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Miss Buchanan's Period of Adjustment | E3/S2: Revisionist History podcast with Malcolm Gladwell

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Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 3 | Season 2 | Revisionist History
Length: 31 min | Released: June 28, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell: On the campus of the University of Michigan, there’s a gorgeous building called the Rackham Auditorium built in the 1930’s in the classical, renaissance style. And in January 2004, on one of those cold Michigan days, a woman takes the stage in front of a big crowd. She’s in her 60s, her name is Mrs. Thompson.

Mrs. Thompson: Good evening. It’s indeed a pleasure to be with you this evening here on the campus of the University of Michigan, the home of the Wolverines, is that right?

[Applause]

Mrs. Thompson: And I heard you had a game last night and you only lost it by 2 points, huh?

[Laughter]

MG: She tells a funny story about how she was once invited to speak at Nassau, and thought she was going to the Bahamas only to discover that it was Nassau County, Long Island. She talks a little bit about her childhood and her family. Then, right in the middle of her talk, she starts reading a notice of termination sent many years ago to a teacher named Darla Buchanan.

Mrs. Thompson: “Dear Miss Buchanan,

Due to the present uncertainty about enrollment next year, it is necessary for me to notify you now that your services will not be needed for next year.”

MG: The students in the auditorium are rapt; this is not what they expected. But Mrs. Thompson goes on and reads all the way to the end.

Mrs. Thompson: “I think I understand that all of you must be under considerable strain and I sympathize with the uncertainties and inconvenience which you must be experiencing during this period of adjustment.”

MG: “This period of adjustment.” Remember that line. It’s a nice bit of condescension and understatement.

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You’re listing to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.

This episode is about that euphemism in the letter read by Mrs. Thompson, “this period of adjustment.” Not that long ago, Americans set out to do something revolutionary to change the world, but we botched it and we didn’t want to admit that fact, so we swept the whole episode under the rug and wrote letters to everyone concerned to try and absolve ourselves of the whole business.

Mrs. Thompson: “I believe that whatever happens will ultimately turn out to be the best for everyone concerned.”

MG: Yeah, right. The letter of termination to Darla Buchanan was written by the superintendent of schools in Topeka, Kansas, the capital of Kansas, a medium sized city in the upper right hand corner of the state. Like a lot of cities and towns in the United States, particularly those in the south, Topeka had segregated public elementary schools in the Jim Crow era. White children went to neighborhood schools, Black children went to a separate system of schools scattered around the city with their own Black teachers and Black principals. In the years after the Second World War, the leading civil rights group of the day, the NAACP, decided to start challenging segregation. Topeka was one of their test cases. They found 13 Black families and asked them to go down to their neighborhood White school and try and enroll their children. One of the couples they asked was Oliver and Leola Brown. Oliver Brown worked for the Santa Fe railroad, later he was a pastor. This is Leola Brown, from an interview she gave in 1991 to the Kansas State Historical Society.

Leola Brown: My husband, Oliver Brown, he was a heavyweight fighter. He used to fight in Golden Gloves.

MG: The Browns had a 7-year-old named Linda. The Black elementary school she was supposed to go to was called Monroe. To get there, she had to walk 7 blocks, often in freezing weather, and cross a busy road then get on a bus. The local White elementary school was Sumner, just 4 blocks from the Brown’s. Linda’s playmates in the neighborhood all went there. So one day, as instructed by the end double NAACP, Oliver Brown took his daughter by the hand and walked her over to enroll at Sumner Elementary.

Leola Brown: As Linda said, when we got over there, “That building looked so big,” her being a little kid and going up the stairs. And they got ready to talk, they had her sit on the outside of the office. Dad went in and was talking to the principle.

MG: You can imagine how uncomfortable the conversation was. Oliver Brown was not supposed to be there and the principal would have had no idea what to say to him other than, “I’m sorry, this is the way it is in Topeka,” with little Linda waiting out in the hall.

Oliver Brown: She said she could hear the voices kinda getting a little loud, and he said, well, it wasn’t him, it was the, uh, school board. That was the policy of the school board and he couldn’t do nothing about it, you know so. He couldn’t, no way, he could not enroll Linda in that school without their approval.

MG: All the Black families got the same answer, “Your child is not welcome.” So the local NAACP chapter sued the school board. Oliver Brown’s name was put first, Brown versus Topeka Board of Education. It was bundled with a number of other desegregation cases from all around the country, more than 200 plaintiffs in all. Went all the way to the Supreme Court and on May 17, 1954, in one of the most famous legal decisions in American history, the court ruled in Oliver Brown’s favor. The practice of educating Black and White school children separately was ruled unconstitutional.

Announcer: It was the unanimous decision and has the broadest possible language which should set for rest, once and for all, the problem as to whether or not second class citizenship, segregation could be consistent any longer with the law of the country.

MG: I’m guessing you were taught about the Brown decision in school, or have watched a documentary on it. It’s a milestone but at the same time, it’s a strange case. You could fill an auditorium with all the scholars who have a quarrel with Brown. I mean, just go back and read it, it’s supposed to be a ruling in favor of Oliver and Leola Brown and the families of Topeka, but the court actually says something entirely different from what the Black people of Topeka were saying.

LB: I went to Monroe school, here in Topeka, from grades 1 through 8.

MG: Listen again to Leola Brown’s interview with the Kansas State Historical Society. On several occasions, Leola is asked about Monroe, the Black school that her daughter had been attending. Leola grew up in Topeka; she went to Monroe as well and Leola Brown makes it very clear that she loved Monroe.

LB: What? Oh, it was wonderful! I tell you, it was wonderful. And had it not been for this walking, you know, to school and going so far to school, we possibly never would have, you know, done what we did.

MG: Later in the interview, the issue comes up again. The interviewer asks Leola specifically, “You didn’t want your daughter to go to the White school because the White school was better than the Black school?” and Leola is adamant “Oh, no. That never came up. We were getting a quality education at Monroe.”

LM: We didn’t have any bone to pick with our school as far as education was concerned nor the teachers cause they were qualified and they did what they were supposed to do.

MG: For Leola and Oliver Brown, the lawsuit was a matter of principle. They didn’t think there was anything wrong with the quality of education at Monroe, the all-Black school, They just thought that the Topeka School Board shouldn’t be telling them where they could or couldn’t send Linda to school, particularly if the only reason the school board could come up with was the color of Linda’s skin.

Now listen to the argument the Supreme Court makes in the Brown decision. They agree that the Browns ought to be able to send Linda to Sumner, but their reasoning is different. I’m quoting, “Segregation of White and Colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the Colored children.” The court’s conclusion was that segregation was de facto unequal. That simply the act of educating Black children separately from White children caused harm, serious harm. The court goes on, “Segregation with the sanction of law has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.” This was light years away from Leola Brown’s position. Leola Brown said that Black run schools like Monroe were good schools, but as a matter principle, she ought to be able to enroll Linda at Sumner. The court said, “Actually, Monroe is not a good school at all. It can’t be a good school because segregation makes it inherently inferior.” Leola Brown said, “We’re fine, we just want some control over our lives.” The court said, “You’re not fine at all. Your educational and mental development has been retarded by your inferior schooling.”

Now, the court could have said something much more straight forward. How about this? “Schools are where people make the connections that allow them to get ahead in the world. You cannot lock Black people out of the place where social power and opportunity reside.” That argument would have done the job, right? But the court doesn’t say that. In order to condemn the discrimination of Brown’s face, the court instead makes the case that Black people are psychologically crippled.

The historian Darrell Scott wrote a brilliant book a while back, called Contempt and Pity, in which he points out that there’s been a long history behind this talk of psychological damage. It goes back to the days of slavery. It’s always been incredibly useful for White people to explain the problems of Black people as the result of something personal, internal. It makes their problems their fault.

Darrell Scott: If you go even Back to antebellum period, you would see planners who would talk about how they have no sense of family. Now, of course these are the very people who were selling people’s families at the auction block arguing that they were destroying families. But they would justify it in their minds by saying they have no sense of families.

MG: Another historian, Charles Payne, makes a very similar argument in his essay The Whole United States is Southern, which you should read, by the way, if you ever want to be grabbed by the lapels. Payne argues that, in the decades after the civil war, southern Whites attempt to sell the rest of America on this way of thinking about race. They basically imposed apartheid on the south through brute political and economic force. But they want, and I am quoting Payne, “to frame the issue in a language of separation, customs, our way of life, and social equality. Language that constructed race in interpersonal and not structural terms.” They wanna pretend that racial conflict is just a psychological problem.

So what does the US Supreme Court do in 1954 in the Brown decision? It buys into the southern way of thinking about race. Leola Brown and the other plaintiffs say, “We have a structural problem. We don’t have the power to send Linda to the school down the street.” The court says, “No, no, no, it’s a psychological problem. Little Linda has been damaged in her heart.” That may seem like a small distinction, believe me it’s not. We’re still dealing with the consequences.

This is a little bit of a tangent, but I, I think it helps to explain why personalizing racial discussions is so problematic. It’s about a wonderful bit of research done by two political scientists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding. Grissom and Redding start with a well-known fact, White students are far more likely to being gifted and talented programs than Black students. If your kid is in a gifted and talented program, you’ve probably observed this. Where are the Black kids, right? Now you might say, “Well, that’s simply a reflection of the fact that White kids, for whatever reasons, have higher test scores, on average, than Black kids.” So Grissom and Redding look at a large national sample of elementary school kids and say, “Let’s equalize for test scores.”

Jason Grissom: In other words, let’s compare two students, one Black and one White, but they both are very high achieving.

MG: This is Grissom.

JG: Would that difference in probability, that they are identified by the system as gifted, would that persist? And the answer is that it does. In fact, you know, it’s still the case that even when you look at two students who are similar on math and reading achievement in elementary school, a White student and a Black student, that White student is still more than two times as likely to be receiving gifted services as that Black student is.

MG: Gifted programs are supposed to be meritocracies, places where the brightest children are given a chance to shine. Grissom’s saying that’s not the way things work in practice.

JG: And you can go a little further because you can throw other things into the equation that aren’t just achievement, you can look at differences in income, the data have how healthy the parent says that child is. We know what age that child entered kindergarten. You know, on average, White students and Black students enter kindergarten at different ages. Because of the phenomenon of red shirting, White parents are more likely to hold their kids back at the start of schooling than, than Black students are. That doesn’t explain the gifted gap.

MG: In other words, you match up right Black kids with equally bright White kids then you make sure the two groups are similar in age, class, and the health of their parents and you still find that the White kids are far more likely to be admitted to gifted and talented programs. Kind of puzzle, right?

Finally Grissom and Redding say look, in many cases, teachers play a big role in which students get into gifted programs — they encourage them, they recommend them. So they think maybe the answer here lies with not who the child is but who the child’s teacher is.

JG: In the overwhelming majority of school districts in the United States, the way that a kid ever gets to be identified as gifted is if someone in the school, usually a classroom teacher, has to look at that kid and say, “I think this kid might be gifted.”

MG: So Grissom does something really simple. He looks at the race of the teacher and what he finds is that, for White kids, there’s no effect; it doesn’t matter, but not for Black students.

JG: For a Black student, the world looks different. So if I am a Black student and I have a Black classroom teacher, the probability that I’m assigned to giftedness in, in the next year looks very much like the probability for a White student. But if I am a Black student and I have a White classroom teacher, my probability of being identified as gifted is substantially lower.

MG: How, how much lower?

JG: Okay, so for very high achieving Black students, the probability of being assigned to gifted services under a White teacher is about half the probability, um, as an observably similar Black student taught by a Black teacher.

MG: If you’re Black, having a Black teacher makes a difference and not just for getting into gifted programs. Having a Black teacher raises the test scores of Black students, it changes the way Black students behave, and it dramatically decreases the chances a Black male student will be suspended.

A group of social scientists recently went over the records of 100,000 Black students in North Carolina over a 5 year period. They found that having even one Black teacher between the third and fifth grade reduced the chance of an African-American boy would later drop out of high school. By how much? By 39%. One Black teacher.

Now does this mean that White teachers are diabolical racist trying to hold down Black students? No, this isn’t conscious discrimination. The point is that teachers have power, they’re gatekeepers, they control the classroom, they decide who gets recommended for prizes like gifted programs and who doesn’t, they decide who stays and who gets suspended. By directing their attention to a child, a teacher can inspire. By ignoring another or sending him more often the principal’s office, teachers can discourage.

Listen to Leola Brown again, about why she liked her elementary school, Monroe, so much.

LB: Oh, I loved it. I loved it. The teachers were fantastic! We got a fantastic education there. It wasn’t, as I say, this case wasn’t based on that because we had fantastic teachers and we learned! We learned a lot and they were good to us, more like an extended family, like, mothers and so forth. Because they took an interest in you, you know and…

MG: “They took an interest in you.” That’s what all the research on Blacks and Whites in gifted programs comes down to. You need to have someone who takes an interest in you if you want education to work and be fair.

Celestine Porter: They made one serious mistake, for which I, I will have to hold them responsible for.

MG: I came across another archive of interviews from the Brown era; Duke University’s Behind the Veil oral history project. The interview you’re hearing is from Richmond, Virginia. It’s with an African-American teacher named Celestine Porter and she says that once you grant this idea, that a teacher is a gatekeeper and that a child needs someone to take an interest in them, then that means integration should’ve been pursued very differently.

CP: They made students do the integration. They should have teachers first and they didn’t do that. At every one of those White schools, and at every one of the Black schools, if they’re going to send the White children to the Black schools, they should have had White teachers out there. If they would go and send Black children into the White schools, they should’ve had some Black teachers there. Now, the first people that should’ve been integrated should have been teachers and administrations first, but they didn’t do that; they moved the children.

MG: She’s absolutely right. Read the Brown decision for yourself. The court goes on and on about kids, but they have virtually nothing to say about teachers. The word “teacher” comes up once in the main text and a few times in the footnotes. That’s it. How on earth can you undertake the greatest transformation of public education in American history and barely mention teachers?

CP: Young people didn’t have no business didn’t have no business being moved first to have borne the brunt of the segregation process. And it did something to the youngsters. It did something to them — it made them hate! It gave them a sense of nobody’s here for me. And most of the students that they moved from the Black schools into the White situation, we as teachers had been there to nurture them, to help them along, to recognize their difficulties, to work with them. When they moved into the White situation, teachers didn’t know. They didn’t know the teachers; the teachers were afraid of them.

MG: The Brown decision was all about children. The signature memories of the Brown Era are all about Black children being escorted into previously all White schools. We should have been talking about teachers.

About 3.5 hours to east of Topeka on I-70, there is a little town called Moberly. Moberly is in the area of Missouri called little Dixie, because it was settled by migrants from the south before the Civil War. There was a lot of slave owning in little Dixie compared with the rest of Missouri, a lot of racial hostility in that part of the state. And I don’t think you can understand what happened after the Brown decision without first understanding what happened in Moberly.

In the early 1950’s, Moberly had a school system employing around 100 teachers across eight schools. One of those schools was Black; it was called Lincoln. Lincoln had 11 teachers. The year after the Brown decision, Moberly integrates. They do that by closing the one Black school, Lincoln, and busing all the Black students there to White schools. After closing Lincoln, the Moberly school system then says, “Wait, if we combine all the students in Moberly into one school system, we don’t think we need as many teachers as we had before.” So they say, “Let’s evaluate all the teachers from the two newly combined systems, keep the best ones, let the mediocre ones go.” I think you can see what’s coming. They decide to fire every one of the 11 Black teachers who used to work at Lincoln. So the Black teachers sue and they lose. They appeal, they lose again. In 1959, they asked the Supreme Court to consider the case, the Supreme Court says “No.” Brown is the great victory, Moberly is the great defeat. And they’re connected.

Let me give you a flavor of the case. The Black teachers say, “You can’t possibly say that we were the absolute worst of all the teachers in the combined system. We’ve been evaluated for years by our superintendent and have been given high marks.” The White school board counters with “Sure. But you were being compared to other Black teachers. You need to be compared to White teachers.” So the Black teachers say “Yeah, but we stack up really well against White teachers.” By the way, this was not a stretch. Virtually every profession, except teaching, was close to educated African-Americans in those years. If you were smart and liked learning in that era, you became a teacher. The court then says “So what?”

I’m quoting, “Human capabilities cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Intangible factors such as personality, character, disposition, industry, and adaptability vitally affect the work of any teacher.” I think there’s one intangible factor missing in that list, don’t you? What could it be? Do you suppose it begins with an R?

Forgive me for going on and on about this one obscure case, but you have to get the flavor of it. The plaintiffs say, “Wait, one of us is a superstar, graduate degrees, qualifications, ratings to the roof; her name is Mary Ella Timony.” And the White superintendent agrees, she’s a star. But he says “I’m still not hiring her because,” and I’m quoting here from the judge’s decision, “because she gave the impression that she considered herself superior to other teachers and was resentful towards authority.” “Resentful towards authority”? You think? She just got fired! The judge simply can’t get Mary Ella Timony out of his head. I’m quoting again, “It is unfortunate when teachers have an attitude such as this teacher has. And I do not mean to say that such attitude is limited to any race or color, but when it does exist, it vitally affects the teaching ability of the individual.”

She’s uppity, an uppity Negro. Of course they don’t want to keep her. Because they understand the same thing that Leola Brown understands and all the many academics who have studied what actually happens to Black kids in the classroom understand, which is that educational equality is a function of who holds the power in the classroom.

So Moberly, Missouri gets rid of its Black teachers. And by the way, so does almost everybody else. Across the entire south, Black teachers just get fired left and right. It wasn’t something done secretly; it was done right out in the open. There was something like 82,000 African-American teachers in the south before the Brown decision. Within a decade, as the decision was slowly implemented across the country, about half had been fired.

Michelle Foster: What surprises me is the kind of historical amnesia there is surrounding that issue. That many, many people today who are searching for Black teachers have no understanding of the fact that many of them lost their jobs.

MG: One of the few scholars who has paid any attention to what happened is Michelle Foster, an education professor at the University of Louisville. 20 years ago, Foster tracked as many Black teachers from that era as she could find.

MF: What, I mean, what role did Bla- teachers, did Black women play in the south relative to children? They were nurse maids, they were housekeepers, they were domestics. That’s the role they played. You know, I, every southerner, I, I meet a lot of southerners they say, “Well, I has a Black somebody who took care of them.” But that’s a motherly… That’s a little different position. When you’re a teacher, you’re evaluating, you’re judging.

MG: Even those who got to keep their jobs told one story after another of humiliation. It was too much. One of the teachers Foster interviewed went for a meeting with the superintendent with all of the other Black teachers who are being kept on. I’m quoting, “There were 15 of us and not a single one of them in there as dark as I am, not one. That ought to tell you something.”

By the way, the remaining Black teachers couldn’t use the teachers’ bathroom. They had to use the children’s bathroom.

To this day, the ranks of Black teachers in the United States have not recovered from the humiliations and mass firings of the 1950s and 60s. As a percentage, there are far fewer Black teachers than there are Black students and when you think back to studies on how important Black teachers are for the performance of Black students, that’s a tragedy.

Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, one classroom after another was purged of its Black teachers and Topeka, Kansas, of course. Topeka made a show of it, they assigned a Black teacher to a half-time position at the formerly all-White Randolph school and then the principal, a man named Stanley Stalter, had the task of calling up White parents to see if they objected to this one halftime Black teacher. And of course, they did.

Stanley Statler: Some were adamant, “No!” Some of them had very peculiar reasons for not wanting this child in the Black teacher’s room.

MG: That’s the principle, Stalter, interviewed by the Kansas Historical Society.

SS: Another one said, “My child is now 12 years of age, and, uh, is beginning her menstrual period and, uh, this is not the time of her life to be put in here with a Black teacher, a male.”

Stanley’s interviewer: Okay…

SS: That one talked forever.

MG: There’s a limit to how many times a school board is gonna try and talk White taxpaying parents out of their fear of placing a menstruating adolescent in class with a Black teacher. Far easier just not to hire any Black teachers at all.

Mrs. Thompson: “Dear Miss Buchanan, due to the present uncertainty about enrollment next year in schools for Negro children, it is not possible at this time to offer you employment for next year. If the court should rule that segregation in the elementary grades is unconstitutional, our board will proceed on the assumption that the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ Negro teachers next year for White children.”

MG: I said at the beginning that the woman reading that letter at the conference of the University of Michigan was a Mrs. Thompson. That’s her married name. Her first name is Linda; her maiden name is Brown, Linda Brown, the Brown of Brown v Topeka Board Education. This is the little girl Oliver Brown tried and failed to enroll at Sumner Elementary School. She was invited to Michigan to speak in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision. And what does Linda Brown Thompson do? In the middle of her talk, she interrupts her eyewitness account to remind her audience who bore the cost of integration. Not White people, Black people.

Linda Brown: “I think I understand that all of you must be under considerable strain and I sympathize with the uncertainties and inconvenience which you must be experiencing during this period of adjustment. I believe that whatever happens will ultimately turn out to be the best for everyone concerned.

Sincerely yours,

Window Godwin, Superintendent of Schools.”