K-12

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, how segregated are we?

Decades after working families put their lives and livelihood on the line in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. to win a federal ban on racial segregation in the public schools, where are we on diversity in our nation’s classrooms?

We’re better off, here on May 17, 2014 — a full six decades after the Brown decision: The movement to end school segregation bolstered our nation’s moral fabric, led directly to integrated public accommodations, and paved the way for more equal rights around voting and pay.

Students at Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one of the first schools to desegregate after Brown. (Library of Congress)

Students at Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one of the first schools to desegregate after Brown. (Library of Congress)

In many states and communities, including many in the South, where I’m from, black and white children — and now Latino children and others — attend school side by side. Challenges persist, but in terms of just attending school together, even the most backward person barely gives it a second thought.

We’re in bad shape: Resegregation has set in, in some places. ProPublica ran this report couple of weeks ago examining this phenomenon, which Gary Orfield and other scholars have been warning us of for years.

In the majority-black rural South, as I found in my reporting for Education Weekover the years, private (and in some cases openly segregationist, in the 1960s and 1970s) academies thrive much as they did decades ago, essentially segregating themselves from the public schools. In these places, the entire communities suffer from this separation, including the tiny town of Summerton, South Carolina, the site of Briggs v. Elliott, the earliest one of the five cases that merged into Brown.

Our suburbs are becoming poorer, especially the inner suburbs, and immigrants dominate schools in these communities. And school boards readily allow such intra-district segregation.

And even in our reawakened urban centers, schools remain separate by race, by neighborhood, and by class. I live in Washington, D.C., home to speed-gentrification the likes of which I’ve never witnessed, and I’ve heard lefty white parents proclaim they’d never send their young children up the street for public school.

Federal courts have unanimously in recent years made clear they favor no more busing, and have even heavily restricted school enrollment boundaries within school systems to be based primarily on students’ race.

Once, I would have bragged on the South — and many communities remain relatively integrated. But black students are becoming more concentrated in less-integrated schools in my home region, which the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, led by Orfield, has called “a significant setback.” Researchers Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of UCLA and Erica Frankenberg of Penn State University found that black students in the South have gone from being more integrated than students in other regions, to less so.

In 1991, 33 percent of black students in the South attended schools with 90 percent or more minority enrollment — but by 2009-2010 that level had crept up to 38 percent. Back in 1980, only 23 percent of black students in the South attended such intensely segregated schools, the researchers found. Now, white students make up less than 30 percent of enrollment in schools attended by the typical black students — the highest that figure has been since federal monitoring began.

In the nation’s capital, for an urban perspective, the District of Columbia schools have about 47,000 students, only about 10 percent of whom are white. And those students largely are centered in the upper Northwest part of the city, including the Chevy Chase area bordering Maryland, one of the wealthiest communities in the country.

The stunning, partially renovated Cardoza High School, blocks from where I live, has a beautiful hilltop view of much of the nation’s capital. Virtually no white students go there, despite lots of white families now living in the neighborhood (to be fair, most are single, young, or have children who aren’t yet high school age).

Maybe this will change over time, but it’s uncertain. While some urban neighborhoods in D.C. and other cities are taking early steps toward more integration through gentrification, it’s hard to say whether white parents will return their children to public schools whose enrollment presently still largely consists of black or Hispanic students. What’s strange is that these same white adults who often seek diverse neighborhoods and enjoy the vibrancy and arts of communities of many colors and nationalities somehow don’t seem to carry that interest into their public schools.

There also are the complicating factors of charter schools—syphoning away some white families and others who have the economic means for transportation—and private schools. Debates rage on over school vouchers, which some of my black neighbors favor because of serious remaining questions about the quality of public schools.

This is where we find ourselves, 60 years after the Brown ruling. I’d argue we are better off in that desegregated schools seem normal in many communities. But in other places, sometimes right beside more integrated communities, rich kids attend private schools, middle class families struggle with choosing traditional or charter or private schools, and I see many American neighbors stumble as they try — at least we try — to navigate a supposed post-racial America that’s as confounding as ever. I just wish it were more colorful, closer together, integrated. I really believe we do better together.

Alan Richard writes occasional columns for the Hechinger Report. He’s the director of the education practice for Communications Strategy Group, a communications firm in Washington, D.C. and Denver. A former nationally award winning reporter for Education Week, he’s (still) working on a book about the origins of Brown v. Board and school segregation in his native South Carolina. He may reached at arichard@csg-pr.com or on Twitter @educationalan.

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