As a kid growing up in Chicago, I learned about Brown v. The Board of Education every Black History Month. But I questioned if the Supreme Court had really declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
I looked to my left and to my right in class, I walked up and down my school’s hallways, and I observed the bodies huddling under the bus shelter on a rainy day. We were all black—wasn’t that illegal? Wasn’t I supposed to have at least one white classmate during my K-12 education?
Well, I never did. Both my elementary and high schools were 99.9 percent black. I went on school field trips and I saw white kids from white schools all the time, so why hadn’t Brown done its job and mixed us all up?
When my parents purchased their home on Chicago’s South Side, they sent all eight of their kids to the same neighborhood school. When my oldest sister started kindergarten in 1969, almost all her classmates were white. By the time she graduated from 8th grade in 1978, her class—and the entire school—was all black.
White flight has never been illegal or unconstitutional. In fact, white flight seems to be the American way, particularly in urban centers like Chicago. In my city, white flight was even encouraged by the local government. The late Mayor Richard J. Daley and the city planners who preceded him supported discriminatory housing practices and strategically designed business-district development to better contain the city’s “Black Belt” for the preservation of white neighborhoods.
Today, the spirit of those old tactics persist. Public schools in Chicago are still segregated institutions, with blacks and Hispanics making up 85 percent of the district’s student population. Whites make up only 9 percent of CPS’ student body, but more than one-third of the city’s top five selective-enrollment high schools, which are among the best schools in the state of Illinois.
When Oliver Brown brought his case to the Supreme Court in 1954, he challenged the notion that his daughter should be banned from attending the all-white neighborhood school just blocks from his home and limited to the segregated school miles away.
A similar, curious phenomena is taking place in Chicago. The teachers union is adamantly opposed to the racial isolation that poor black students experience in the Chicago public schools; yet the union is wholly committed to preserving the neighborhood school system that has kept the single-race, “separate but equal” schools thriving for decades.
How can one protest against an apartheid school system while simultaneously decrying school choice? Low-income black families are not able to move into more resourced, diverse communities, but should they be forced to subject their children to sub-standard neighborhood schools? Of course not! They should have the option to stay close to home or to seek other opportunities within the district.
School choice was at the heart of Brown v. The Board of Education, and it remains the civil rights battle cry of today. We should know by now that “separate but equal” is a fallacy. Sure, charter schools have systemic problems they need to overcome, but at least their lottery-based admissions policy offers parents a glimpse of hope when the neighborhood school is undesirable.
Oliver Brown’s case made it unconstitutional to force black children into under-funded, sub-standard, segregated schools. Sixty years later, that’s exactly how I would describe many of the schools on the South and West Sides of Chicago that serve minority children compared to the white schools on the North Side.
And that’s why as a child I never understood what Brown v. The Board of Education ever did for me.
Marilyn Rhames is a middle grades teacher at a charter school in Chicago and runs a nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray. Her Education Week Teacher blog called “Charting My Own Course” reflects on education policy, as well as the joys and hardships of being a classroom teacher. A former New York City reporter, Marilyn holds master’s degrees in journalism and education.
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