In June 1955, at the end of Baltimore’s first year of integration, black and white first-graders recite the Pledge of Allegiance at Public School No. 60. © Image courtesy of Baltimore Sun [File]
Sixty years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregating schools was unconstitutional because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the nation was searching for its moral compass. Despite the historic ruling, decades would pass before integration took root in Southern states, which rebelled furiously against federal policies regarding race. Yet today, while not legally sanctioned, more U.S. students are in segregated schools than a few decades ago. And experts say that these schools now are still as inherently unequal as their legally sanctioned predecessors.
Racial segregation was being challenged on many fronts when, in 1952, the Supreme Court heard five cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education. Just a few years earlier, in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers made headlines and shattered the color barrier by bringing on Jackie Robinson, who was previously in the Negro Leagues. A year later, President Harry Truman signed an executive order abolishing segregation in the military.
These pivotal events were taking place against the backdrop of the Cold War, when the U.S. was vying with the Soviet Union to extend its influence in developing nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia. “American racial segregation was a tremendous embarrassment to the United States,” says Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University. “It enabled the Soviets to say that [Americans] talk about freedom and we talk about democracy, while millions of our citizens are being treated in a discriminatory way, so what kind of democracy is this?”
It was in this context that the NAACP and its advocate, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, argued that the legal justification for segregation established by the high court in 1896 – “separate but equal” – violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Not only were facilities for black students not equal to those of white students, but the idea of separating one group of citizens from another was inherently discriminatory, Marshall argued.
When the justices couldn’t come to a decision, they agreed to rehear the case in 1953. In the meantime, a new chief justice, former California Gov. Earl Warren, took the bench. Warren is credited with marshaling his colleagues and achieving a rare unanimous decision, which he delivered on May 17, 1954: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The ruling, and what happened next, would ignite America’s civil rights movement.
In 1955, the court issued guidance known as Brown II, ordering that desegregation in public schools occur with “all deliberate speed.” However, that wording “was so vague it opened the door to all sorts of delaying tactics and resistance,” Foner says. Indeed, Southern states began a campaign of “massive resistance” to desegregation. A new wave of violence and intimidation was unleashed against African-Americans by segregationist groups like the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. In 1956, 101 members of Congress signed the “Southern Manifesto,” opposing racial integration and accusing the Supreme Court of abusing its judicial power.
The following year, in September 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order authorizing the use of federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas, where riots had erupted when black students attempted to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. President John Kennedy later deployed federal troops at the University of Mississippi in 1962 to quell rioting against the enrollment of U.S. Air Force veteran James Meredith.
Yet a decade after the Brown decision, 98 percent of black students in the South remained in completely segregated schools, says Gary Orfield, research professor at UCLA and co-director of the school’s Civil Rights Project. Orfield notes that it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed all forms of segregation, to really make a difference.
Other education experts point to the 1968 Supreme Court ruling in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, in which the court chastised the Virginia county school board for failing to provide a meaningful plan to desegregate and eliminate racial discrimination “root and branch.” Significant change wouldn’t take place until the late 1960s and, Orfield says, for many black students desegregation rates increased into the late 1980s.
But the trend toward integration did not last. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that today 74 percent of black and 80 percent of Latino children attend schools where the majority of students are not white. Some 43 percent of Latino and 38 percent of black students are in “intensely segregated schools,” meaning less than 10 percent of their classmates are white. “It’s very obvious that whether it’s de facto or based on law that allows you to segregate based on race, it exists,” says National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.
Several factors have contributed to segregation in practice if not by law. For example, neighborhoods are often segregated by race. “Because black and white students largely live in separate school districts, about two-thirds of all the black-white segregation in the United States is now between school districts,” says Sean Reardon, professor of education at Stanford University. Therefore, court orders and students assignment policies that targeted segregation within school districts in the past could not fix today’s problem entirely, he explains.
Experts, including Reardon, also point to rapidly growing economic segregation. The NEA reports that of all public school students today, nearly half are low-income and 44 percent are students of color, and both populations are concentrated in segregated schools. African-American and Latino children are 2 to 3 times more likely to be poor than white children, says Communities in Schools President Dan Cardinali. “The link between poverty and race is quite real in America,” he adds.
Segregation statistics also reflect demographic changes, which are attributed to birth rate and immigration patterns. In the two fastest growing regions of the country – the South and the West – whites now comprise less than 50 percent of students, the UCLA Civil Rights Project found. In California, one of the most segregated states in the country, Latino and black students are isolated from white and Asian students, Orfield points out. “If you think about desegregation in a changed country, you kind of have to think about whether the groups that have been historically excluded are getting access to the schools that really are connected to opportunity,” says Orfield.
The Civil Rights Project found that Latino students have become more segregated every year since they began collecting data in the late 1960s, and by some measures have surpassed black segregation. Orfield notes that Latinos were not included in the Brown decision, and the Supreme Court didn’t say anything about them until the 1973 decision in Keyes v. Denver School District. In that case – the first dealing with segregation outside the South – the justices found that Latinos have suffered the same educational inequities as blacks. But today, Western and Northern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia remain extremely segregated. And New York is now the most segregated state for black students in America, the Civil Rights Project reports.
There is some debate about how to measure de facto segregation, says Reardon, but there is broad agreement that there’s a lot of racial and socioeconomic segregation. “By no measure are things getting better,” he adds.
There’s also debate about how much can be done to address the problem through policy. Scholars point out that resegregation of public schools began in the 1990s, when the Supreme Court stopped actively pushing desegregation and began to turn more power back to state and local governments. Since that time, almost all the large desegregation orders that were in place as a consequence of the Brown decision have been dissolved by the courts, Orfield says. He believes some policies, including expanded magnet schools and voluntary transfer programs, can be effective integration tools today.
Though the costs of segregation can be difficult to measure, studies have demonstrated that black students who attended integrated schools, which tended to have more resources, fared markedly better in life (as did their children) than those who did not. But in an increasingly multiracial America, everyone may pay the price for separate and unequal education. “Schools are partly supposed to prepare kids not just to know how to read and do math and get into college, but also to prepare them to be productive, engaged members of a democratic society,” Reardon says. “Part of what it means to be an engaged member of a democracy is to be able to understand different points of view, to be able to communicate well with people from different backgrounds and experiences, and to engage in the kind of communication and interaction that’s going to be reflective of the society you’re going to be in as an adult.” When this awareness is lost, the entire nation suffers.