ProPublica Examines Resegregation of Schools, 60 Years After Brown Decision

By Mark Walsh — April 18, 2014 2 min read
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The gains of the desegregation era have largely eroded as many school systems that have been released from federal court supervision have become resegregated, according to an article released Thursday by the independent journalism organization ProPublica as the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka approaches next month.

Segregation Now,” by ProPublica’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, closely examines Tuscaloosa, Ala., which was a desegregation success story but was freed from court supervision in 1998.

“Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time,” Hannah-Jones writes in the 9,000-word story. “The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools.”

"[W]hile segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else,” she writes. “In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.”

And Tuscaloosa is not an isolated case, Hannah-Jones reports. “Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, largely as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s—back toward segregation.”

While there are few all-white schools in such formerly de jure segregated districts, the easing of court supervision has permitted school systems such as Tuscaloosa’s to make changes that have resulted in some schools with virtually all-black enrollments.

Hannah-Jones focuses on Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, which was created in the 1970s during desegregation as the district’s sole, integrated high school. But after being declared “unitary,” or legally desegregated, the district created two other high schools that left Central High with a high-poverty, all-black student population.

“A recent audit of Central had found that 80 percent of students were not on the college track,” Hannah-Jones writes.

“The principal struggles to explain to students how the segregation they experience is any different from the old version simply because no law requires it,” she writes.

In a note introducing the “Segregation Now” package, ProPublica editors Stephen Engelberg and Robin Fields note that Hannah-Jones’ story appears in the May issue of The Atlantic. And they note that other elements of the package include photographs, a timeline, and a 16-minute documentary, “Saving Central,” by Maisie Crow, that focuses on Central High today. (Not to mention extensive “source notes” by Hannah-Jones on her story.)

“We believe the importance of this story cannot be overstated,” the editors write, adding that Hannah-Jones will continue to report this year on the resegregation of the nation’s schools.

If, as ProPublica says on its Web site, the purpose of the nonprofit investigative organization is to produce stories with “moral force,” this one seems to be right on target.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.