William F. Tate IV Delivers 17th Annual Brown Lecture with an Engaged Discussion Forum
William F. Tate IV Delivers 17th Annual Brown Lecture with an Engaged Discussion Forum

October  2020

On October 22, William F. Tate IV delivered the 17th Annual AERA Brown Lecture, “‘The Segregation Pandemic: Brown as Treatment or Placebo?“ with a broadcast that reached more than 3,100 viewers from 40 countries.

Tate’s 30-minute lecture led to an engaged moderated discussion forum and an opportunity for audience Q&A that included Tate. Chastity Pratt (Wall Street Journal) moderated the discussion, and Shirley Malcom (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Aldon Morris (Northwestern University and American Sociological Association) served as commentators.

AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine

Tate, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of South Carolina, is a leading expert on the intersections of education, society, and public health. He holds the University of South Carolina Educational Foundation Distinguished Professorship, with appointments in sociology and family and preventive medicine. Tate served as AERA president from 2007 to 2008 and is an AERA Fellow.

AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine opened the virtual event, noting, “This annual lecture is especially important this year, when deep concerns about inequalities in education and in society are at the forefront of public discourse. We hope tonight’s lecture will help to connect the knowledge base on crucial social issues of our day with the work that so many are doing in the trenches.”

AERA President Shaun R. Harper then introduced Tate. “The through line in Bill’s research is a staunch, unapologetic focus on equity,” said Harper. “On a personal note, I have always thought of Bill as my academic big brother. His scholarship has helped to make me and so many other scholars better and more useful as we attempt to advance educational and social justice in our work.”

AERA President Shaun R. Harper

For the viewing audience and those engaging through social media, Tate was just the right “antidote” to take stock of the evidence on the history and continuing perniciousness of structural racism in education and society and to ask whether the Brown decision, with all it did, is in the end a placebo or a treatment. Using the lens of a medical model and his expertise in education and public health, Tate examined the legal remedy in Brown as a form of therapy as he unraveled the meaning and impact of the ruling.

Tate began his talk with a personal story of not being able to play in a high school baseball summer league due to residential segregation in Chicago and its impact on educational opportunity.

He attended a school “miles from my home, the price of attending a good high school measured beyond dollars and cents. Local residential segregation and school integration cost me a boyhood dream. My question at the time was Brown-related: Why can’t I have a neighborhood school with a high-quality education and extracurriculars?”

2020 AERA Brown Lecture Speaker William F. Tate IV

Tate discussed the “segregation pandemic,” arguing that over the past 500 years, by way of mutually reinforcing regimes consisting of politicians, intellectuals, religious supporters, business leaders, and others, an ideology of racial biology “infected” the world, causing a disease to spread in global fashion.

Referencing the title of his talk, Tate discussed why Brown was deemed the therapeutic to cure the pandemic. “Brown held that segregated schools were unconstitutional primarily because of the message segregation conveys—the message that Black children are an untouchable caste, unfit to be educated with White children,” Tate said.

The arguments set forth by Tate were scientifically crisp and compelling in analyzing structural social issues fundamental to the continued functional segregation of Brown and Black people and the harms caused by embedded racism and inequalities.

With regard to one of his core points, for example, Tate observed: “Today, we use social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus. Segregation is a form of social distancing. Segregation in the United States must be viewed as a tool to maintain order in the midst of unjust laws, lies, and indignities.”

In citing the history of suppression, Tate noted that “the Southern strategy to exclude Blacks from federally funded policies provided a way out of poverty for White Americans, and set the stage for significant wealth gaps that remain to this day.”

“Take the Social Security Act. After passage in 1935, it produced profound disparities as fully 65 percent of African Americans across the nation fell outside of the provisions required to receive support,” Tate said. “And this figure ranged from 20 to 80 percent across the South.”

Tate then turned to examine the therapeutic efficacy of Brown. “The Brown decision metaphorically represented a psychological intervention in its break with the Plessy decision. It provided hope!”

The discussion forum that followed included Tate in a highly engaged conversation introduced by Pratt, the new and first-ever education bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal.

Bringing their own diverse scientific training and knowledge, Morris, the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and president of the American Sociological Association, and Malcom, senior advisor and director of SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shared their stories of living in the segregated South, both before and after Brown, and the short- and long-term impacts of the decision.

“The Brown decision was about more than equal education,” said Morris. “It was about the freedom and dignity of Black people. It was about restoring our humanity. It said to us that God did not make us inferior, that we can hold our heads high, and we were the captain of our souls. We all underestimated the importance of the Brown decision.”

“In the Jim Crow South that I lived in, the burden of integration was always on Black children, while the parents received the placebo of hope,” added Malcom. “While the [Brown] ruling allowed for integration of schools, it did not require immediate action. With ‘deliberate speed’ was very slow in the South, and the federal courts in the region enabled that pace.”

Chastity Pratt (Wall Street Journal), Shirley Malcom (American Association for the Advancement of Science), Aldon Morris (Northwestern University and American Sociological Association), and Tate

During the highly engaging discussion, Malcom, Morris, Tate, and audience members examined a range of issues, including the importance of Brown; the effects of uneven distribution of educational resources on achievement gaps; the interplay of economic inequality and school funding models; and improving school environments and teacher quality.

“The educational achievements of Black and Brown people have nothing to do with Blackness or Brownness,” said Morris. “It has to do with access to resources. Let’s equalize the resources in the schools and see what the outcomes will be. Until we address the issue of economic inequality, we will not be able to educate all children at decent levels.”

"Inequality is socially produced; real, live human beings construct systems of inequality,” added Morris. “Therefore, it would take real, live human beings to deconstruct those hierarchies of injustice."

“Many institutions make assumptions about what Black students can and cannot do,” said Malcom. “That’s not grounded in fact. In most cases, the students have not had the opportunities that are generally available in schools that are more resourced.”

Malcom also called for researchers to document the experiences of students and teachers, particularly those of color, with distance learning during COVID-19. "This is not the last time we'll have to go through this drill,” said Malcom. “What can we take away as lessons?"

In his concluding comments, Tate singled out the property-tax-based funding of education in the United States. “It has led to horrific inequities across our system,” said Tate. “It has led to a very difficult situation in our society today and it is harming opportunity.” Beyond racial lines, Tate added, “It’s really poor people and middle-class people who are being harmed.”

Levine adjourned the program, underscoring the importance of the Brown Lecture as an annual reminder that research can be a powerful force for social change. "We are really a family in this effort together,” Levine said. “This is a struggle that requires inoculation and innovation. We’ve got the knowledge and the science; we need to make this a pivotal moment of change at the social structural level and within educational institutions.”

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