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“Brown v Board” Was Decided 64 Years Ago But America’s Schools Are Still Segregated


In this op-ed, Teen Vogue columnist Lincoln Blades explains why the legacy of Brown v Board of Education is under attack across the country.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregating public schools according to “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in America, allowing the nation to witness one of its greatest legal achievements of the Civil Rights era. But today, on the 64th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, we must reflect on that momentous victory not for romanticized nostalgia, but rather because, according to some researchers, our public schools are more segregated today than they were in the late ’60s.

For much of America’s history, black children and white children have been prevented from attending the same schools, due to legalities and sometimes even violence aimed at black students who attempted to do so. Whether it was 19th century anti-literacy laws that prohibited enslaved children from receiving any form of education, or the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson which held that segregation did not violate the 14th amendment (which grants all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law) as long as the separate facilities were equal (a ruling referred to as “separate but equal”). This effectively relegated black and white students to incredibly different public schools, with white children having better access to higher quality facilities and resources, while black Americans, who were just 31 years removed from slavery, were displaced with fewer supplies and opportunities than their white neighbors.

In 1951, Oliver Brown, a black father from Topeka, Kansas, became fed up with the inequality of segregation after his 9-year-old daughter, Linda, was denied entry into Topeka’s all-white elementary schools and decided to file a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall, who at the time was the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, served as Oliver’s chief attorney — a courtroom Marshall eventually became intimately familiar with after becoming the first black Supreme Court justice in American history. It was just 64 years ago today that the face, and race, of America’s education system was forever changed by the unanimous Supreme Court decision overruling Plessy, effectively disallowing segregation in America’s public schools.

Far too often when this story is told in textbooks, movies, and even just regular conversations, we tend to present this accomplishment as the beginning of a perpetual nonstop avalanche of school-desegregating victories leading up to our current day — yet, when it comes to the reality of present-day school segregation, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Not only did the ruling inflame racists’ response to integration, such as mobs of armed white segregationists patrolling the streets of Mansfield, Texas in 1956 on the first day of school after 12 black students were admitted (one incident amongst many), but it touched off a long and concentrated effort to undermine academic inclusivity, an effort mostly led by white parents. From a more recent lens, the number of segregated schools in America doubled between 1996 and 2016, according to an analysis by Will Stancil at The Atlantic using National Center on Education Statistics data, and entire school districts are increasingly becoming racially distinct, even as the districts themselves become more diverse.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics via UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the percentage of black students in the South who attended a school that was at least 50% white was 0% in 1954 (just before Brown v. Board of Education was enacted), 44% in 1989, and 23% in 2011. While writers like Robert VerBruggen argue that school re-segregation isn’t taking place because America, on a whole, is becoming less white, therefore resulting in minorities attending schools that no longer have a white majority, some intensive research appears to disprove his theory. Research from Southern Methodist University’s Meredith Richards shows that when neighborhoods experience a lot of demographic change, attendance zones are drawn in an aggressively segregated manner. In fact, even neighborhoods that don’t experience much racial change can still enact segregated zoning.

Unfortunately, the actions of the current administration have revealed a stark disinterest in tackling re-segregation. As public schools re-segregate, the rise in charter schools has not helped this trend. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was previously the chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group, American Federation for Children, advocated for a “choice” system that, in her home state of Michigan often resulted in increasing school segregation as white students left for less diverse school districts, according to Bridge Magazine. Across the nation, the rise of charter schools has contributed to this disturbing trend.

When we talk about school segregation, it is critical to also talk about housing segregation because the less diverse a neighborhood is, the less diverse the schools in that neighborhood will be. While President Obama instituted policies attempting to curb segregation by punishing cities and towns that fail to address segregation by denying them federal housing aid, Trump, along with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, have delayed the Obama-era requirements. By delaying, Trump is allowing segregation to go unchecked and unfixed which could result in inner-city neighborhoods becoming even more segregated and disenfranchised which quickly overflows into the schools, damaging all measures of fostering enhanced opportunity and equality. And, to make matters worse, just last month during a confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump’s federal judge nominee Wendy Vitter refused to say whether she agreed with the Brown v Board of Education ruling. A woman who may receive a federal judgeship seemingly can’t publicly state that basic equality is a policy to be proud of.

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What’s so critical to understand about the case for rejecting segregation is that when it comes to race in America, separate does not mean equal. In the United States, where a long history of prejudice and systemic racism has worked to perpetually disadvantage black communities in myriad ways, separating schools and neighborhoods by race effectively results in separating people socioeconomically. During the Jim Crow period in the early-to-mid twentieth century, white families, who got to live in more affluent communities thanks to government policies, were able to send their children to highly functioning schools, while many black families, who had no government policies to assist them and had to contend with everything from Jim Crow to violent racial terror, found themselves sending their children to poorly functioning and underfunded schools. If we allow school zoning to erode diversity, we can easily find ourselves back in the old “separate but equal” days where a quality education was just out of reach for black students, negatively affecting their post-secondary education opportunities, future employment opportunities, and their overall quality of life.

The bravery of Oliver Brown, Linda Brown, Thurgood Marshall, the Little Rock Nine, Dorothy Counts, and every other student, activist, and parent who courageously grappled with America’s systemic inequality in the face of enraged white robs, demagogic anti-black politicians, and the very real possibility of injury and death, should be endlessly praised today. They walked through the vestiges of hell so that every black student who followed them would have their own educational pursuit exponentially easier. But what we’re not going to do today is use the anniversary as the means to celebrate an accomplishment that is actively being fought against all over this country in district after district. And what we’re definitely not going to do is allow the forces who’ve presided over the erosion of all that Brown v Board of Education achieved, to manipulatively use this day to attract attention to diversity when they haven’t done their part to truly protect the objective of integration. Let’s use this day to celebrate our icons, and then use their bravery to galvanize our own fight against intolerance and discrimination for the rest of this year, and every single year after that.

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