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US schools largely re-segregated 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education

Many black and Latino students are still concentrated in racially isolated schools with high concentrations of low-income students, limiting their opportunities and achievement, a new report says.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision barring school segregation by declaring that separate is “inherently unequal,” the gains in school integration that followed have largely been reversed.

While the United States has grown increasingly multiracial, many black and Latino students are still concentrated in racially isolated schools with high concentrations of low-income students.

“These schools are related to more limited opportunities and more limited results,” such as lower high school and college completion rates, “in ways that affect kids long into their lives,” says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, which released a new report Thursday analyzing how school demographics have shifted in the decades since Brown.

As Saturday’s anniversary of the Brown decision approaches, various civil rights groups are calling for increased attention to not only racial isolation in schools, but also more subtle inequities, such as less access to high-level courses and discipline policies that result in disproportionate numbers of students of color being suspended or pushed onto what’s termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

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The Brown decision came at a time of more widespread racist attitudes that saw African-Americans as inferior, leading to their exclusion from white schools. Today, there’s “a different kind of stigma” in which “too often, students of color are viewed as academically not being equal to other students, or as representing more of a threat,” says Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Brown decision didn’t automatically integrate schools. By 1964 only 1 out of 50 black students attended an integrated school, but the rate increased dramatically after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Schools continued to become more integrated through the late 1980s, and then the decline began, notes the Civil Rights Project report.

The Supreme Court ruling in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell in 1991 led to the termination of many district desegregation plans. Another decision in 2007 regarding plans in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ken., limited communities’ options for voluntarily integrating schools. 

Now, the racial composition of the country is more complex. In public schools, whites are a bare majority at about 51 percent, while Latinos make up 24 percent, blacks 15 percent, and Asians 5 percent. Whites are already a minority in the school populations of the South and the West. In the South, Latinos outnumber black students.

“Hundreds of suburbs are going through racial change and being given no help” by federal or state education policies, Mr. Orfield says. Although federal money has been channeled to low-income schools, policymakers have largely abandoned integration efforts and have “been betting on separate-but-equal now for almost a third of a century,” he says. “We shifted toward accountability, sanctions, and charter-school competition as the big answers in the middle 1980s, and they haven’t worked.”

But school-based policy solutions may not be feasible when so much of what’s been happening is driven by demographic changes, including the overall decline of the percentage of students who are white, says Michael McShane, an education policy research fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “Thinking of schools as ‘segregated’ or ‘integrated’ seems to be a bit of a 2-dimensional construct in a 3-dimensional world,” he writes.

Some key points from the report:

• At the peak of integration, 44 percent of black students in the South attended majority white schools, but by 2011, just 23 percent did, dipping back to levels seen in the late 1960s. Yet the South is currently the most integrated region for black students.

• A typical white student in the US now attends a school that is nearly three-quarters white, one-eighth Latino, and one-twelfth black. But black and Latino students attend schools that are 60 to 75 percent black and Latino.

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• Black and Latino students in central cities attend schools that are nearly 90 percent non-white, and in suburbs, they attend schools that are 70 percent non-white.

• Many students of color experience “double segregation.” Among students in schools that are more than 80 percent black and Latino, more than 75 percent are also in schools that have poverty rates above 70 percent.

Taye Davis, a freshman at Oakland High School in California, has recently been learning about historical efforts to integrate schools and make them more fair. He says he’s seen how his school has fewer new books and resources than a school he almost attended in a nearby town with a higher portion of white students. But thanks to the support of his family and many teachers, he’ll be among more than 1,000 African-American students from Grades 8 to 12 being celebrated in Oakland Monday for honor roll grades at or above a 3.0.

“I feel like it should be something that is expected from us,” Taye says of his accomplishment. But instead, people often act as if academic achievement by black students is an amazing feat, he says.

Despite all the progress since Brown, there’s still a need to “change the narrative in urban districts [that has] normalized the failure of African-American children,” says Chris Chatmon, executive director of the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District’s African American Male Achievement initiative.

Oakland is one of several urban districts where concerted efforts are under way to increase opportunities for students of color and reduce disproportionate suspensions and expulsions, which particularly impact African-American boys.

To boost integration, the Civil Rights Project report recommends more funding for magnet schools, strong civil rights policies for charter schools, and better teacher training for diverse and racially changing schools.

On Wednesday, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued new guidance to clarify that charter schools are subject to civil rights laws. Civil rights groups applauded, saying they have long raised concerns around equitable access and fair treatment in discipline for various racial groups, students with disabilities, and students who are still learning to speak English.