Sixty-one years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but (allegedly) equal schools were unconstitutional, that apartheid — legalized segregation — could not withstand the constitutional demand of equal rights for all.
That decision produced a revolution and a massive resistance. White Southerners fled to private schools and starved public schools. Neighborhoods grew more segregated, making it easier to keep schools segregated. The white noose of suburbs grew around inner cities, with schools separate and savagely unequal.
The courts stepped in, enforcing the Supreme Court’s decision. They ordered mandatory busing. They struck down racially segregated school districts. By the early 1970s, the slow, tortuous process produced greater school integration. By 1972, only one in four black children went to schools that were 90 percent black, a dramatic improvement from segregation.
But the resistance spread north. Parents revolted against busing. President Nixon gutted federal enforcement. The courts backed off. “In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools,” according to a ProPublica report based on demographic data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. One-fourth of the black students in Alabama go to schools with less than 1 percent white children. Segregation and apartheid schools have returned, with the worst, ironically, based on residential racial patterns in the Northeast and Midwest, where black and Latino ghettos and barrios are increasingly isolated. Black children across the South now attend majority black schools at levels not seen since Brown v. Board of Education.
Modern day segregated schools are as separate and as unequal as those before the Brown decision. There has been vast transformation of the nation’s public school population — with numbers of white students dropping and Hispanics rising. In the West and South, people of color are a majority of students in public schools. Latinos suffer the worst forms of segregated housing.
The effects are well known. Schools with students who are predominantly people of color get the least experienced and worst-paid teachers. Their teachers are less likely to be certified or qualified for the courses they teach. Per pupil spending is lower than predominantly white schools. Advanced courses are less available. Various facilities — from labs to gyms — are starved for funds, if existing at all. Blacks are more likely to be disciplined, more likely to be suspended or expelled (at three times the rate of whites), more likely to be arrested. One fourth grow up in neighborhoods their parents say are unsafe.
The effects are clear. Blacks drop out of high school at two times the rate of whites. One third of whites have bachelor degrees or more, while only one in five blacks (19 percent) share the same accomplishments. As UCLA’s Gary Orfield, a leading scholar of school desegregation, has written, research since Brown “shows that many forms of unequal opportunity are linked to segregation” and that “desegregated education has substantial benefits for educational and later life outcomes for students from all backgrounds.” Thus the goal of a public education of equal high quality for all students is still an aspiration of the future.
In this light, the riots in Baltimore sadly mirror those of the 1960s that were also often sparked by police excesses. Once more a nation separate and unequal is being forged. Once more, segregated communities — the contrast between the downtown and the west side — lead to segregated schools, segregated opportunities, segregated dreams. Once more, the only way to change things is challenge the limits and borders of the current debate. Once more, it takes dramatic demonstrations to get liberals and elites to pay attention. Once more, we see vividly that the powerful who rigged the rules have no desire to change them; they are doing fine with the current arrangements.
This nation knows what it takes to build great public schools. Now, as schools become increasingly minority majority — and as our future workforce becomes increasingly people of color — we have to decide if we will invest to give every child a fair start. Perhaps the new gentrification of cities, as millennials decide in large numbers to move into the city rather than out of it, offers a new opportunity to desegregate housing, neighborhoods and schools. But this won’t happen automatically. It will take a change in policy and new profiles in courage.