Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

The Mixed Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

TOMORROW marks the 40th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court decision that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

Striking down ``separate but equal'' schools has proved to be the easy part. Despite substantial progress during four decades, ``we are far distant from the goal,'' says Charles Willie, a professor of education and urban studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

About these ads

School desegregation was politically unpopular from the start, and action on the issue came slowly. ``It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted that this nation started desegregating schools,'' Professor Willie says. ``The first 10 years after the Brown decision, most of the states did everything they could to obstruct and frustrate any attempt to desegregate.''

Since progress began in the mid-1960s, lower courts and school districts across the United States have experimented with various approaches to achieving racial balance in public schools. Yet there remains no consensus on the issue. The validity and effectiveness of remedies such as busing, magnet schools, increased funding for racially isolated schools, and voluntary choice programs continue to be debated in cities from coast to coast.

Meanwhile, recent studies show that the nation is losing ground in the battle to integrate schools. A trend toward ``resegregation'' began between 1988 and 1991, according to ``The Growth of Segregation in American Schools,'' a report conducted for the National School Boards Association and released last December. ``The civil-rights impulse from the 1960s is dead in the water and the ship is floating backward toward the shoals of racial segregation,'' the report says.

Schools in the South, where federal intervention was strongest, made significant progress toward desegregation from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, says Gary Orfield, an education professor at Harvard University and author of the report.

In fact, Southern schools are considerably more integrated today than schools in the North. For more than a decade, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey have topped the list of the most intensely segregated states.

Nationwide, 77 percent of black students attended predominantly minority schools in 1968, according to the National School Boards Association study. That percentage dropped to about 63 percent in the early `70s and remained at that level for most of the `80s. But in the 1991-92 school year, the ratio of black students attending schools with more than 50 percent minorities increased to 66 percent.

``The direction of change has reversed,'' the report says. ``The increase in segregation shown here could foreshadow much larger moves toward racial isolation in the future.''

About these ads

Although blatant racial discrimination has declined through the decades, shifting demographics, increased immigration, and racially divided housing patterns have made it increasingly difficult to create racially balanced schools.

Hispanic students, the fastest growing ethnic group in public schools today, have added a new element to the desegregation equation in the last several decades. Hispanics have grown steadily more segregated in American public schools since studies began tracking their enrollment in the 1960s.

Housing barriers hold firm

Despite progress brought by the civil-rights movement, desegregating schools proved to be more complicated than simply opening every American school to students of all races. ``Once you brought down the first line of barriers you got to a deeper set of barriers that were rooted in the housing markets,'' Professor Orfield says.

During the 1970s, the practical aspects of integration grew more complex as white families continued to migrate to the suburbs. Urban school districts ended up with an increasing percentage of minority students and fewer possibilities for integration.

This trend led federal courts in Detroit to approve a new desegregation remedy in 1973, allowing metropolitan busing between the city and suburbs. But a year later, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley. Citing the American tradition of local control of public schools, the high court ruled that unless it could be shown that the suburban communities were guilty of intentional segregation, they could not be forced to participate in a desegregation remedy. (How the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, Page 13.)

In 1977, however, the Supreme Court approved a plan to increase education funding for Detroit students to compensate them for harm caused by attending racially isolated schools. Hundreds of millions of ``compensatory'' dollars have been spent since then in Detroit and other urban centers. These monies are known as Milliken II funds.

Growing disenchantment with desegregation and its effect on the academic performance of minority students has led some critics to call for a shift in focus. They ask: Why not stop spending money to mix students and simply use those funds on educational improvements for all students?

Milliken II spending offers a test case for whether increased funding and a focus on academic improvement could do more to boost minority student achievement than desegregation efforts. Until recently, there was little research on this issue, however.

Last month, a study conducted by the Harvard Project on School Desegregation found that there is ``no evidence whatsoever that the expensive programming and extra money has redressed the harms of segregation or provided an equal educational opportunity.''

Focusing on achievement

The study, titled ``Still Separate, Still Unequal,'' concluded: ``There is still no proven program that can make segregated minority schools fundamentally equal to schools that enroll a racial and economic mix.''

Nevertheless, a number of civil-rights leaders today are calling for a shift away from integrating schools and toward improving the education provided in all-black schools created by de facto segregation.

``At the present time, we are more concerned with the quality of education and this has to take precedence over whether schools are integrated,'' says Beverly Cole, director of education and housing for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Studies, most conducted in the 1970s, offer little evidence of academic improvement in desegregated schools. Black students in integrated schools show small gains or no change in achievement. Desegregation has the most impact on black children in their earliest school years, according to a review of the research by Janet Schofield of the University of Pittsburgh.

Twenty years ago it was whites who were speaking out against busing. Today, much of the attack on busing is coming from the African-American community.

Black mayors from cities as far-flung as Cleveland, Denver, and St. Louis have taken positions against busing. Cleveland Mayor Michael White has worked to get a new school board in position and gain approval for a plan relaxing mandatory busing in the city. One-race schools are ``not inherently bad,'' he says. In Denver, Mayor Wellington Webb has fought against busing, saying it destabilizes communities.

St. Louis, which has the largest voluntary desegregation program in the United States, buses 14,000 city students to suburban schools. ``It costs $75 million a year for these kids to ride the yellow bus,'' says Freeman Bosley Jr., the city's first African-American mayor. ``After 10 years, I have serious reservations about the impact the program is having. I think we need to take another look at it.''

Rather than celebrating the progress brought in the four decades since the Brown decision, many black leaders are questioning the effects of desegregation efforts and challenging the status quo.

``Our schools and our communities are more segregated right now than they were in 1960,'' Mayor Bosley says. ``So what are we doing? In the interest of saying that they are doing something about integration, people have just put the car on cruise control, and they're just sitting back going for a ride.''

Studies show that St. Louis students who attend schools in the suburbs are not gaining the expected level of interracial interaction and their test scores are no higher than those who stay in city schools. ``So why are we doing it?'' Bosley asks. ``We're doing it because people say that we shouldn't have separate but equal [schools], and I agree. We're doing it because people say there ought to be greater interaction between the races, and I agree. But you don't achieve that by pushing kids to go to school together. You achieve that by integrating housing patterns.''

Bosley proposes using the busing funds to stabilize neighborhoods and improve the city's own schools. He often hears from students who support the busing plan, he says. But they all mention the physical benefits gained by attending suburban schools, the mayor says.

``They like going to a school that has carpet, central air conditioning, a library, a brand new gym, and a computer lab,'' he says. ``Why not have all these things right here in the city schools? I think we could do that with a better utilization of the money - and even save some money.''

Growth of `resegregation'

Magnet schools, another method of desegregating urban school systems, are also being challenged today. Designed to attract a mix of races through special programs and themes, magnet schools are losing support from many quarters.

``While magnet schools were wonderful educational innovations, they were unfair,'' says Willie of Harvard. ``The overwhelming majority of people could not be accommodated in them. There simply were not enough resources to establish magnet schools for everybody.''

Even within racially balanced schools, there have been recent charges of discrimination. In November 1993, a federal court found the public schools in Rockford, Ill., guilty of resegregation. Schools that outwardly appeared integrated used more subtle means to segregate students by race, the federal magistrate judge ruled.

Rockford School District used tracking programs, which separate students by testing abilities, ``to intentionally segregate white students from minority students,'' said the judge's opinion. White students were usually placed in higher-level classes than blacks or Hispanics, regardless of how they performed on tests, according to the ruling.

``Racial discrimination in our public schools is alive and well, and the outlawed dual school system is still with us,'' says Robert Carter, one of the lawyers who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1952.

A national campaign led by educators and the federal Education, Justice, and Housing departments is what is needed to fulfill the promise of the Brown decision, says Mr. Carter, who has been a federal judge for the past 22 years. The hard work of remedying segregation, left to lawyers and the lower courts, simply has not been accomplished, he says.

Willie agrees and attributes the problem to a ``deep defect in the implementation order of the Brown decision.''

Known as Brown II and delivered the next year in 1955, this decision called for desegregation of schools to take place ``with all deliberate speed.'' Many lower courts interpreted that phrase as justifying gradual remedies.

``There's an old doctrine that justice delayed is justice denied,'' Willie says. ``The court contributed to its own difficulty by delaying the justice that it said the plaintiffs ought to have received.''

Political apathy

Willie also faults the Supreme Court for ``putting in charge the fox who had been caught stealing the chickens.'' It was local school boards, the very people who had implemented discriminatory practices at the outset, that were asked to develop plans for desegregation. Furthermore, nearly all school-board members at that time were white males.

``What they did was develop plan after plan in community after community that first was least offensive to whites and secondarily might redress the grievances of blacks and other minorities,'' Willie says.

A lack of political will is another culprit in the failure to achieve integration, Orfield says. ``This is something that everybody knows has to be dealt with. But they hope we can put it off a little longer. They'd rather have somebody else solve it.''

Four of the six presidents since 1968 have opposed urban desegregation orders, according to Orfield. Since 1980, there have been no major school desegregation cases filed by the Department of Justice.

``We need to tend to these things; they don't get cured by accident,'' Orfield says.


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.