Black Students’ Unlikely ‘Emancipators’

By Derrick Jackson

In congratulating himself on upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas quoted the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said, “Education … means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth.”

In congratulating themselves for leading the push for vouchers, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and House majority leader Dick Armey wrote in a guest column in the Washington Post: “The Supreme Court, with its decision on school vouchers, has liberated some of our country’s poorest children.” Gregg and Armey wrote, “We think Frederick Douglass … said it best: “Education … means emancipation…”

Emancipation! Liberation! It is a testament to our freedom of speech to see this trio transform the lion-maned Douglass into their personal teddy bear. Thomas has played the lapdog in helping the Rehnquist court roll back civil rights. Gregg voted in the House against the federal Martin Luther King holiday in 1983 and opposed a paid Monday Holiday for King in New Hampshire.

Armey is perhaps the most absurd person to suddenly embrace black and brown folks and Douglass. In 1984, the former college professor called Black Studies “pure junk” and “crib courses.” In a 1995 appearance on “Face the Nation,” Armey called for an end to all affirmative action programs.

Since then he has led the charge in the House to kill affirmative action in the purchasing of radio and television stations and has spearheaded efforts to have the federal government copy the California proposition that ended affirmative action there. He laughed off President Clinton’s trip to a burned-out church during the rash of arsons in the South as a “photo op.” In 1997, one of his aides said American should “put the brakes on multiculturalism” because immigrants exist in a “cultural ghetto.”

His sudden caring about education is made all the more curious by the fact that he once said “the embarrassment of my life is that I spent 20 years as a university professor.” In the 1980s, he wanted to abolish the Department of Education In 1995, the majority leader handed President Clinton a GOP House spending bill that proposed to cut $4 billion from the Department of Education. Back then, Armey thought so much of education that he proposed merging it with whatever was left of the National Endowment for the Arts, which he wanted to kill outright.

With liberators like that, give me sharecropping.

What Armey, Gregg, and Thomas call emancipation is only the exchange of one ghetto for another. With the white suburban public systems outside of Cleveland refusing to take voucher students and with tuitions of elite private schools in the stratosphere, all that parents can do with their paltry $2,250 vouchers is herd themselves into a subsidized religious schools from denominations that happened to have property in the “ghetto.”

Studies so far have been inconclusive as to whether such limited vouchers result in better education. What is for sure is that religious schools are just as segregated and by some measures even more segregated than public schools.

In a study released last month, researchers at Harvard University’s Civil rights Project found that the average white student in religious schools attends schools that are about 90 percent white, with two-thirds of them going to classes that are between 90- 100 percent white.

Conversely, the average African American or Latino who enrolled at a Catholic school attends classes that are at least two-thirds children of color. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, said the report found that “private schools have been disappointingly unsuccessful in their record of creating interracial schools, where equal opportunity and the opportunity to learn about other cultures would be more likely.”

The opportunity for equal opportunity is not likely to come from Armey. Both critics and supporters agree that any major expansion of school vouchers could come only if the suburbs take them. But in 1996, Armey opposed federal desegregation orders to open up the affluent suburbs in his northern Dallas district to public housing.

Someone who complains about black and brown folks being in cultural ghettoes but who also works hard at keeping them in the ghetto cannot lay any claim to Frederick Douglass. Of course, anyone who would trash Black Studies would not know that over the Fourth of July of 1852, Douglass declared America’s “shouts of liberty and equality” to be “hollow mockery.”

Given Armey’s past, vouchers are a hollow mockery of Douglass’s dream for education. Far from being the glorious light of truth, they are a penlight in the cellar of education, with batteries too weak to illuminate the door to emancipation.

Derrick Z. Jackson ( writes for The Boston Globe. This column is reprinted with permission.