Historical Context

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Racial Segregation in the United States

In “Brownies” the fictional Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in south suburban Atlanta has only one white student. This is a telling detail, since Atlanta, especially in the inner city, has one of the highest levels of separation between blacks and whites in the southern United States, a segregation that is also reflected in the public schools.

Since 1988, there has been a widespread trend in public schools in the United States towards more segregation. This is a reversal of a trend toward racial integration that began following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled that racially segregated educational facilities were unconstitutional because they were inherently unequal. Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that the years between 1991 and 1994 were marked by the largest movement back toward segregation since the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling. It was estimated that two-thirds of African American children in the United States attend schools in which most of the students are members of minority groups.

A study conducted by Catherine Freeman and others at the Fiscal Research Center, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, found that in Georgia from 1994 to 2001 there was a slight trend towards increased black-white segregation in public elementary schools. In 1994, 17.7 percent of students attended predominantly black elementary schools (defined as over 70 percent black). This increased to 19.1 percent in 2001. The highest level of black-white segregation was in the Atlanta metropolitan area, which is caused largely by segregation between school districts. Segregation within the same district is related to residential segregation. Residential segregation is apparent in the story, since Laurel states that in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was rare to see a white person. Another factor in the reemergence of racial segregation is that in the 1990s and early 2000s there has been less pressure from the courts to integrate public schools than there was from the mid-1950s to the 1980s.

The same study found that in Georgia, schools with higher percentages of blacks had higher teacher turnover rates. Such schools also have fewer teachers with advanced degrees and more inexperienced teachers. Teacher quality has a large impact on how well students perform. Schools with high percentages of African American students also received fewer school resources.

These statistics from Georgia reflect a trend toward increased segregation amongst whites and blacks in the general population elsewhere in the United States. University of Chicago researchers, as reported by James Waller in Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America (1998), found that middle-class blacks are less likely than Hispanics or Asian Americans to live among whites.

Persistence of Racism in the United States

Although blatant, violent racism decreased in the United States between 1965 and 2005, racism still existed in more subtle forms. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, especially in the American South, black people were subject to beatings, racially motivated murders, cross-burnings by the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, as well as everyday insults and humiliations, such as having to sit at the back on buses and use separate public facilities such as water fountains. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and changing public attitudes toward race and racism have ensured that old-style racism of this kind has been vastly reduced in the United States. However, it has been replaced by a less overt form of racism in which prejudice is not stated openly but is nonetheless discernible in different behaviors adopted by white people when dealing with blacks rather...

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than people of their own race. Waller, inFace to Face, reports the comments made by a late 1990s graduate of Georgia Tech University about his experiences with racism:

[W]hite clerks ‘tailing’ him in a local music store; restaurant managers checking repeatedly on the satisfaction of other patrons while ignoring him and his dining partner; people expressing surprise at how ‘articulate’ and ‘well-spoken’ he was; and white women who, when passing by him on a downtown Atlanta sidewalk, would shift their purses to the opposite side of their bodies.

This student’s comments are in line with studies that have documented the regular occurrence of this kind of subtle but unmistakable everyday discrimination suffered by middle-class African Americans. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in “‘New Racism,’ Color-Blind Racism, and the Future of Whiteness in America,” calls this changing face of racism the “new racism.” He argues that although it appears less harmful than the older, violent form of racism, “it is as effective as slavery and Jim Crow in maintaining the racial status quo.”

Literary Style

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Figurative Language

Figurative language is the art of describing something in terms of something else. There are many types of figurative language. Prominent in “Brownies” are similes, in which something is compared to something else that on the surface may be dissimilar but at some other level is similar. Similes can be recognized by the presence of connecting words such as “like” or “as if.” Similes seem to come naturally to Laurel, the lively, observant first-person narrator of the story. Mrs. Hedy wags her finger “like a windshield wiper,” for example. The similarity between the finger and the windshield wiper is based on the regular, repetitive, rhythmic motion of both. The leader of Troop 909 holds a banana in front of her “like a microphone,” the similarity between banana and microphone based on the shape of the object and the way it is held. The shape and color of the dissimilar objects being compared are at the basis of the simile that occurs to Laurel in the bathroom: “Shaggy white balls of paper towels sat on the sinktops in a line like corsages on display.” Other similes include the tree branches that “looked like arms sprouting menacing hands”; the girl who flaps her hand “like a bird with a broken wing”; and Mrs. Margolin with her Brownie troop following behind her “like a brood of obedient ducklings.”

Unlike a simile, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which one object is identified with another, rather than compared with it. There are several metaphors in the story. At sunset, the leafy tops of the trees “formed a canopy of black lace,” the shared qualities between leaves and black lace being the color the leaves appear to take on in the setting sun and the delicate fine patterns or designs they appear to form as the narrator looks up at them. Another metaphor occurs when the sound made by a covey of insects leads Laurel to think of them as “a throng of tiny electric machines, all going at once.” Inside the restrooms, another metaphor occurs to Laurel. Noticing how the wooden rafters of the restroom come together in large V’s, she observes that “We were, it seems, inside a whale, viewing the ribs of the roof of its mouth.” Thus metaphorically, the interior of the restroom becomes the inside of a whale’s mouth. Laurel also shows a talent for humorous metaphorical thinking. After Arnetta suggests that they sing a Brownie song about old friends being gold, while new friends are only silver (both lines employ metaphor), Laurel dryly observes, “If most of the girls in the troop could be any type of metal, they’d be bunched-up wads of tinfoil, maybe, or rusty iron nails you had to get tetanus shots for.”

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, “‘New Racism,’ Color-Blind Racism, and the Future of Whiteness in America,” in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, edited by Ashley “Woody” Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Routledge, 2003, p. 272.

Freeman, Catherine, Benjamin Scafidi, and David Sjoquist, “Racial Segregation in Georgia Public Schools, 1994–2001: Trends, Causes and Impact on Teacher Quality,” FRP Report No. 77, Fiscal Research Center, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, December 2002, http://frc.gsu.edu/frpreports/Report_77/ (accessed November 13, 2006).

Myers, Kristen, “White Fright: Reproducing White Supremacy Through Casual Discourse,” in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, edited by Ashley “Woody” Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Routledge, 2003, pp. 130, 132, 136.

Packer, ZZ, “Brownies,” in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead, 2003, pp. 1–28.

Review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 50, December 16, 2002, p. 43.

Thompson, Jean, “Notorious in New Haven: This Debut Collection’s Title Story Takes Place at Yale and Involves an Imaginary Handgun,” in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 108, No. 11, March 16, 2003, p. 7.

Van Ausdale, Debra, and Joe R. Feagin, The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001, pp. 35, 56, 57, 104, 105, 107.

Waller, James, Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America, Plenum Press, 1998, pp. 95, 100, 137, 166.

Wiegand, David, “Packer Blends Race, Lessons, and Craft,” in San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2003, p. M1.

Further Reading
D’Souza, Dinesh, The End of Racism, Free Press, 1996.

This is a controversial study by a conservative writer of the history, nature, and effects of racism, as well as contemporary approaches to it. Most approaches, in the author’s view, are misguided. He claims that racism is no longer an important factor in American life and cannot be blamed for black underachievement.

Reddy, Maureen T., ed., Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World, Seal Press, 1996.

This anthology of essays by mothers and teachers is a resource for parents. Drawing on their own experience, the authors describe strategies by which racial prejudice can be countered in schools, colleges, and elsewhere.

Stern-LaRosa, Caryl, and Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann, The Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice, Scholastic Paperbacks, 2000.

This practical book offers a guide to how children learn prejudice and how it can be unlearned. The authors offer strategies, role plays, and sample dialogues for parents and teachers. Some of the sections record and discuss true stories about children of all ages who have initiated or suffered from hateful words and actions.

Wright, Marguerite, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World, Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Wright argues that young children do not understand adult racial prejudice and that such color blindness must be taken advantage of in order to guide the development of a child’s self-esteem. Wright discusses issues such as the age at which children understand the concept of race; how adults can avoid instilling in children their own prejudices, and how schools can lessen the impact of racism.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide