About 62 years after the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” in America’s schools unconstitutional, on the cusp of a demographic tip toward a majority of people of color, the lessons of Brown v. Board of Education seem to be skipping a generation.
The racial disparities surfacing in school data have been dialing back history. Since 2001, according to a report by Government Accountability Office (GAO), the number of poor, racially segregated schools (those with more than three-fourths of one race and high poverty rates) jumped from 9 percent to 16 percent. So today’s millennials have, from the time they entered first grade through high-school graduation, witnessed the degree of educational segregation roughly double, from about 7,000 segregated schools to 15,000 nationwide. GAO criticized the Department of Education for being lax in using legal intervention in cases of extreme educational discrimination.
But segregation is less about the extremes than about everyday discrimination. Among predominantly black or Latino schools, for example, students tend to have less access to core college-prep classes—so about a third of mostly black and brown schools offer calculus, compared to over half of schools with high white populations.
Even within schools, enrollment in “gifted” and advanced placement programs skew white—suggesting that subsurface prejudice and resource gaps operate even in an “integrated” school setting.
Under the grip of the school-to-prison pipeline, repeated suspensions, and other disciplinary actions—which lead to chronic absenteeism and impede academic progress—are especially high for black, Latino, multiracial, and Native American high schoolers.
The cumulative effect isn’t just an “achievement gap,” but a social gap that leaves communities of color increasingly isolated, hampering social mobility and deepening intergenerational poverty.
The educational colorline has cut straight through one Mississippi school district, Cleveland, where two high schools and two middle schools have stood, separate and unequal, for decades. A recent federal mandate to merge the segregated schools to force integration has stirred fear and hope.
The federal court ruling, which coincided with Brown’s anniversary, stated that past efforts at voluntary desegregation had failed. Previous experiments with “open enrollment” policies and programs offering advanced coursework to encourage student transfers—standard reform tactics that aim to “incentive” white families to send their kids to less “desirable” schools—ultimately lacked the political “drawing power” to shift the overall racial balance.
But the prospect of sharing space has deepened racial fault lines among blacks and whites. Some black parents have rejected the desegregation plan, fearing the school consolidation would disrupt a beloved community institution. It might be segregated, but the community was proud of its sports programs and had boasted of recent improvements academic performance.
In the legal proceedings leading up to the ruling, The Washington Post reported, local Alderman Gary Gainspoletti said that many in the community were “nervous, fearful, and resentful” about the consolidation plan. Some expert consultants and officials warned of a potential “mass exodus of whites” and relatively affluent households abandoning Cleveland. The skepticism suggested how the long-divided communities had internalized the color line, so in the face of uncertainty, they preferred, as Gainspoletti said, to “leave it alone, keep the system that we have in place.”
The court decided, however, to uphold the “constitutional” choice—enforcing the principle of equality above all. Any racial friction, the court advised, could be mitigated by “a rebranding effort, a diverse offering of academic programs, and the formation of a multi-racial advisory panel to ease the transition.”
Cleveland’s crisis reflects a stubborn nationwide pattern of de facto segregation, which is typically a product of both housing and economic conditions.
According to research by the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC), part of the National Coalition on School Diversity, presented before a Commission on Civil Rights briefing last month, “The number of families living in concentrated poverty (over 40 percent poverty) neighborhoods has increased from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million in 2013, an increase of 91 percent. One quarter of all African-American families now live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods.”
School segregation is the product of these structural racial fissures, shaped over generations by financial redlining, social disinvestment, and, lately, gentrification and displacement in city neighborhoods.
In response to subtler patterns of “self-segregation,” some reformers advocate a private-sector driven approach, including promoting “school choice” to facilitate student transfers, or charter schools as alternatives to mainstream public education. But these measures often perpetuate exclusion. Charter schools can intensify racial isolation of students and potentially widen resource gaps between less-regulated charters and traditional public schools. Generally, school choice often spurs the “voluntary” siphoning of kids by race, class, and academic ability.
Basically, integration is hard to achieve by voluntary action. But the government can guide people’s choices toward equity. Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, says via e-mail that although “unregulated school choice” has historically promoted segregation, “school choice coupled with fairness guidelines to facilitate diversity can have a positive influence.”
Integration requires targeted housing-policy interventions, argues PRRAC Executive Director Philip Tegeler. Plans for siting public housing, for example, should foster neighborhoods that are designed to promote equitable educational opportunities as well as affordable homes. “State and local housing and education agencies need to be talking to each other, and planning together to promote integration,” Tegeler says via e-mail.
Moreover, some districts are diversifying naturally, as families of color move into established suburban districts. For these communities, policymakers must ensure that desegregation efforts restructure schools and surrounding communities holistically—and ensure families on either side of the colorline feel they have ownership of the process: “One of the biggest challenges (and most exciting opportunities) is to stabilize the natural integration that is occurring…. Without strong public policy intervention, these are places that are at risk of losing their economic and racial diversity.”
For the children, meanwhile, school shouldn’t be so complicated. It should be a safe space to explore and dream, not a bureaucratic gauntlet that “prepares” children for a racist world in adulthood. But ultimately no community will voluntarily desegregate without firm intervention, and no intervention works without the community’s trust. It will take a lot of faith to persuade families that the system that did not live up to the promise of the civil-rights movement for an older generation, might still salvage it for the next.