About that Malcolm Gladwell podcast

I know many people enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcast about the Brown v. Board of Ed decision (Revisionist History, S2 E3: Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment). I have to say, though, that I saw the argument differently than others who praised it, and this post is my attempt to work that out. Let me know if you agree or disagree – this is much less about me trying to refute an argument than it is about generating conversation about something that can be tough (but is very important) to talk about.

For those who haven’t listened to it, you should check it out at the link above. It’s short (30 mins) and the presentation is very engaging. The very brief summary is that it covers an issue that’s overlooked in the history of school desegregation: the mass firing of Black teachers immediately following Brown. It highlights an apparent paradox: that Brown was supposedly decided based on what is best for the psychological well being of Black students, but left them largely without the Black teachers who (studies have shown) have a positive impact on Black students’ motivation and academic achievement. I definitely think there’s value in bringing attention to the firings and to the impact of same race student-teacher pairings.

My main question, though is – What is Gladwell’s ultimate argument? I think the upshot is something unsaid in the podcast, but ultimately very damaging for the school integration movement. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first want to revisit a few places where I think Gladwell’s argument uses either exaggeration or omission to make its point:

  • Quality of the Black school in Topeka compared to the White school – There’s an extended section where Gladwell argues that these two schools roughly comparable in quality, implying that this was more common across the country. But, we know that’s not true. Separate had been unequal in public education for decades. I think it’s important to point out here that the NAACP didn’t take on the Topeka case randomly. As detailed in an earlier post, it was part of a decades long legal strategy in which Charles Hamilton Houston was extremely deliberate in the cases he selected. And, there was likely some strategic value in choosing Topeka as one of the sites for the lawsuit. The NACCP’s goal was to overturn the “separate, but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, and I think they needed to find places where separate was roughly equal in quality and begin the argument there. It’s possible that, if they used cases where schools were obviously unequal, then the court’s remedy could have been equalization, which would have reinforced Plessy.
  • The “psychological damage” argument- This was a factor in the case, but Gladwell makes it sound like this was the only argument that decided the case. The actual text of the decision emphasizes the importance of education as preparation for democratic citizenship – this was a major driving factor, something that can’t be achieved in a system of segregated schools. The NAACP argument did also emphasize the importance of making social connections through schooling (precedent: Gaines), even though Gladwell claims “you cannot lock Black people out of the place where social power and opportunity reside; that argument would have done the job, right? But, the court doesn’t say that.” The psychological damage argument came also from precedence (the McLaurin case). Plessy was decided in 1896, 58 years before Brown, and overturning it was incredibly difficult. Thurgood Marshall, who took over for Houston, drew as much from precedent as possible to try to build as strong a case as possible against it.

There’s a theme here – Plessy and what it means today – and this gets at my main issue with the podcast. Gladwell’s arguing that integration largely hurt Black students and teachers. He’s emphasizing research that points to positive effects when Black students are taught by Black teachers. It sounds like he’s saying Black students are better off taught by Black teachers in Black schools. It sounds like a revised version of “separate, but equal.”

(Sure – At one point, the podcast claims that instead of integrating students, “they should have had teachers first”, but this doesn’t make sense to me. If we started integration with teachers, then Black teachers would be teaching White students, and I’m pretty sure that’s not Gladwell’s argument because he spends an extended period of time talking about the importance of Black teachers teaching Black students. He also refutes the “teachers first” argument later when discussing White resistance to the integration of Black teachers. Isn’t that the same argument – White resistance – that he’s using to claim that Brown itself was a failure?)

So, I wanted more info about this, found these tweets and then Googled to find this article, where Gladwell gives an interview about the podcast. He’s more frank in the article than in the podcast. And, yeah – unless I’m missing something here – it seems like he wants to go back to segregated schools. Or: he wants to delay integration until we’ve magically achieved equalization, only to then pursue integration, all of which is tantamount to leaving segregation in place. Here’s a few excerpts from the article, with my responses underneath:

  • MG: “they understand that if we can locate the argument entirely inside black people’s psyches, then we can leave institutional structures in place that systematically disenfranchise African Americans.”
    • I don’t understand this argument- the court deliberately overturned a major institutional structure in place to systematically disenfranchise African Americans (namely – a legal system that allowed separate schools for Black and White students). The enforcement of Brown has been abysmal, but that is due not to the decision itself but to the many, many challenges faced afterward in implementing the Brown mandate. The White resistance described in the podcast was a major (the major) barrier here, but that doesn’t mean that Brown itself wasn’t worthwhile. 
  • MG: “And then when you have equality—real equality—then you take the next step, and remove [segregation].” And – “The faster way to undo separate is to fight first for equal.”
    • This is the core of it for me. I went back to Olgetree’s All Deliberate Speed for a refresher on why the NAACP chose to overturn Plessy, rather than work within it: “By the mid-1940s, the NAACP had abandoned equalization cases, because they were costly and unlikely to produce any precedent-setting victories.” They were costly for the NAACP because they required an extensive amount of data collection to prove discrimination and precedence was hard because remedies were usually specific to the case under question. Plus: When has separate ever been equal on the whole in American public education? It feels like it’s expecting a lot (if not expecting the impossible) to treat equalization as a first step towards integration; instead, they seem to go hand-in-hand. 
  • MG: “You can’t point to any part of this and say, wow, what an amazing transformation we undertook!”
    • Sure – on the one hand, schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago. But, again, this is a problem not with the Brown decision itself, but with everything that happened after Brown, starting with Brown II which encouraged delay and offered no specific guidelines for pursuing school integration. Even with all that’s been working against it, I think you can point to some “amazing transformations” that are directly the result of Brown. For one thing, research has pretty clearly shown the benefits for individuals (of all races) who attend integrated schools. In one famous study, people who attended integrated schools enjoyed better health and even lived longer. That’s pretty amazing. Brown also led to major, major changes in American society. Overturning “separate, but equal” in public education led to a cascade of civil rights victories – including the Civil Rights Act – that then overturned legalized discrimination in voter registration, employment and public accommodations, reshaping American society.

In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg argues “presentism – the act of viewing the past through the lens of the present…[is] our psychological condition at rest, a way of thinking that requires little effort and comes quite naturally.” I think some of that is happening here in Gladwell’s revision of Brown’s history. I’m all for critiquing the outcomes of poorly implementing Brown– the mass firing of Black teachers was an awful part of this that rightly deserves more attention. And, teacher diversity is a major issue especially for schools that serve Black and Latinx students- this likewise deserves more attention. But, the argument about whether Brown was a good thing is not where we need to be right now. And, if we pin problems on the core of Brown, as opposed to its implementation, then we’re starting in completely the wrong place.

Did you see it differently? Let me know what you think.

Update: Check out this episode of The Bell Podcast (and really the entire season) for a great addition to this conversation. 

8 thoughts on “About that Malcolm Gladwell podcast

  1. I’m so glad you posted this. I have been having such feelings about this podcast. I’m a huge MG fan and if I’m honest I keep thinking I need to listen to it again to understand his point. But you have captured and answered my questions completely. My biggest takeaway was that I need to advocate for Black and Latino teachers at my daughters highly segregated and low income school. But I am really interested to know what MG would say about the movement of white and affluent families to support integration through where they send their own children.


  2. what i took away from this podcast (i am currently going back and listening through all episodes, having just ‘discovered’ it) is that the brown v. board decision was kind of putting the cart before the horse. it was a brilliant and long overdue decision, but had they known then what they learned later, they should have integrated teachers, as well as students. i do not think that he was advocating for a ‘separate but equal’ teaching environment, but for a fully integrated one where kids of all colors could learn from teachers of all colors.


  3. I think his whole point was similar to yours–the implementation of Brown v. Board of education continued to perpetuate a more subtle segregation and did not truly solve the problem. Instead, the courts decided that ruling in Brown’s favor was enough, and no more steps for true integration were necessary. Malcolm’s episode discussed this; specifically, it discussed how we did not do enough.


    • Thanks, Jamie! I definitely agree that we did not do enough. I think I disagree with Gladwell mostly about what we should do next – I hear him saying that we should pursue equality first (before racial integration), and I don’t see the former happening without the latter. IMO, one of the reasons that many schools are under-resourced/under-supported is precisely because they are racially isolated.


      • In listening to the podcast and reading the interview about the podcast it seems that Gladwell wasn’t advocating a specific policy for school integration. I think his point is that the argument in the lawsuit had too much impact on the implementation of Brown. And in general that social science applied to public policy has pitfalls. So perhaps some substantially different approaches for school integration should be considered.

        Take California as an example. Given the current demographics “separate but equal” may be the only option in some parts of the state. Well, California has chosen a separate but unequal approach allocating up to 2 times the $/student for areas of concentrated poverty and race.


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  6. You raise a lot of good points, which I think always come up when revisiting an iconic milestone of progress. How did the milestone effect implementation of change? I also agree that in many instances Gladwell wants to walk a fine line of intellectual contrarianism without doubling back on progress. Another writer discussed how is current interest (the writer says obsession) with the truth default theory seems to absolve bystanders to sexual abuse of their failure to protect the victims from the abuser. In this instance, for me the nuance he is going for is in the following line, which I think you’ve pointed out ignores the reasons the NAACP approached the legal strategy the way they did.

    “No one is disputing that segregation was a heinous policy with far-reaching ramifications; the question is where do you locate the harm of segregation? And the court chose to locate the harm squarely inside the hearts and psyches of black children, whereas I would locate the harm in the world. I would say that the harm is located in the structure of laws and institutions that have the effect of systematically inhibiting and disempowering African Americans.”


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