Sixty years ago the Supreme Court handed down one of the most famous decisions in U.S. history — Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education — but several new reports seem to indicate American schools are so segregated it’s as if the decision never happened.
A report issued last week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA concludes that Blacks are now seeing more school segregation than they have in decades, and more than half of Latino students are attending schools where they are the majority.
Some of the most segregated schools systems aren’t in the infamous South, but in states such as New York, California and Texas, where more than half of Latino students are enrolled in schools that are 90 percent minority or more. The same is true for Black students in New York, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan.
What is most troubling, according to project co-director Gary Orfield, author of the “Brown at 60″ report, is that these minority students receive poorer educations than white students and Asian students, who tend to be in middle-class schools. The UCLA report urged the nation to confront housing segregation, which is a “fundamental cause of separate-and-unequal schooling.”
In a case that was argued before the court by then NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court ruled on May 17, 1954: “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
That decision was followed by a spate of desegregation plans across the country, which sometimes included the contentious issue of mandatory busing that often prompted whites to flee to private schools, or leave the cities for lily-white suburbs.
John Rury, an education professor at the University of Kansas, told CBS News that the work at UCLA has revealed how many of the advances in desegregating schools made after the Brown ruling have stopped—or been reversed.
He said Brown pushed educated parents with means to flock to districts and schools with the best reputations for decades. He pointed out that in the South, many school districts encompass both a city and the surrounding area, which has led to better-integrated schools.
But across the nation, only 23 percent of Black students attended white-majority schools in 2011—the lowest number since 1968.
While federal court rulings have freed many of the schools from Brown-related desegregation plans since the 1990s, demographic shifts also led to resegregation: Between 1968 and 2011, the number of Hispanic students in the public school system rose 495 percent, while the number of Black students increased by 19 percent, and white students dropped 28 percent, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Many advocates have shifted to pushing for changes in housing policy.
“Basically, housing policy is school policy,” Rutgers University professor Paul Jargowsky said in the Washington Post. “It’s just so much easier to think about making schools work better if we don’t have these neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.”
He said this doesn’t mean we should give up on investing in high-poverty neighborhoods. “But unless we take seriously the idea that we can’t have so many of these neighborhoods,” he says, “we’re always going to be trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom as the tide is coming in.”
Out of all the districts across the country, the UCLA report shows that it is New York that has the nation’s most segregated schools.
“New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal now and has been for a very long time. The children who most depend on the public schools for any chance in life are concentrated in schools struggling with all the dimensions of family and neighborhood poverty and isolation,” Orfield wrote in the report released in March.
“In spite of the epic struggle for more equitable funding in New York, there is a striking relationship between segregated education and unequal school success. Although many middle-class families of all races would like their children to be educated in successful, diverse schools, there are few such opportunities.”
The study found that although the proportion of Latino and Asian students in the state of New York nearly doubled from 1989 to 2010, the exposure these students had to white students in public schools decreased during that time. As the minority student populations increased, the proportion of low-income students in those minority-majority public schools also rose, making the schools “severely segregated” in terms of both race and class, according to the report.
How did New York get this way? In a conference call with reporters, the report authors said it was because of changing demographics in the state, paired with a lack of diversity-focused policies — including subpar transportation systems for students and restrictive admissions standards.
“If you don’t have an intention to create diverse schools, they rarely happen,” Orfield told reporters.
While many Southern states were forced to desegregate schools, places like New York never really appeared concerned. So even though New York City is accurately called a “melting pot,” with the most heterogeneous and highly populated area in the country, many neighborhoods have seen little diversity over the years and are dominated by one or another of the major race or ethnicity groups.
And as the resegregation of American schools over the past 40 years has continued unabated, primarily by the removal of white and middle-class Black students, it has left poor Black and Latino students isolated in some of the worst schools in the country, according to an investigation by the nonprofit journalism group, ProPublica.
The group spent a year examining resegregation in America, paying particular attention to the schools of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Sixty years after the Supreme Court decision declared the end to separate and unequal education, there aren’t any more all-white schools in Tuscaloosa. The city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of Black students. But Black students are no better off for it.
In Tuscaloosa today, nearly 1 in 3 Black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened, according to ProPublica’s report, entitled “Segregation Now.”
“Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation — among the most extensive in the country — is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes,” the report says. “It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s Black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice no longer committed to fighting for the civil rights aims it had once championed.”
The report concludes that it was federal court orders that brought about the integration of Southern schools by the 1970s—but things started changing in 2000. From Mississippi to Virginia, judges began releasing hundreds of school districts from court-enforced integration. As a result, many of the districts moved back toward resegregation.
“Black children across the South now attend majority-Black schools at levels not seen in four decades,” the ProPublica report states. “Nationally, the achievement gap between Black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.”
The term “apartheid schools” has arisen to describe schools where the white population is 1 percent or less. Most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, but according to ProPublica, 12 percent of Black students in the South and nearly a quarter in Alabama now attend such schools.
The resegregation has been extreme: while only about 25 percent of Black students in the South attended schools in which at least 9 out of 10 students were racial minorities in 1972, when ProPublica looked at the districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, it found that 53 percent of Black students now attend such schools.
“Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time,” ProPublica concludes.
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Hat tip: Atlanta Black Star
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.