February 27, 2004

Contact: Norman Yetman, American studies, (785) 864-2303 or Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853.

50th anniversary draws students to KU class on Brown v Board of Education

sound Hear interview with Professor Yetman

LAWRENCE -- About 300 University of Kansas students are studying the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case this semester through an interdisciplinary class examining the origins and impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Norman Yetman, KU Chancellors Club teaching professor of American studies and sociology, is teaching the upper level course that he organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the May 1954 decision that declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional.

Recognizing that public attention would be focused on the historic decision this spring, Yetman began developing the course a few years ago. Yetman, who helped organize the national conference at KU on the legacies of the historic decision, March 14 to 17, says the event will enrich the class experience. He is encouraging his students to attend the conference and explore issues discussed in class with nationally recognized leaders in civil rights, education, law and journalism.

The KU conference will feature nationally prominent scholars and several of the children of the plaintiffs -- including Cheryl Brown Henderson of Topeka, daughter of Oliver Brown, the plaintiff for whom the case was named -- from several other states. In 1954, cases from Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware and the District of Columbia were joined with the Kansas case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to understanding the background for the court case that challenged America's self-image as a beacon of democracy and equality, Yetman says he hopes the class increases awareness of the realities of our increasingly diverse, multicultural society.

"The first half of the course focuses on the background of the case. The second half is going to look at the legacy, the consequences," Yetman notes. "What is different now, today, in American society, from what it was in 1954?"

The case wasn't simply about equal opportunity in education, Yetman says.

"The Brown case was not about education per se, it was about race. The case is really about whites being unable to extend to other people access to their institutions."

Yetman says he asks his students to think about "what does it mean to be white in American society. When I teach courses in race relations, they're not about minority groups necessarily. They're about the majority group, that is white people in American society and the ways in which we have been able to create, maintain institutional structures throughout American society that favor, or reflect the interests of, white people."

His students learn the Brown decision didn't result in integration of the schools, that additional court cases were needed to implement integration and that in the past 20 years schools are becoming more, not less, racially segregated.

One conference speaker, Harvard University professor Gary Orfield, directs the Civil Rights Project, which recently released the results of a 20-year study tracking school enrollments of minority children.

"What [Orfield] demonstrated is that the situation of minority enrollments today is about as segregated as it was in 1969. You had an increase in integrated school settings up until about 1983 or '84, but then it began to decline. Now schools are becoming increasingly racially segregated once again," Yetman says.

Another speaker, Kevin Fox Gotham, is a former graduate student of Yetman's who now teaches sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans. As a KU doctoral student, Gotham researched the development of racial segregation in Kansas City, Mo., schools. Gotham's study examined the role that school and city officials played in creating school districts that were segregated and unequal, Yetman says.

For some of his students, Yetman says the facts are overwhelming. "Some students just simply turn off. They don't want to address many of these issues. [For] a lot of students, it's like, ╬Whoa. I never thought about it that way.'"

Yetman says he hopes his students "will take away a broader understanding of the way in which race has been a factor that has basically influenced every single social and political policy throughout American history and make them more aware in their own communities."

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