School Resegregation Since Brown and Different Languages of Race

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Brown v Board of Education

Credit: Creative Commons/AFGE

There are milestones in the history of education where conditions have come together to advance progressive social policy reforms. One such milestone was the momentous United States Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas), rendered on May 17, 1954. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the “separate but equal” clause (set down in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) was unconstitutional because it violated children’s rights as covered under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when separation was solely on the classification of “race.” Delivering the court opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the “segregated schools are not equal and cannot be made equal, and hence they are deprived of the equal protection of the laws.”
The Brown decision rested on accumulated social science research that emphasized the detrimental effects of school segregation on students of color. Following the decision, intransigence on the part of a number of Southern political leaders prevented the law from fully taking effect. In fact, President Eisenhower was compelled to call out federal troops to ensure compliance in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Some Southern governors chose to close some public schools in their states rather than comply with desegregation orders.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 strengthened the Brown decision. Prior to this act, the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution applied primarily to the actions and laws of states. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, this was extended to include individuals who discriminate. The United States Congress passed the law to protect the constitutional rights of all people in the areas of public facilities and public education, and prohibiting discrimination in federally assisted programs. Title VI, Section 2000d of the Act stipulated: “Prohibition against exclusion from participation in, denial of benefits of, and discrimination under federally assisted programs on ground of race, color, or national origin.” Title VI expressly mandated the withholding of federal funds from institutions, including public schools, which engaged in racial discrimination.
Another milestone in the history of education was an historic piece of legislation, Public Law 94-142, the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act, passed by the United States Congress. This law mandated that to receive federal funds, school systems must provide “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) for every child between the ages of three and eighteen (extended later to three and twenty-one) regardless of how serious the disability. The act was reauthorized and amended by Congress in 1990 and 1997. The amendments renamed this act the “Individuals with Disabilities Act” (IDEA) in keeping with the foundational understanding of emphasizing the person rather than merely the disability. Also, the term “handicapped student” and “handicap” was changed to “child/individual with disability.”
Since the 1970s, however, the pace of school segregation has slowed substantially, and has actually reversed. According to the Educational Testing Service, by the end of the 1990s, in the United States, many public schools were largely segregated by “race.” For example, in the year 1969, 77 percent of African American students attended schools with predominantly minority students. This figure declined somewhat by 1980 with 62 percent attending schools with predominantly minority students. By 1997, however, the figure had risen to 69 percent, with 35 percent of African American students attending schools with 90-100 percent minority students. For Latino/a students, in 1969, 55 percent were attending schools with predominantly minority students. And by 1997, that number had risen to 75 percent.
Many charge that “resegregation” is due, at least in part, to Supreme Court decisions, which have accelerated the federal courts’ attempts to terminate existing school desegregation orders. For example, in the 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court virtually released white suburban school districts in Detroit, Michigan from participation in desegregation efforts. In addition, in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991), the Supreme Court held that lower courts could terminate previous desegregation orders in those school districts that had attempted “in good faith” to comply, even if this would result in abrupt resegregation.
Other Supreme Court decisions that have increased the drive to resegregate include Freeman v. Pitts (1992) ending aspects of desegregation orders even when other aspects had never been fully implemented, and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) overturning a plan for magnet schools in Kansas City, Missouri designed to attract white students back to inner-city schools. According to Yale law professor, Jack M. Balkin, these legal decisions, along with social, political, and economic factors have been devastating to many children of color. Balkin said,

“Minority children in central cities are educated in virtually all-minority schools with decidedly inferior facilities and educational opportunities. More than half of black and Latino students around the country still attend predominantly minority schools.”

In addition, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that although the 2000 national census reflected more racial and ethnic diversity in the United States than ever before, students are relatively isolated from this diversity as reflected in data collected by the United States Department of Education from the year 2000-2001. According to the study:

“The racial trend in the school districts studied is substantial and clear: virtually all school districts analyzed are showing lower levels of inter-racial exposure since 1986, suggesting a trend toward resegregation, and in some districts, these declines are sharp. As courts across the country end long-running desegregation plans and, in some states, have forbidden the use of any racially-conscious student assignment plans, the last 10-15 years have seen a steady unraveling of almost 25-years-worth of increased integration.”

Among the study’s additional finding were that white students in one-third of the school districts analyzed became more isolated from black and/or Latino/a students in the school years 1986-2000, and that black students are the “most isolated” from white students in districts that do not have desegregation plans in place or where the courts have rejected city-suburban desegregation plans.
Balkin correlated the increasing trend toward resegregation with socioeconomic factors and with “race,” stating that only 5 percent of segregated white schools are in areas of concentrated poverty, whereas 80 percent of segregated black and Latino/a schools are in such areas. And schools in low-income areas have limited educational resources, so as a consequence, students’ educational outcomes in these schools are routinely lower than in wealthier districts.
UC Berkeley professor, Bob Blauner writes of a United States in which there exists “two languages of race,” one spoken by black people (and by implication, other people of color), the other by white people. By “language,” he meant a system of meaning attached to social reality, in this instance a “racial language” reflecting a view of the world. This mirrors the conclusions of the Kerner Commission report released in 1968 in its study of urban unrest. It stated, in part, that the United States was moving toward two separate societies: one white and one black (though the report left it uncertain where other communities of color fit into this equation). Many black people and other peoples of color see “race” and racism as salient and central to their reality. Many white people – excluding members of the more race-conscious extremists groups – consider “race” as a peripheral issue, and may even consider racism as a thing of the past, or as aberrations in contemporary U.S. society. Since the 1960s, many people of color have embraced and expanded the definition of “racism” to reflect contemporary realities, while many white people have not.
Although most white people are aware of what Valerie Batts, Executive Director and Co-Founder of VISIONS Inc., terms “old fashioned racism” (taking such forms as enslavement, lynchings, cross burnings, definition of people of color as inferior to whites, legal segregation between the “races,” and others), many white people, asserts Batts, are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the many manifestations of “modern forms of racism” by whites. Batts lists these forms as dysfunctional rescuing, blaming the victim, avoidance of contact, denial of cultural differences, and denial of the political significance of differences.
It must be added that by the 1960s, a number of national black leaders, including Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam, Huey P. Newton and H. Rap Brown of the Black Panthers, among others, questioned integrationist strategies generally and particularly in the schools – deprioritizing and even opposing desegregation – on the grounds that the notion that black students would learn best alongside white students was an inherently racist theory. They charged that an educational emphasis relying on integration was one that deemphasized systemic racist social structures, and one that pushed black people to assimilate into dominant Eurocentric norms and cultural expressions at the expense of black culture and identity. Echoes of these sentiments reverberate to this day.
Clearly, enormous inequities exist in the educational system as it currently operates. Likewise, it is clear that there are no simple or easy solutions to the problem of resegregation and also in the achievement gaps between white students and students of color, for as the old saying goes, “When it takes a long time to walk into the forest, it will, most likely as well, take a long time to walk out of the forest.” We must address the inequities within the system in both the short and long term. For these strategies to prove successful, however, we must also address, as a country, the larger systemic societal inequities that are very often reproduced and maintained within the school districts throughout the United States. Only then can we be assured that the promise of a truly equitable and effective educational system matches the reality.