Q & A with Leonard Brown

Dr. Leonard Brown
With the recent appointment of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, will improving educational opportunities for African-Americans be a priority for the Bush administration?

I'm not really optimistic. For the Bush administration, academia, and the country in general, education has become an elitist issue. We need an amendment in the Constitution that says yes, education is every American citizen’s right. Right now it is perceived as a privilege. Society’s attitude towards higher education for Blacks is tainted by a real lack of commitment, which is being seen on the nation’s stage with the gradual pull back from affirmative action. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act is a failure because it does not take into consideration the economic and education disparities between black and white children. Black children apply to colleges from high schools that on average, have thousands of dollars less to spend on education. Inequality in test scores is one indicator of school performance, but test scores also reflect other inequalities in resources and opportunities that exist in the larger society and in the schools themselves. Why isn't the Bush Administration demanding an end to this kind of inequality?

What is the reason for dwindling diversity among college graduates and tenured faculty?

Lack of real commitment by universities. They say they are committed, but when you look at the breakdown — the graduation rate of black students and the hiring and tenureship of black faculty — it's a totally different picture. Enrollment of black students may have gone up, but when you look at the percentage of those who actually graduate it’s dismal.

Is the ability to get financing the biggest roadblock for enrolling minorities in four-year universities and graduate programs?

Students' financial aid packages for the first year may be pretty impressive, but the figure is almost halved by their second year, and with tuition costs on the rise, where are black students suppose to come up with that kind of money? So we see a lot of them drop out or become part-time students. Plus, the Bush administration froze the Pell Grant. The president says that education is one of his priorities, but not only has he failed to address rising college tuition but his budget makes college even more expensive by freezing or cutting student aid and taxing students.

What is the status of black studies as a discipline?

I think black studies programs are definitely under the heat. Again, that has to do with the failure of Euro-American educational institutions to really embrace African-American Studies as a legitimate discipline — as much as physics or criminal justice, etc. Unfortunately, this decision is in the hands of people in academe’s ivory tower and reflects racism. Can the majority of Euro-Americans really embrace aspects of the African-American experience? With all the benefits and enrichment African-Americans have brought to this country, I would argue that black studies is one of the most valuable disciplines. However, a lot of universities never really bought into it. As long as they have stars like Henry Louis Gate, Jr. or Cornel West, it’s cool, but even these individuals get short-shrifted by university corporations. It takes a change of attitude throughout the university system for students of all races and cultures to really understand the benefits of taking courses or majoring in black studies.

A widely publicized paper by a UCLA law professor contends that affirmative action produces admission of black students to law schools where they are unable to compete, causing large numbers of them to drop out. Do you agree? Is affirmative action still needed in the nation’s colleges and universities?

Affirmative action does need to be re-evaluated, but to get rid of it entirely would be a big mistake. Regardless what some people want to believe, blacks in America are not competing on an even playing field with Euro-Americans. There’s this attitude of, "well, we gave you all a chance, but now it’s time to let it go."

Our ancestors built this whole country, and the opportunities and privileges that white youth have today are rooted in our ancestors' legacy. So if the powers in America want to take away what our ancestors fought for, give us our reparations. This is a capitalistic society. We talk about democracy, but America is a republic. That’s why this administration got elected to office without the popular vote. In a real democracy that never would have happened. The danger is that we are also practicing tyranny and imperialism, and fascism to a certain degree.

Dr. Leonard Brown, saxophonist, composer, arranger, teacher, ethnomusicologist and specialist in multicultural education, is an associate professor of music and African-American studies, and former associate provost at Northeastern University in Boston. He is co-founder and producer of Boston's annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert and principal consulting ethnomusicologist and jazz historian to the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, MO.