Sixty years ago today the Supreme Court handed down one of the most defining decisions in the country’s history when it ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," — making segregation in schools a violation of the constitution.
The Brown vs. Board of Education ruling — which, it’s worth remembering, was met with ferocious resistance by some whites — changed the face of the nation’s schools.
The civil rights’ landmark victory and others that followed it shaped American integration, exposing white and black students to each other for the first time and undoing, in theory at least, decades of a “separate but equal” doctrine that saw much separation but little equality.
'Segregation is unfortunately still very much with us now.'
But the victories of the civil rights movement also made everyone a little more complacent — and as the years passed, the nation slipped into a delusional and dangerous state of “colorblindness.”
Six decades after Brown, it turns out, separation and inequality are alive and well in the United States.
That is the conclusion drawn in the report “Brown at 60,” published on Thursday by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which found that school segregation is back with a vengeance — and not in the Jim Crow South where many might assume it to be.
“People think that this is a problem that we solved years ago and it’s no longer an issue,” Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, told VICE News. “But a lot of areas have never been desegregated, including a lot in northern school districts. People may just be accepting what has always been; there’s a sense of resignation.”
If anything, the root of the issue is more elusive now than it was back then: it’s not a racist law, but a social structure that reproduces racism at all levels.
'For the last ten, twenty years, we have really only been focusing on test scores and ranking...We haven’t looked at all at the issues of equity and social justice when it comes to school systems.'
“Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘60s, when these cases started, people were fighting against a law that required segregation, it was a different kind of target. Now we don’t have those laws, we just have a lot of practices, which in some ways have the same effect,” Parker said. “I hope this is an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are. We have to really make a conscious decision to try to increase desegregation in schools, to recognize the value of diversity and take steps to increase it.”
That US schools are still pretty damn segregated was hardly a shocker to those who have been working in education, and criticizing our school systems for getting their priorities all wrong.
“What is surprising is that it’s just coming to the attention of the public now. For the last ten, twenty years, we have really only been focusing on test scores and ranking, and looking at individual excellence,” LynNell Hancock, a reporter and author focusing on education and public policy, told VICE News. “We haven’t looked at all at the issues of equity and social justice when it comes to school systems, trying to understand who has opportunities and who doesn’t.”
'The South actually, in part because it’s required to, is the most desegregated region in the country.'
That breakdown is only somewhat predictable, as the return of racial segregation in schools did not quite go as one might imagine.
The South is in fact the least segregated region for black students, though it has lost all the progress it made after 1967, when desegregation efforts peaked, the UCLA report found. West Virginia is home to the country’s most integrated schools, while the most segregated ones are actually in the very liberal — and white — Northeast, with New York leading the pack.
There, 64.6 percent of black students attend schools that count as “hyper-segregated,” — that is, they meet the criteria for segregation regardless of the indicators used to measure the phenomenon.
'After making history with Brown vs. Board of Ed, the Supreme Court proceeded to undo its own work.'
“The South actually, in part because it’s required to, is the most desegregated region in the country, although it has been going backwards like other places,” Erica Frankenberg, one of the report’s authors, told VICE News. “But the Northeast is incredibly segregated. Even though it’s an incredibly white region, the majority of black students there are in 90 to 100 percent minority schools. And that has really important implications for what kind of education those students are getting.”
Reflecting the deep isolation of poor and minority students in their own communities, hyper-segregation has been on the rise across the country, but it has also adapted to the country’s changing demographics.
The number of Latino students, for instance, has grown fivefold since Brown vs. Board of Ed, and so has their segregation, particularly in the West.
Latino students in the South have actually surpassed the number of blacks, creating what the report called “tri-racial” regions of multi-layered segregation.
It’s no secret that segregation is as much about race as it is about poverty, and that the two are deeply entrenched. Factors like housing and income have only worsened the divide.
'If you brought up segregation in the last ten years, as a problem that we should be focusing on, it was generally dismissed as unreconstructive, liberal old thinking.'
“When you are talking about racial segregation you are also talking about poverty segregation, you can’t talk about one without the other,” Frankenberg said. “We see black and Latino students being segregated away from white students and with each other, and we really need to think about what this means in terms of how to properly educate students in these schools.”
Part of the problem is that after making history with Brown vs. Board of Ed, the Supreme Court proceeded to undo its own work, dismantling court-ordered desegregation orders one ruling at a time.
“In a series of decisions in the 1990s, the Supreme Court relaxed what it required of districts to be fully compliant with desegregation,” Frankenberg said. "and what happens a lot of times is that districts might stop thinking about the need to create racial diversity when there’s no court forcing them to do it.”
The other problem is housing. No surprise there: deepening geographic segregation led to, guess what? More segregated schools.
“Segregation is unfortunately still very much with us now, and a lot of it is a reflection of pretty severe and persistent discrimination and segregation in housing, because of the strong link between housing patterns and school assignments,” Parker said. “Some people think that if there is segregation in schools it’s because of people choosing where to live. That doesn’t reflect an understanding of how housing patterns in the US have evolved.”
The rise of charter schools cherry-picking their students has not particularly helped the cause either — and with a few exceptions, charter schools have played a fundamental role in exacerbating the problem.
“If you brought up segregation in the last ten years, as a problem that we should be focusing on, it was generally dismissed as unreconstructive, liberal old thinking. And the new thinking is, ‘let’s create great charter schools for underprivileged kids and not think about what that means in the long run, socially’,” Hancock said.
'Racial integration is better for all kids and for all communities.'
“Charter schools can engineer whatever population they want to, that’s part of what is attractive to people. Most of the big ones have deliberately created schools in highly segregated areas, just for kids who live in those areas,” she added. “Overall, they have contributed quite a bit to segregation; they didn’t have to, but they did.”
Brown vs. Board of Ed was a monumental victory, but it took a movement to win it — a movement that is simply not behind today’s segregated schools.
“Maybe we rely too much on our courts to bring about change. We really do need to think about ways that we can again have a social movement to push for integrated schools,” Frankenberg said.
If the trend is not reversed, we all stand to lose a lot more than a historic achievement.
“Racial integration is better for all kids and for all communities. The evidence is out there but it’s just been ignored,” Hancock said. “There has to be a change of hearts and minds; the conversation has to be brought down to the school board level and to the community.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi