social structures.”

Black Political Participation

The impressive gains in Black voter registration do not necessarily translate into social betterment for Blacks. Many Southern Blacks live in towns where the electoral domination of the White merchant class perpetuates racism. In Tupelo, Mississippi, for example, since the spring of 1978 Blacks have been boycotting downtown merchants in protest of alleged police brutality and job discrimination. The Ku Klux Klan held a rally on May 6, 1978, at a cityowned recreation center. According to Alfred Robinson, president of the United League of North Mississippi, the Klan rally was attended by “99 percent of the city’s cops, the chief of police and the mayor.” The mayor reportedly received a standing ovation for his speech before the Klan.

Even the election of a Black mayor can be but a pyrrhic victory. Tuskegee, Alabama, has had a Black mayor since 1972. Whites have responded by establishing a separate sub-society, with their own private school and even their own newspaper; many have moved to new homes in near-by suburban communities. However, Whites still own almost all the major businesses and both banks in the downtown area and totally dominate the economy of Tuskegee. As Professor Manning Marable of Tuskegee Institute concludes in his 1977 account, appropriately entitled “Tuskegee and the Politics of Illusion in the New South”: Dc Jure segregation has ended, but defacto segregation and an ongoing culture of White racism remain pervasive.”

Black mayors in large Southern cities confront the necessity of playing brokerage politics with the White economic establishment. In the spring of 1977, Atlanta’s Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, fired sanitation workers-most of whom were Black-who had struck for higher wages and then declared: “Before I take the city into a deficit financial position, elephants will roost in the trees.”

Another serious constraint on Black city mayors is the power of the state legislatures. As White voters are losing political control of cities to Blacks, they are increasingly dependent upon the state legislatures to protect their interests. The current Black mayor of New Orleans is desperately attempting to raise funds, but is hampered by a provision in the new state constitution which allows a

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home-owner of a residence assessed at under $50,000 to pay no property tax whatsoever. Chuck Stone, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, explains that “the sole benefit redounding to the Black community’s benefit of a Black statewide office … may lie in an aroused Black pride, but not necessarily any improvement in the quality of Black life.”

Public Education

This paradox of the New Southprogress contrasted with underlying stagnation-is perhaps most dramatically exhibited in the area ofpublic schools. The formal integration of schools masks a deeper and more significant pattern of “resegregation.” School integration has generally meant that White parents have pulled their children out of the public schools, leaving to Black (and some poor White) children school systems which invariably are underfunded. The remaining White children often are divided from Blacks by controversial tracking systems, a practice of assigning students to certain selfcontained curricula.

The New Orleans public school system well illustrates the problems confronting public education in the South. Most Whites living in New Orleans send their children to private or parochial schools and no longer want to give the public schools their tax support. Although middle-class Whites have little concern about the quality of public education, they control the educational system through both political and economic power. Whether or not this non-support of public education represents racism, the net effect is that Blacks have only inferior schools to attend.

Over 80 percent of the public school enrollment in New Orleans is Black. A 1975 survey revealed that the city’s students scored in the bottom fifth on standardized tests, compared with students in the 22 other largest United States cities. The dismal quality of the New Orleans public school system reflects the total lack of financial support for the schools. In 1974, New Orleans spent only $756 per pupil, compared to an average of $1,303 in other major cities.

Clearly, the public school system in New Orleans is offering Black students an inferior education. Dr. Mack J. Spears, the Black president of the Orleans Parish school board, said in 1975 that Black children in public education in New Orleans and the nation are deliberately structured into mediocrity: “[There is] a designed strategy to achieve a label of inferior schools because there are forces, social, political and economic, which do not want Black kids to survive.”

Economic Conditions

A 1978 study conducted by the Institute for Southern Studies reveals that despite the South’s rapid economic growth, the gap between the region’s rich and poor is almost exactly the same as it was nearly 25 years ago. According to the study, as of ‘1976, the richest one-fifth of all Southern families accounted for 42.3 percent of earned income, while the poorest fifth received only 5.0 percent of every income dollar. By contrast, in 1953, the poorest one-fifth earned 3.5 percent of total income compared to 43.3 percent for the richest fifth. The study suggests that the slight improvement at the bottom end of the income scale can largely be explained by the sizeable migration of poor families out of the South, especially Blacks moving to the Northeast. However, even with. the North absorbing many of the South’s poor, the number of people living below the poverty line in the South has declined only by five percent, from 11.3 million to 10.8 million between 1969 and 1975.

The reality of life for Blacks in particular is far from the picture offered in investment brochures promoting the New South. Most Blacks in the South live in rural, non-metropolitan areas. Typically, rural workers in the cotton or sugar farms live in houses with a single woodburning stove,often lacking toilet facilities. One cause of the poor housing is the plummeting since 1971 of federal housing loans to rural Black Southerners. An increased number of Blacks simply are too poor even to quality for the low-income programs. Another, factor for the decline in loans is pure discrimination. The supervisor of the Farmers Home Administration for Sumter County, Georgia (where Plains is located), explained in 1978 why loans to Blacks had dropped off so sharply:

Black people don’t know how to adjust …. White people, you can put them in a subdivision. But not Blacks. Nine out of ten will follow the worst example. They won’t do what they should do. They fuss and fight like animals, shacking with each other’s wives. It’s a mess.

A second major factor perpetuating Black poverty in the South is the fact that the widely heralded industrial development of the New South has mainly bypassed areas where most Blacks live. A report in 1977 by the Task Force on Southern Rural

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Development revealed that Blacks actually received a considerably greater number of new industrial jobs vis-avis Whites in the decade of 1956-1966 than they did in the past decade. A third disheartening factor is the rapid disappearance of the Black-owned farms in the South. At the present rate of Black land loss-300,000 acres a year-there will be no Black farmers left in 1990. (See Nick Katz, “The Other Side of the New South (II),” New Republic, April 1, 1978.) It is not surprising, then, that in the 244 Southern rural counties with the largest Black population, 56 percent of Blacks live in poverty, compared to 20 percent of Whites. Steve Suitts, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council explained: “It all relates back to the tradition of White folks using Black folks as cheap labor.”

In summary, since 1954 race relations between Blacks and Whites in the South have improved dramatically in some areas and remained unchanged in others. The bottom line is that the enormous progress made in the political arena has not been translated into economic advancement for the masses of Southern Blacks. As Samuel DuBois Cook, President of Dillard University, wrote in 1976:

The decade between the midfifties and the mid-sixties was one of remarkable and unprecedented gains for Blacks. For Blacks, it was the most creative, constructive, and humane period in their long experience with the American political system. In the latesixties, however, the cold winds of conservatism, reaction, and “benign neglect” began blowing again. They continue.

One is struck by the ominous possibility that this “Second Reconstruction” for the South may fail for the same reason which doomed the First Reconstruction: a lack of economic content and a failure to give Blacks economic resources commensurate with their political power.

Race Relations in the U.S

What inferences for race relations in the country as a whole can be drawn from our analysis of the New South? There is strong and mounting evidence that the Civil Rights Movement has stalled in the North as well as the South. Take school integration, for example. In 1972-the latest year for which complete details are available-43 percent of Black students in the South attended schools in which at least half the students were White, compared to only 29 percent in the rest of the country. In fact, psychologist Kenneth B. Clark reports that the percentage of Black students attending segregated public schools in such Northern urban centers as New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago is greater in 1978 than it was in 1954.

Two recent developments threaten the future of education for Blacks and poor Americans, respectively. The Supreme Court’s Bakke decision in June 1978, a judgment supported by an overwhelming 81 percent of the American people in a Gallup public opinion poll, appears to be the death knell to an era of “affirmative action.” In a similar vein, the measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on June 1, 1978 (H.R. 12050) granting tax credits for tuition paid to private elementary and secondary schools was rightly labeled in an article in The Atlanta Constitution by Hal Gulliver as “the most dangerous legislation affecting public education in a long while.” Referring to the tuition tax credit plan, Gulliver quotes Dr. Benjamin Mays, chairman of the Atlanta school board, as saying:

The passage of such legislation by the federal government puts money in the pockets of the rich and well-to-do to pay for their children to go to private schools and will leave the city schools to poor Whites and poor Blacks…I believe it will be the beginning of the destruction of public education in this country which is at the heart of a democracy like ours, in which the founding fathers were interested in providing at least a high school education for every American.

The Tax Revolt expressed in the overwhelming passage of Proposition 13 in California in June 1978 and by the wholesale defeat of candidates “soft” on tax cuts in the November 1978 election is even more foreboding, as it portents a deterioration of social services for minorities. Parren Mitchell, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, predicted in Time magazine that “every single human-resources program is going to be in danger, medicare and medicaid, welfare, the jobs programs.” Suggestive of the long-range effects of the California vote is a poll asking the state’s voters which services they felt could most usefully be curtailed. The largest number-69 percent-cited welfare payments to the poor, and 21 percent named mass transit-a service indispensable to Blacks and Chicanos. On the other hand, voters were reluctant to dispense with services most beneficial to middle-class property owners: only four percent favored cuts in the amount spent for police, and only one percent would accept reductions in funds for the fire department. In short, as Joseph Kraft of the Washington Post states, “the immediate victims of this populist hedonism, unfortunately, are the poor minorities.”

An extensive national opinion survey administered in 1978 by the Gallup Organization for Patomic Associates reveals additional gloomy news for the future progress of Blacks in the United States. The survey found that White Americans rank ‘the problems of Black Americans” as the very lowest-31st-of an array of 31 domestic and international issues, below even such concerns as “communism in France and Italy,” “mass transit,” and “Communist China.” Whites seem to believe that Blacks have made such substantial progress that their plight need no longer be a matter of major concern.

The Decline of Social Conscience

What is the deeper meaning of the new conservatism in America? Joseph Kraft describes the phenomenon as “middle-class greed. How to stop the rising wave of self-indulgence presents a genuine national problem.” Senator George McGovern terms it “degrading hedonism that tells them to ask what they can take from the needy.” I believe that the loss of guilt feelings is the key to explaining the prevailing American mood. “The middle-class is not feeling guilty anymore,” says Willie Woods, coordinator of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. “They’re worried about their own survival.” In short, as Professor Irving Howe notes, “I think there’s a loss of social sympathy.”

The immediate precipitating cause of our decline of social conscience is inflation. Caught in an unaccustomed economic squeeze, the middle-class is discovering that its “real” take-home pay is not increasing. Columnist William Satire refers to these Americans as “The New Poor.” Frustrated by their stagnant resentment in demands for tax cuts, regardless of the concomitant curtailment in public services, especially needed by the poor.

The underlying cause of our decline of social conscience is the loss of guilt feelings. The enormous media coverage of the Civil Rights Movement brought into our living rooms graphic and almost daily reminders of the appalling conditions of America’s poor. We felt guilty about racial discrimination and the plight of the poor. Today, however, with the decline of the Civil Rights Movement, the immediate pressure upon our psyches to feel guilty is greatly diminished. The exemplary leadership role of the federal government in the mid-1960s virtually has ended. Two years before the Bakke decision, Hodding Carter, III, then editor of the Delta Democrat-Times, wrote:

It is ironic that at the very moment we most need continuing pressure and movement, both are being withdrawn by a nation which is uncertain of where it wants to go on matters of civil liberties and civil rights.

In my opinion, it is equally unlikely that a rejuvenated civil rights effort will emerge in the near future or that the present high rate of inflation will decline. In the meantime, the economic conditions of Blacks and the poor erode further. For decades, up to 1970, Blacks were slowly gaining on Whites, economically; however, inflation has reversed that progress. Specifically, the median income of Black families which was 61.3 percent of the White median income in 1970 fell to 58.5 percent in 1974, improved slightly in 1975, but has fallen since then. An August 1978 study of the National Urban League entitled “The Illusions of Black Progress” reported the equally dismal finding that the jobless gap between Whites and Blacks is the widest it has ever been. The study found that at the peak of the 1975 recession the Black jobless rate was 1.7 times the White rate, but that by the first half of 1978, the Black jobless rate was a record 2.3 times higher than the White jobless rate. The study also dispelled the widespread impression that the Black upper-class has expanded in recent years. From 1972 to 1976, for example, the proportion of Black families whose total income was above the government’s higher budget level ($24,000) dropped from 12 to 9 per cent.

The title of this paper is meant to suggest that quality public education is the best means available to improve race relations in America. This hypothesis contains one basic assumption. Scholarly studies of racism conducted by social scientists in the past 25 years have found that in a step-like pattern the more education persons had, the greater their willingness to extend civil rights to minorities. Since the overwhelming majority of Americans attend public schools, a reduction in the quality of public education could be expected to result in a more racist citizenry. Conversely, public education, if properly structured, is an ethical enterprise to’ help clarify human values and direct human affairs “toward desirable and rationally justified patterns of action.”

Americans have always had sublime faith in the power of education. The eminent historian Henry Steele Commager wrote in 1950: “No other people ever demanded so much of education as have the American. None other was ever served so well by its schools and educators.” Americans quite properly have paid grateful homage to the success of the public schools in meeting the historic demands that society made upon them: to provide an enlightened citizenry, to create national unity, and to Americanize the millions of foreign-born. Since 1950, society has placed another “historic demand” upon public education: to combat racism. The future of race relations in America depends upon its success in this endeavor.

Monte Piliawsky is a professor at Dillard University in New Orleans.