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After Brown v. Board of Education

Are we a nation that embraces diversity?

May 25, 2012

Last week marked the 58th anniversary of Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, arguably the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century. With the declaration that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," the Court determined that laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Not often noted, this case only applied to black students -- it would take later court cases, such as Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (handbook/ 1970), to extend the Brown decision to other oppressed people).

The case was an important milestone in American history, which some credit with leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Civil Rights Movement in general. And despite some resistance to the integration of schools required by the ruling ("white flight" has been heavily documented), interracial contact in schools has greatly increased since Brown.

However, that contact has somewhat decreased in recent years -- our public schools are re-segregating. If you are interested in academic evidence on this phenomenon, in 2004 (the 50th anniversary of the Court's decision), Duke Professor Charles T. Clotfelter wrote After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, which examined the issue comprehensively. (Note that the book was written before a 2007 Supreme Court decision decision struck down voluntary desegregation strategies in Louisville and Seattle, which some argue has hastened the re-segregation of public schools).

Students' Thoughts on Racial Isolation

The re-segregation of our nation's schools was also acknowledged in the recent New York Times article Why Don't We Have Any White Kids?, which examines race at Explore Charter School in Brooklyn, where 92.7 percent of students are black, 5.7 percent are Hispanic, and a few are mixed race. One of the most interesting parts of the article to me: Students' thoughts on the lack of racial diversity in their school. To quote:

"It doesn't really prepare us for the real world," said Tori Williams, an eighth grader. "You see one race, and you're going to be accustomed to one race."

Shakeare Cobham, in sixth grade, offered a different view: "It's more comfortable to be with people of your own race than to be with a lot of different races."

Tori came back: "I disagree. It doesn't prepare us."

Yata Pierre, in eighth grade, said, "It doesn't really matter as long as your teachers are good teachers."

Trevon Roberts-Walker, a sixth grader, responded, "When we are in high school and college, it's not going to be all one race."

Kenny Wright, in eighth grade, piped in, "You could have more discussion instead of all the same thoughts."

Ashira Mayers, in seventh grade, said: "We'd like to hear from other races. How do they feel? What's happening with them?" "...We will sometimes talk about why don't we have any white kids? We wonder what their schools are like. We see them on TV, with the soccer fields and the biology labs and all that cool stuff. Sometimes I feel I have to work harder because I don't have all that they have. A lot of us think that way."

The article also made clear that staff and parents struggle with the issue of racial isolation. While for some, satisfaction with the school's academic performance is enough, others would prefer an integrated environment. A common concern of all three groups of stakeholders: Whether students will leave an essentially single-race school prepared to function in a diverse world, not just in terms of educational accomplishment, but in terms of racial tolerance.

School Integration as an Education Reform Strategy

Shortly after that article ran, David Kirp wrote a New York Times op-ed lamenting the decline of school integration, believing that "integration is as successful an educational strategy as we've hit upon." He cited evidence that African-American students who attended integrated schools did better academically, were more likely to graduate from high school, were more likely to both attend and graduate from college, and earned more and were healthier as adults than those who attended segregated schools. As he put it:

"[T]he advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn't do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on African-American students' education after the schools became integrated. ...What's more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That's what shifted the arc of their lives."

The Future of School Integration

Explicit racial desegregation may be a thing of the past. Brown ensured that school segregation is not codified into law. The segregation that exists today is considered de facto (existing because of voluntary associations and neighborhood choices), rather than de jure (existing in law). In part because segregation is voluntary (I use that term loosely, given valid arguments about how voluntary it is for various ethnicities and social classes), some districts are reluctant to address it. And the 2007 Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary desegregation strategies in Seattle and Louisville mentioned above has left districts extremely cautious about using race in any way to assign students to schools.

At the time of the 2007 ruling, National Association of Elementary School Principals Executive Director Gail Connelly and (now former) National Association of Secondary School Principals Executive Director Gerald Tirozzi expressed dismay, suggesting we should be doing more to diversify schools, not less. They believe isolation is detrimental to our society and that "our interaction with one another is one of the most effective ways to gain a better understanding of our similarities and our differences and to see that, in the grand scheme of things, we all want the same things out of life."

A possible way forward: Socioeconomic integration. Some, such as Richard Kahlenberg from the Century Foundation, find such integration preferable to racial integration, suggesting that black students do not necessarily perform better when sitting next to white students, but that low-income students of all races perform at higher levels when they're given access to a middle-class environment, including peers who are academically engaged, engaged parents and highly qualified teachers with high expectations.

Hopefully this and other strategies will ensure that America's schools continue to offer our youth the chance to interact with and learn from those who are not like themselves. As Connelly and Tirozzi wrote in 2007 (and it still rings true today), "We've been making steady progress toward becoming a nation that truly embraces diversity. But if we continue to fail to instill this value in the youngest among us, history is doomed to repeat itself. That is a chance that none of us should be willing to take."

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