64 Years After Brown v. Board, Progressive Leaders Must Act on Segregation

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, April 2018.

May 17, 2018, marks the 64th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional. Following this decision, the United States took some slow steps toward civil rights and racial justice largely through judicial decisions. But, lawmakers across the country never truly embraced the ideals the Brown decision embodies. The executive branch and lawmakers have proven unwilling to firmly enforce the court’s ruling; conservative justices have limited the court’s role in challenging racial inequality in schools; and the federal government inconsistently enforces open desegregation orders.

Now, the Trump administration seeks to further undo what little progress this country has made toward inclusion and equality by nominating federal judges who are outwardly hostile to racial integration and civil rights protections. Two examples are Wendy Vitter and Andrew Oldham, who both refused to voice their support for the Brown ruling last month. The irony of their nomination to fairly administer justice is only magnified by their potential confirmation on the anniversary of Brown. Vitter and Oldham’s nominations provide further evidence that this administration is committed to rolling back gains made during the modern civil rights movement and maintaining racial inequality.

Integration works

History shows integration is the best way to close the opportunity gap in public schools. During the 1960s and 1970s—when communities took steps to desegregate schools and the federal government invested in public schools through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Emergency School Aid Act—there was a noticeable reduction in educational inequality. The black-white test score gap on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test narrowed by more than half between 1971 and 1988. For a brief period in the 1970s, black and Latino students attended college at the same rates as their white peers. As a local example, one study focused on Charlotte-Mecklenburg shows both black and white students who attended desegregated elementary schools performed better on standardized tests than peers who attended segregated schools. Black Baby Boomers who attended desegregated schools for at least five years were more likely to graduate high school and earned 30 percent higher salaries than black Baby Boomers who attended segregated schools. The former were also much less likely to experience poverty.

Separate schools have no place in a democracy

Beyond its positive effects on educational outcomes for black students, Brown also clarified the important role educational opportunity plays in promoting civic equality and inclusion. Citing compulsory attendance laws and the large sums of money states spent on public schools, the justices argued that public education was an important government function because of its role in instilling each child with a sense of dignity and the potential for self-determination. The decision affirmed that separate schools can never be equal—not only because of the unequal quality of education provided to black students in segregated schools but also because of the broader purpose of preparing young people to be full citizens of this country. The justices wrote that education “is the very foundation of good citizenship” and argued that “to separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Twenty years later, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall re-emphasized this sentiment, warning, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”

Racial integration has been under siege

In recent decades, lawmakers have rolled back efforts to integrate schools. In the 1970s, conservative judges limited the ability to desegregate schools at various levels of government. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration slashed federal investments in education. As a result, the little progress made towards desegregation and racial equality in education has been undone.  The number of intensely segregated nonwhite schools (with 0 percent to 10 percent white enrollment) have tripled in the last 27 years. Furthermore, racial segregated is now highly correlated with economic segregation, leaving black and Latino students “double segregated.” A recent Center for American Progress analysis estimates that roughly 10 million students attend “isolated and segregated” schools, where three-fourths of students are poor and educational outcomes are substandard.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to move public schools away from their aspirational purpose. Understandably, policymakers and elected officials still seem jarred from the negative, often violent way white communities across the country reacted to busing. In 2007, the Supreme Court halted the voluntarily desegregation of schools. The Obama administration subsequently created an integration program schools and districts could opt into. The Strong Together initiative took several steps to prioritize diversity, including the Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities program, which supported school districts in creating and implanting plans to increase socio-economic diversity. But Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ended the program in her first year on the job. And just months after DeVos was confirmed, the House Rules Committee refused to remove an obscure spending bill provision banning the use of federal funds for transportation to reduce school segregation. Most recently, the Trump administration nominated Vitter and Oldham, who refused to say whether they supported the unanimous decision in Brown, for a federal judgeship.

This country cannot continue its acceptance of separate, unequal schools. School segregation is featured on late-night shows, and the work of investigative reporter and recent MacArthur award recipient Nikole-Hannah Jones receives widespread attention. Despite the reticence of most school leaders, outlets such as This American Life and The New York Times are giving national coverage to disputes over school-zone boundaries. Now, small groups of parents and concerned citizens have organized to disrupt negative perceptions of public schools, enroll their children in their neighborhood school, and partner respectfully with staff and current families to invest in making that school a learning environment worthy of all children. While more than half (55 percent) of all Americans think it is important that students of different races or ethnicities attend school together, many oppose policies that would limit parental choice. As is usually the case with progress toward inclusion and equality, it is a small number of high-minded citizens who are taking bold steps to preserve public education. Cultivating ground-level demand for integration is necessary. But public opinion cannot drive justice, and policymakers, elected officials, and education leaders have a responsibility to end their silence and take action regardless.

Conclusion

The lack of progress implementing Brown has been clear for decades, but now leaders at all levels of government seek to undermine the very ideals the case embodies. The Trump administration and its allies actively oppose the ambitions of not only the country’s public education system but also the promise of full equality and inclusion in a democratic society.

Integration—along with teacher diversity, fair resource allocation, and relevant curricula—represent important steps toward educational equity. It’s time for elected officials and policymakers to resume leading. Lawmakers can start by refusing to confirm judicial nominees, such as Vitter and Oldham, who are averse to major civil rights victories.

Abel McDaniels is the research associate for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress. The author worked with Progress 2050 to develop this column.