This is the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing “separate but equal” schools. And like most major anniversaries, incorrect information surfaces as purported fact, doing a disservice to the accomplishment being celebrated as well as truth itself.
In this instance, some have asserted that because of re-segregation, public schools in the South, where most African Americans live, are more segregated now than when Brown was handed down. That is simply untrue and if you want to read a comprehensive account of what has truly happened in school desegregation over the past 60 years, there is no better source than “Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future,” published by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
First, let’s dispense with the nonsense.
“The claims that black students in the South are no better off than they were before Brown, in terms of segregation, are obviously wrong,” the report stated. “They are ten times as likely to be in majority-white schools as they were when the Civil Rights Act passed.”
The 42-page report is packed with illuminating facts about progress made in the wake of Brown and the subsequent retrenchment. But to appreciate the significance of Brown, it is necessary to understand what our schools looked like before the court decision.
“Nine years after Brown, when President John Kennedy called for the first major civil rights act of the 20th century, 99% of blacks in the South were still in totally segregated schools,” the report recounted. “Virtually no whites were in historically black schools, nor were black teachers and administrators in white schools. For all practical purposes, it was segregation as usual or ‘segregation forever,’ as some of the South’s politicians promised. In the great majority of the several thousand southern districts nothing had been done.”
Actually, there were two Brown decisions. The first, issued in 1954, outlawed segregated public schools masquerading as “separate but equal.” The court ruled that “segregation is inherently unequal” and ordered the desegregation of schools. With no progress after a year, the court ordered in 1955, in a ruling sometimes called Brown II, that desegregation had to be carried out “with all deliberate speed.”
But racial segregation was deliberate and speed was missing in action. In fact, nine years after Brown, 99 percent of Blacks in the South were still in segregated schools.
“President Lyndon Johnson powered the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress with bipartisan support, and he proceeded to enforce civil rights law more forcefully than an Administration before or since,” the report stated. “After he also led the battle for the largest federal education aid program in American history, the Southern schools changed. Faced with the dual prospect of losing federal funds if they remained segregated, as well as the threat of a Justice Department lawsuit as a result of the Civil Rights Act, almost all the districts began to desegregate. Strongly backed by the federal courts, federal civil rights officials raised desegregation requirements each year. In 1968 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that desegregation in the historically segregated states must be comprehensive and immediate. By 1970 Southern schools became the nation’s most integrated.”
Nationwide, the percent of Blacks attending majority White schools has declined from a high of 43.5 percent in 1988 to 23.2 percent in 2011, about the same level it was 1968. This did not happen by accident.
“Throughout the l980s there was a strong legal attack on desegregation orders, led by the Reagan and Bush administrations’ Justice Departments and, in l991, the Supreme Court authorized the termination of desegregation plans in the Oklahoma City (Dowell) decision. The decline in black student access has been continuous since l991,” the report observed.
The report documents the strong connection between segregated schools and concentrated poverty.
“In schools that are 81-100% black & Latino, over three-quarters of the students are also enrolled in schools where more than 70% of the students live in poverty,” it stated. “In fact, half of students in 91-100% black & Latino schools are in schools that also have more than 90% low-income students. This means that these students face almost total isolation not only from white and Asian students but also from middle class peers as well.”
In its recommendations section, the report observes that while education is primarily a state responsibility, the federal government also has an important role to play. Sadly, the report points out, there has not been a major national study on school desegregation, its costs and solutions since Racial Isolation in Public Schools, a report requested in 1967 by President Johnson.
Non-government organizations also have a role to play.
The report stated, “Civil rights organizations need to develop new strategies and legal theories to end the reversal and restart the movement toward a successfully integrated, truly multiracial society, as was done by the NAACP and Howard University in the campaign that led to Brown.”