How should the nation commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka? We could celebrate this historic decision for outlawing apartheid in public education and establishing a precedent for ending racial segregation in other areas of American society. Or, perhaps more realistically, we could reflect upon the court’s vagueness about enforcing this decision—its offering the odd term “all deliberate speed” in place of a real timetable for school desegregation. With this phrasing, we can see that imprecision as the first of many evasions that even liberal whites made when it came to translating Brown into educational policy.
The legacy of this history of avoidance and delay has left our public schools so segregated (though on a de facto rather than de jure basis) that there are good grounds for questioning whether there is much to celebrate on Brown’s 50th. New York City’s public schools serve as an excellent example. At first glance, they appear to be among the most diverse in the world. Over 100 different languages and cultures are represented among the 1.1 million students, and over a third of those students are either foreign-born or the children of newly arrived immigrants.
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But a closer look reveals that the ghost of Jim Crow lingers even amidst this multicultural mosaic. More than 73 percent of the city’s schools are virtually segregated. Approximately 900 schools have student populations that are 80 percent to 100 percent African- American, Latino, or both. The schools are segregated by income as well as race. In the vast majority of these schools, more than 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. Although over 40 percent of New Yorkers are white, only 15.3 percent of the students enrolled in the city’s public schools are U.S.-born whites.
Much of America shares with New York this pattern of profound race and class isolation. Even the sites of some of the most famous victories for school desegregation, such as Little Rock, Ark.’s Central High School, have, because of white flight, re-segregated. In the 1990s, the proportion of black students attending all-minority schools rose from 33 percent to 37 percent, and in the South the proportion of black students enrolled in white-majority schools plummeted from 44 percent to 33 percent. Disturbingly, Latinos, who now make up the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation, are now more likely to be segregated than any other group.
Unlike 50 years ago, when there was a growing sense that racial integration was a moral goal worth pursuing, today that optimism has vanished, and segregation in our schools and elsewhere is accepted as an unavoidable feature of life in America.
The president’s No Child Left Behind law contains no plan to support racial integration or to further equity among poor and affluent schools. Even Democrats and other liberal critics of this law have said nothing about its failure to deal with the persistence and expansion of de facto segregation in America’s schools. Thus, one way to truly honor Brown may be to challenge the left and right sides of the American educational debate to stop running away from the issue of school segregation.
A second way to commemorate Brown would be to honor those few school districts that are still trying to make school desegregation work, such as the 21 districts in the Minority Student Achievement Network. These districts have defied national trends and remain racially and socioeconomically integrated. Though challenged by a variety of equity issues and a persistent achievement gap, such districts serve as an example of what might have been if we had had the leadership and resolve to realize the goals of Brown. Though far from perfect, such districts show us that one of the most important benefits of integration is the presence of middle-class parents who utilize their political clout to advocate for resources that benefit all students, and students who are better prepared to handle the challenges of living in a diverse society because of the education they received.
Brown at 50
We can also honor Brown by revisiting the issue of integration in communities of color. Many black and Latino communities gave up long ago on school integration because of white resistance to busing. In many cases, desegregation also resulted in the closure of schools in black and brown communities and the loss of African-American teachers. As a result of these unintended consequences of Brown, many communities of color are increasingly focusing on how to make our racially separate schools more equal. That focus has yielded a small number of successful, selective public schools that cater primarily to black and Latino students. Schools such as Fredrick Douglass Academy in Harlem and the Young Women’s Leadership School in Manhattan demonstrate that it is possible to create educational institutions that produce high levels of achievement for students of color in racially segregated settings, when adequate resources are provided.
The success of such schools also suggests that, for the time being, the best hope for many minority children may be to accept racial segregation and do what we can to create more high-quality segregated schools. While this may be the most pragmatic thing to do, we must also recognize how our sights have been lowered as we return to the unfulfilled “separate but equal” promise of Plessy v. Ferguson, the fatally flawed, segregationist U.S. Supreme Court decision that Brown overturned.
Throughout the country, the more common experience for students is to attend schools that are separate and unequal—schools that are well-equipped and cater to the children of the affluent, and schools that barely function and serve the poor, white and nonwhite. Throughout America, a majority of poor children attend schools where learning has been reduced to preparation for a standardized test, where failure and dropping out are accepted as the norm, and where overcrowding and disorder are common. Those who believe that integration remains a goal worth pursuing must recognize that no law can force middle-class whites to enroll their children in schools they seek to avoid, either because they are too black or simply too bad, for the sake of integration.
So perhaps the best way to honor Brown is to use it to recast the current debate over school reform. Let’s stop seeing reform as an end in itself and start asking how improved schools in all communities can be used to attract multiracial student enrollments to those schools. And let’s start demanding that Brown’s vision of integrated schools be addressed by politicians of both major parties. Unless we do so, our children, sitting in racially segregated classrooms, would be more than justified in thinking us hypocrites, pretending to celebrate a school integration decision that our nation has spent a half-century evading.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as The Legacy of ‘All Deliberate Speed’