Brown v. Board of Education at 60: ‘Separate but equal’ lives on

Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory used to tweak northern liberal hypocrisy on race with a routine that went something like this: “In the South, they don’t care how close I get, as long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t care how big I get, as long as I don’t get too close.”

It’s an appropriate thought as the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation of schools. We can congratulate ourselves on the fact that minorities have made substantial legal and economic progress. But in our schools, white children and children of color – and rich kids and poor kids – still don’t get too close.

After a few years of progress, schools across America have become more segregated, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford have documented. Schools in the South have re-segregated; but the most flagrant racial separation is in New York.

As Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has shown, school integration worked for the short time we tried it. But we abandoned the idea for compensatory education: “separate but equal” redux.

Schools that are mostly white, black or Hispanic are the norm in most of America, Lesli A. Maxwell reports in Education Week. It’s rare for a white child to attend a school where more than 25 percent of the students are nonwhite. But Maxwell also notes that schools are segregated by wealth. She quotes Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sylvester James Jr.: “Access to high-quality education is tied just as hard, and just as fast, to poverty and socioeconomics as it was to race.”

In cities like Kansas City – and Indianapolis – segregation is linked to middle-class flight to the suburbs and private schools. Some studies suggest the growth of charter schools and vouchers have worsened the trend.

But it’s not just that. I live in a liberal college town where the local elementary schools are thoroughly segregated by socioeconomic status, thanks to district-drawing decisions that school officials won’t revisit or acknowledge. At one neighborhood school, 88 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches; at a school with a contiguous attendance area, the figure is 17 percent. At another pair of adjacent schools, the free-and-reduced-lunch figures are 70 percent and 10 percent.

What can we do? Well, plenty.

As Maxwell writes, Louisville, Ky., schools adopted a school assignment system that preserves socioeconomic balance after a 2007 decision in which the Supreme Court, turning its back on Brown v. Board of Education, struck down the city’s racial integration plan. Nashville, Tenn., schools have created a “diversity management plan” to prevent isolation of students by race or poverty. Students, parents and teachers in Raleigh, N.C., fought hard to regain diverse schools after a setback in local elections.

Note all this is happening in the South, or at least in a border state.

We often think Brown v. Board of Education fixed the problem because it did away with de jure segregation: It overruled state and local laws that required students to be separated by race. But if you read the decision, it’s clear the Supreme Court was taking aim at the reality of segregation, not just the fact that there were laws mandating separate schools for blacks and whites.

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children,” Justice Earl Warren wrote in the unanimous decision. “The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”

And it wasn’t that “colored schools” were mostly underfunded and run-down. The court explicitly rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Warren wrote. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Yet here we are, 60 years later, acting as if separate educational facilities are inevitable and imagining we will make them equal. It’s a sad acceptance of defeat.

5 thoughts on “Brown v. Board of Education at 60: ‘Separate but equal’ lives on

  1. I don’t think the solution is to create larger and larger districts ad infinitum. I think the solution is to have cross-districts open enrollment, just like anyone receives police, fire, and parks services of other areas of the state that they visit even though they don’t pay for the capital improvements directly. This will allow students in inner-cities to enroll in suburban schools and inner-city schools to draw suburban school students with special programs. Smaller school districts are also more nimble in responding to the needs of the communities they are in. The larger the system the less democratic it seems to become (which can be an attribute to the dysfunction in Washington D.C. right now). This will allow gentrification of the inner-city to happen, which will provide economic opportunities and networking connection critical to get jobs today to inner-city youth. There are propositions in the state today by Enlow to have voucher schools capitol funds paid for (see “Legislators mull voucher expansions”). If the state can distribute capitol funds to voucher schools, then what is so ridiculous about distributing capital funds to school districts as a whole?

    • Also, the state of Florida already gives $91 million for charter school capital expenses to the state at large and is thinking about doing it for traditional public schools (See “Charter, public schools fight for funding under Florida Legislature plan” in the Miami Herald online). This could be the basis for changing how school districts pay for capital expenses and thus how much control they have over admission to their schools.

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