Forty years ago today, RN issued a Statement About Desegregation of Elementary and Secondary Schools.
The almost 17,000-word document surveyed the the issue beginning with the first Brown decision in 1954. Clearly, and in very plain language, the President surveyed the history and set out his Administration’s position:
This issue is not partisan. It is not sectional. It is an American issue, of direct and immediate concern to every citizen.
I hope that this statement will reduce the prevailing confusion and will help place public discussion of the issue on a more rational and realistic level in all parts of the Nation. It is time to strip away the hypocrisy, the prejudice, and the ignorance that too long have characterized discussion of this issue.’
He described his underlying approach:
We are dealing fundamentally with inalienable human rights, some of them constitutionally protected. The final arbiter of constitutional questions is the United States Supreme Court.
And he set out his specific objectives:
–To reaffirm my personal belief that the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education was right in both constitutional and human terms.
–To assess our progress in the 16 years since Brown and to point the way to
–To clarify the present state of the law, as developed by the courts and the Congress, and the administration policies guided by it.
–To discuss some of the difficulties encountered by courts and communities as desegregation has accelerated in recent years, and to suggest approaches that can mitigate such problems as we complete the process of compliance with Brown.
–To place the question of school desegregation in its larger context, as part of America’s historic commitment to the achievement of a free and open society.
RN was obviously aware of the widespread criticism regarding what conventional wisdom had decided was his “Southern strategy” regarding race relations. He addressed this with some home truths:
We should bear very carefully in mind, therefore, the distinction between educational difficulty as a result of race, and educational difficulty as a result of social or economic levels, of family background, of cultural patterns, or simply of bad schools. Providing better education for the disadvantaged requires a more sophisticated approach than mere racial mathematics.
In this same connection, we should recognize that a smug paternalism has characterized the attitudes of many white Americans toward school questions. There has been an implicit assumption that blacks or others of minority races would be improved by association with whites. The notion that an all-black or predominantly-black school is automatically inferior to one which is all- or predominantly-white—even though not a product of a dual system inescapably carries racist overtones. And, of course, we know of hypocrisy: not a few of those in the North most stridently demanding racial integration of public schools in the South at the same time send their children to private schools to avoid the assumed inferiority of mixed public schools.
It is unquestionably true that most black schools–though by no means all–are in fact inferior to most white schools. This is due in part to past neglect or shortchanging of the black schools; and in part to long-term patterns of racial discrimination which caused a greater proportion of Negroes to be left behind educationally, left out culturally, and trapped in low paying jobs. It is not really because they serve black children that most of these schools are inferior, but rather because they serve poor children who often lack the home environment that encourages learning.
This comprehensive, thoughtful, and vital document deserves attention. It can be read in full here. The Nixon administration’s pivotal role in the desegregation of America’s schools will be the subject of the Nixon Legacy Forum in September.