brown v. board of education

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Over the weekend, I was doing a lot of driving.  Having a kid at camp near the New Hampshire border to pick him up will do that.

So, it was time for me to catch up on some podcasts I had downloaded but hadn’t yet listened to.

I had already finished S-Town (worthy of a listen) but one of the others that I had been meaning to catch up on was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”.

In these episodes, he revisits an item from history that is often overlooked.

The first two episodes I picked were the most recent ones (State v. Johnson, and Mr. Holloway Didn’t Like That) and were based, in part, on interviews with legendary attorney Vernon Jordan and concerned legal cases from the Civil Rights Era.  Start there.

But the other one I listened too was from earlier in the season, called “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”.

It too is riveting.

It tackles the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (the legendary school desegregation case) but from the perspective of the teachers who worked at the “colored-only” schools and who were subsequently laid off — allegedly for “performance” related reasons.

Even as a history major in college, I don’t remember hearing about this — how thousands upon thousands of black teachers lost their jobs when the schools that they taught at were closed. Different reasons were given — sometimes it was deemed to be too “difficult” for white students to be taught by black teachers.

But the effect was the same — a generation of teachers were lost to history.

That could be the end of a discrimination story, but Gladwell notes that the impact of this decision isn’t just that these teachers lost their jobs.

But rather, black students lost the opportunity to be taught by black teachers. And empirical research has shown that for black students, having a black teacher can be pivotal in reducing drop-out rates and ensuring students’ success.

The impact of these decisions still resonates today.

Gladwell highlights a study from just last year that looked for explanations about the under-representation of students of color in gifted programs.  Their conclusion?

Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.

For schools that employ teachers (including many of our clients), the podcast is a good reminder that the employment decisions that are made have a big impact beyond just the teachers themselves. Students lives and their successes and failures depend, in part, on the teachers that they have in life.

For other employers, listening to this podcast is a reminder that our laws governing the workplace are not all that old. Our current laws are a reflection on what occurred in the recent past. Indeed, the major federal law — Title VII — wasn’t passed until 1964 — nearly a decade removed from the Brown decision.

We’ve made a lot of progress, thankfully, since then. But ensuring fairness and eliminating race discrimination are still items that should remain high up in a company’s “must-do” list.

If you’re looking for something different to listen to, give the podcast a listen.  Gladwell may have his own agenda, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining.  And it’s a good reminder that compliance with employment laws is about more than just doing the right thing.