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60 years after Brown v. Board, inequality in America's birthplace grows

Sixty years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, the ruling has done little to ensure equity among black and white students.
School children walk on the street in Philadelphia, Pa.
School children walk on the street in Philadelphia, Pa.

In the six decades since the Supreme Court found that segregated schools were unconstitutional and inherently unequal in the landmark 1954 ruling of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, classrooms in many of America’s hometowns have undoubtedly grown diverse in previously unthinkable ways.

The white and colored-only signs that had been affixed above water fountains and public accommodations have long since been knocked down. Black and white professional athletes play alongside one another. And a country that had once barred African-Americans from voting elected a black man as president.

But while the Supreme Court’s striking of school segregation changed the social and political dynamics of schooling America’s children, it’s arguable that 60 years later, students in public schools in all corners of the country are more segregated now than they were a generation ago -- in some cases, more so than when the court decided Brown. 

The vast majority of American students still attend schools where most students look like them and come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. The typical black student attends a school where 49% of their classmates are also black, 28% are white, 17% are Latino, and 4% are Asian-American. The statistics for Latino students cuts largely along the same lines. The average Latino student is enrolled at a school where 57% of his or her classmates are also Latino, 25% are white, 11% are black, and 5% are Asian.

About 15% of black students attend what Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, calls “apartheid schools,” in which 99% to 100% of their classmates are non-white.

But the most pronounced lack of diversity is found in schools where the typical white student attends. About 73% of their classmates are white, 12% are Latino, 8% are black, and 4% are Asian.

The long shadow of segregation not only stretches across the southern states where blacks had historically endured the most dehumanizing forms of racism. Across the country, in cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, there remains deeply divided school systems. New York, the heart of the liberal northeast, has the most segregated public schools in the nation, according to a report authored by Orfield called “Brown at 60.”

In New York and three other states -- Illinois, Maryland and Michigan --  more than half of all black students attend schools that are 90% or more non-white.

According to the report, in 2009 black and Latino students in New York had the highest concentration of “intensely-segregated public schools” with less than 10% white enrollment. These students had the lowest exposure to white students and the most uneven distribution with white students across its public school system. But the separation was most pronounced in New York City, which the report noted was home “to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.

In neighboring states the segregation is nearly as pronounced. In New Jersey nearly 50% of all black students attend uber-segregated schools. In Pennsylvania that number is about 46%.

“With the milestone of the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision, some may believe that the scarring from racial apartheid in this country has faded, that racial integration has been achieved, and that racial disparities in education have been removed,” Leticia Smith-Evans wrote this week in Education Week. “The truth is that public schools remain racially segregated, and that racial and ethnic disparities in education continue. The ultimate goal of Brown v. Board of Education of ending a separate but equal system thus remains an ideal.”

Philadelphia, America’s birthplace, is one of a few major cities where the racial demographics skew more or less equally among blacks and whites. But the equality mostly ends there.

Black students in old, hard-scrabble black neighborhoods in North, South West and West Philadelphia mostly attend a handful of hyper-segregated schools with 90% to 100% minority-majority school populations. Schools in these communities have grown more segregated.

"The quality of a school remains largely dependent on its students’ race and socio-economic status."'

“Sixty years ago, these schools were still mostly black, but there was a segment of white students in these schools, the schools were fairer,” said Leroi Simmons, a longtime community and education advocate in Philadelphia’s Germantown section. “You could go from a public school into Temple University or into Penn State. Now the kids come out and have to get remedial education just to go to community college.”

“These schools are not moving toward equity, they are moving further away from equity,” Simmons said.

It’s not only black and Hispanic students who’ve been isolated from their white peers. While many Asian students have found a steady path through some of Philadelphia’s best public and private schools, many others, including more recent immigrants or English language learners, are crammed into crowded, resource-starved mostly minority schools.

“I think people have this idea that these Asian kids are all at the magnet schools,” said Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. Many of them, she said, are literally “refugees dumped” into some of the city’s most challenged schools.

The lingering segregation in America’s public schools can largely be attributed to segregation in our neighborhoods. Americans by and large live in relatively homogeneous neighborhoods, often drawn along invisible boundaries demarcated by access to quality healthcare, education and employment.

The segregation of Philadelphia’s schools is compounded by a funding crisis that has gutted schools in poorer communities that for years have been clamoring for more funding and resources. But instead of bolstered resources, education officials have disinvested in public education.

In Philadelphia, as well as a handful of other major cities, officials in recent years have shuttered dozens of public schools, destabilizing thousands of mostly black students.

“In Chicago and Philadelphia, Newark and Washington, DC, we’ve seen time and again that the schools forced to close are made up of predominantly African-American and Latino students,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Not only does this harm the students, who have to walk miles through unsafe neighborhoods or spend hours on the bus to get to school, it destabilizes entire communities by removing what has been an anchor and a hub often for generations.”

Over the summer, the Philadelphia school district shuttered more than two dozen public schools. The vast majority of them were located in predominately black neighborhoods on the historically black, north side of the city. Straining under the weight of $1 billion in state education cuts, more than 4,000 teachers were laid off. Many schools don’t have assistant principals, full-time nurses or counselors.

“The heart of North Philly. They were the hardest hit and these were 98%, 99% black schools,” said Leroi Simmons, a longtime school advocate. “It was devastating. It ripped the heart out of many of the neighborhoods.”

"The truth is that public schools remain racially segregated, and that racial and ethnic disparities in education continue. The ultimate goal of Brown v. Board of Education of ending a separate but equal system thus remains an ideal."'

Most would agree that there is no great advantage to black students simply sitting next to a white classmate, the same as sitting next to a white diner eating a burger wouldn’t make the black woman next to him full.

“But there is a huge advantage to being in a middle-class school where most of the kids are going to go to college and almost everybody is going to graduate and you’ve got a class of other students you can learn from,” Orfield, with the Civil Rights Project, said.

Sherrilyn Iffil, president and director of the Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Defense Fund, recently wrote that “the quality of a school remains largely dependent on its students’ race and socio-economic status.”

“We should also recognize the pragmatic reality that housing integration may be the most foolproof way to ensure the equitable allocation of public services and development dollars for black children and families,” Ifill said. “Schools cannot perform in isolation; they need healthy communities with adequate housing, jobs, safe streets, and political institutions that are inclusive.  In most inner cities, we have failed on every one of those essential requirements.”