Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

The resegregation of America’s schools

Sixty years after Brown, economic and racial segregation is still rampant

May 16, 2014 2:30AM ET

The Supreme Court ruled 60 years ago this May 17 in Brown v. Board of Education that “segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation,” is unconstitutional.

The ruling abolished the explicitly mandated segregation made infamous in the Deep South. But political reaction and larger structural shifts, such as white suburbanization, quickly overwhelmed tentative progress. Today, segregation — both racial and economic — remains the core organizational feature of American public education. In 1980, the typical black student attended a school where 36 percent of students were white. Today, the average black student attends a school where only 29 percent are. Many black and Latino students attend schools where nearly every other student is nonwhite — including in supposed liberal bastions such as New York and Chicago.

Indeed, New York state’s public schools are the most segregated in the nation, according to a March report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. In New York City, 19 of 32 community school districts are less than 10 percent white. That includes all of the Bronx, two-thirds of Brooklyn and half of Manhattan.

This is no time for an anniversary celebration.

“Black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time” since data became available in 1970, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a recent report.

What’s more, schools attended primarily by nonwhite and poor children are often woefully underfunded.

Take Philadelphia, where, as a reporter for the Philadelphia City Paper, I cover a largely poor and nonwhite school district that, after years of underfunding, is going through a spectacular collapse in the wake of budget cuts implemented by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Many high schools here are more than 90 percent black. Among the many things city schools lack are sufficient nurses, counselors, music and art teachers and libraries. Things are rather different a few miles over the city line at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, a leafy suburban town with a median household income of nearly $69,000. There, the funding is stellar. The student body: 8 percent black.

Separate continues to mean unequal: Pennsylvania schools that need the most are getting the least.

While the School District of Philadelphia has a “target” class size of between 30 and 33, Lower Merion has an average class of 21, not to mention a black box theater and a greenhouse for environmental and horticultural studies. Lower Merion students receive nearly twice the per-pupil funding as those in Philadelphia’s public schools.

It’s important to note that inequality also affects whiter districts that serve students who are poor and working class, or hail from a middle class that has over recent years become, thanks to growing inequality, downwardly mobile. Federal and state courts and government gave up not only on black children, but on integration and equality for all — and they began to do so soon after Brown.

Today’s version of segregation is enforced not through ‘whites only’ signage or a governor blocking the schoolhouse door but through disparate property-tax bases.
Nathaniel Steward on May 21, 1954, at the St.-Dominique school in Washington, where the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in state schools was applied for the first time.
Staff / AFP / Getty Images

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that there was no fundamental right to education and that the courts could not guarantee poor students in a heavily Hispanic district — or anywhere — equally funded schools.  

In 1974, the court narrowly overturned a district court judge’s intercounty busing plan in Milliken v. Bradley: The existence of largely white suburban school districts and “predominantly Negro school population in Detroit” were, according to Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion, “caused by unknown and perhaps unknowable factors such as in-migration, birth rates, economic changes or cumulative acts of private racial fears” — and thus not subject to corrective judicial action.

Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, went on to serve as the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. He issued a sharp dissent in both cases, protesting in Milliken that it was “the duty of the State to eliminate root and branch all vestiges of racial discrimination and to achieve the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.”

But in Milliken, the court espoused a sleight-of-hand philosophy: Race blindness replaced Brown’s principle of racial justice. That philosophy controls American politics and jurisprudence today. Chief Justice John Roberts adeptly summarized the idea in 2007, when the court struck down integration programs in schools in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote.

Today’s version of segregation is enforced not through “whites only” signage or a governor blocking the schoolhouse door, but through disparate property-tax bases. Wealthy homeowners fund their own affluent school districts while poor homeowners try, and fail, to fund schools for poor children with the greatest needs. That’s why advocates are now focused on addressing the divided neighborhoods at the root of the education divide, fighting to bring economic and racial diversity to affluent suburbs that fortify the walls of the ghetto by prohibiting affordable housing.

New Jersey has become a laboratory. In 1975, the state Supreme Court handed down the historic Mount Laurel decision that (along with later court decisions) mandated that affordable housing be built in the township of Mount Laurel and in municipalities statewide. Research conducted by Princeton sociologist Douglas S. Massey and colleagues found that the low-income tenants who live in Mount Laurel thanks to the ruling have had their lives and educations transformed for the better, while affluent locals have suffered no ill effect.

A self-described reform movement, which calls for expanded charter schools and evaluating teacher effectiveness based on test scores, now dominates American public-education policy debates. It has largely abandoned the civil rights movement’s dream of integrated schools and instead blames public management and teachers’ unions for poor students’ troubles. Notably, the Civil Rights Project study found that 73 percent of New York City charters are “apartheid schools,” with less than 1 percent white enrollment.

“Today, 95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work,” Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg told The Washington Post in 2010, discussing a study finding that low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland, benefited from attending high-income schools. “This research suggests there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools.”

Integration is a powerful tool for school reform, and it has the virtue of finally achieving social justice.

Daniel Denvir is a reporter at The Philadelphia City Paper. He is conducting an investigation of the Philadelphia schools crisis in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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