Brown v. Board of Education 60 years later: Are U.S. schools becoming more segregated again?

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Nearly sixty years have passed since the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which prohibited Southern states from segregating schools by race.

The Court’s decision in Brown sparked a disruption of white supremacy and Jim Crow in the South and forced the federal government to pass civil and voting rights legislation.

However, a new report by the Economic Policy Institute makes the argument that while the 1954 Supreme Court decision did achieve the goal of raising awareness about the inherent segregation and unfairness in the separate but equal concept, it has failed miserably at its central mission: to desegregate schools in the United States.

The report states, “[B]y focusing the nation’s attention on subjugation of blacks, it helped fuel a wave of freedom rides, sit-ins, voter registration efforts, and other actions leading ultimately to civil rights legislation in the late 1950s and 1960s. But Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission—to undo the school segregation that persists as a central feature of American public education today.”

Last week, ProPublica published a long essay about the impact of the Brown decision in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, over the course of three generations. Not much has changed since Brown, and in many ways, it’s almost as if it never happened.  The schools and neighborhoods still remain as segregated as ever.

ProPublica’s Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “No all-white schools [In Tuscaloosa] exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.”

And it’s clear that at the time the decision was handed down, even the NAACP lawyers were overly optimistic about the ruling’s impact given the fact that outside factors — including housing discrimination — would keep schools segregated despite the Court’s decision.

The Economic Policy Institute report says: “When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on May 17, 1954, Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and chief attorney for the plaintiffs, predicted that there would be “no organized resistance” to the Supreme Court’s order and that schools nationwide would be fully desegregated “in up to five years,” ensuring that black children throughout the nation would have educations that would gain them entry to skilled jobs and colleges on an equal basis with whites.”

Six decades later, it’s become clear that while the issues raised by Brown help raise America’s consciousness of the problem, the case didn’t solve the problem of segregation and second-class status for students of color.

“The typical black student now attends a school where only 29 percent of his or her fellow students are white, down from 36 percent in 1980…In fact, black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been collected,” according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein.

Schools are still segregated because of neighborhood segregation, and the only fix for that is significant changes in housing policy that would allow people of color to integrate majority-white neighborhoods with better performing schools.

“Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Raising achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow. Education policy is housing policy,” said Rothstein.

Reforms to housing policy and legislation that would close the income wealth gap between whites and people of color would go a long way to desegregate schools, the original goal in Brown.

The structural factors that keep black students in poorly performing and segregated schools persist because Brown only addressed part of the problem.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.