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.