The aspiration of the Brown era was that, through greater equality of educational opportunity, we could build a stronger, more democratic nation: sending children of different racial groups to school to learn together would create a unified and more equitable society.
Our most lofty aspirations remain the same today, but through neglect, and sometimes more insidious means, we have allowed that dream to be put on permanent hold.
Although there have been some gains, especially in the South, we have made relatively little progress toward that integrated society to which we aspired. White students remain the most segregated group in our nation, and while they attend the most highly resourced schools and therefore benefit from the greatest educational opportunities, they are also failing to get the kind of education that will prepare them for the world in which they will live. And Asians are now outpacing whites with respect to educational opportunity.
Four themes emerge from the new data on segregation in America.
(1) The shift in demographics and regional variation: Latinos are now more segregated than blacks (the old black-white paradigm has shifted), and this is especially true in the West and in the cities and suburbs, though pockets of deep segregation of Latinos are scattered throughout the country. And, rather than moving toward more integration, Latinos are becoming increasingly segregated unto themselves, often in triple segregation: by ethnicity, income, and language.
(2) Poverty is closely tied to race and ethnicity: Black and Latino students are about three times more likely to be living in poverty as whites and Asians, and social mobility is declining. A prime reason for this is that blacks and Latinos are concentrated in the states that are the most miserly with respect to per-pupil spending, and in which poverty and segregation are the most concentrated.
(3) While evidence has mounted that segregated, impoverished schools simply cannot overcome the negative effects of poverty and neighborhood dysfunction, we have blamed the schools and their teachers and simply exhorted them—with the same inadequate resources—to meet higher standards instead of focusing on the root causes of academic underperformance.
(4) Although we aspire to be a society unlike the one we have created (surveys show that most Americans believe that opportunity should be fairly distributed), systematic policies and wholesale neglect have ensured that segregation by race, ethnicity, income, and language are increasingly concretized. Housing policies that would help desegregate neighborhoods are never considered, school assignment policies that would bring more diverse students into contact in the same schools are avoided, magnet schools, dual-language programs, and other integrative schooling arrangements are rationed. Many states—especially those in the South and West that serve the largest number of black and Latino students—have disinvested in their public schools as they cut budgets and turn increasingly to privatization.
Ironically, as the nation becomes more diverse, we become more isolated from one another, and as the benefits of diversity become more evident in a globalizing world, the United States squanders this resource. And the promise of Brown remains empty rhetoric.
Patricia Gándara is research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. She also serves on President Obama’s Commission on Hispanic Education. She is co-author of The Latino Education Crisis (Harvard Press, 2009) and co-editor of The Bilingual Advantage, Language, Literacy and the U.S. Labor Market (Multilingual Matters, forthcoming 2014).
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