What Does It Mean To Talk About School Resegregation?

In 2008, Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times columnist, asked: "What happened to the days when public education was not just valued, but was seen as a great equalizer in American society, offering a pathway to upward mobility for even the least fortunate students?"

I was headed to UCLA (a public university!) to undergo graduate studies that fall and wondered then, as I do now: has education—or rather, our access to it—ever been an equal playing field? Has upward mobility—and not just for blacks or Latinos (because this is not just a question of race), but for America's poor as well—ever been as simple as graduating high school or getting a college degree?

This Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case where all nine justices voted unanimously to strike down state laws that established separate public schools for black and white students. It was unconstitutional, the justices believed—"separate educational facilities are inherently unequal"—and thus, with their decision, the American school system was forever changed.

Or was it?

Online chatter surrounding the landmark Civil Rights case hit a tipping point this week, as writers from Slate, The New Yorker, The Nation, NPR, ProPublica, and various other media outlets weighed in.

Jamelle Bouie at Slate argues that, in fact, America's schools are becoming increasingly segregated. Despite the "popular narrative" that cements this ruling as an important milestone in America's long walk to equality, the truth is we still live in isolated worlds. Bouie writes:

School segregation doesn't happen by accident; it flows inexorably from housing segregation. If most black Americans live near other blacks and in a level of neighborhood poverty unseen by the vast majority of white Americans, then in the same way, their children attend schools that are poorer and more segregated than anything experienced by their white peers.

We could fix this. If the only way to solve the problem of school segregation is to tackle housing, then we could commit to a national assault on concentrated poverty, entrenched segregation, and housing discrimination. We could mirror our decades of suburban investment with equal investment to our cities, with better transportation and more ways for families to find affordable housing. And we could do all of this with an eye toward racism—a recognition of our role in creating the conditions for hyper-segregation.

Susan Eaton at The Nation offered a similar viewpoint, writing that a "new secessionist movement" taking shape in the South is intensifying school segregation. She provided a real-life example of the widening gap:

The small middle-class town of Gardendale, Alabama, outside Birmingham, voted on November 12 to secede from the Jefferson County school district and then to raise taxes on themselves to finance the solo venture. Then, in March, Gardendale's 14,000 residents finally got their own Board of Education. Soon after his appointment, one new board member, Clayton "Dick" Lee III, a banker and father of two, said he aspires to build a "best in class" school system "which exceeds the capabilities of the system which we are exiting."

As Gardendale officials try to construct that "best in class" system in their prosperous community, they've relied on advice from their neighbors to the east in Trussville, a wealthy white suburb that broke away from the county schools in 2005. Gardendale, where about 86 percent of residents are white, is the fourth district since the late 1980s to secede from Jefferson County's schools. About half the students in Jefferson County's schools are either African-American or Latino, and 57 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, the standard marker for poverty in public education.

Taking into account the historical import of the ruling, professor and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb deemed Brown's legacy "ambiguous," saying:

And yet, sixty years after Brown, the prevailing idea in these debates remains one that is similar to the argument presented in [Plessy v. Ferguson]: that the major, and perhaps the only, problem with ongoing segregation is the way black people perceive and respond to it.

The United States may not be "post-racial," as many claimed in the wake of Barack Obama's election, but it clearly sees itself as post-racism, at least when it comes to explaining the color-coded disparities that still define the lives of millions of its citizens.

All of which leads us to a recent study released yesterday by UCLA's The Civil Rights Project that highlights a growing racial divide in classrooms across America. Key findings from the research include:

  • Segregation for blacks is the highest in the Northeast, where district fragmentation is growing rapidly.
  • Latinos are now significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.
  • Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students.
  • California is the state in which Latino students are most segregated.

What Does It Mean To Talk About School Resegregation?

Erica Frankenberg, Penn State University professor and co-author of the report, arrives at an uncertain, if not altogether bleak, conclusion:

Desegregation is not a panacea, and it is simply not feasible in some situations… It is good to celebrate Brown by revisiting historic sites and remembering the many struggles that led to the decision and the changes in the South. It was a major accomplishment of which we should rightfully be proud. But a real celebration should also involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools. It is time to stop celebrating a version of history that ignores our last quarter century of retreat and to begin make new history by finding ways to apply the vision of Brown in a transformed, multiracial society in another century.

Whether you agree with Frankenberg or Bouie or Eaton is beside the point. What is important, I think, is to understand that when we talk about access to education what we're really talking about is an array of issues: housing discrimination, an attack on America's poor, the availability to quality resources in under-served areas, and prejudice based along racial lines. But even then—at the point we acknowledge that the conversation of education and segregation and how we should fix it is one deeply rooted to America's ugly past— what happens next? How do we turn this rhetoric into action? Or is it just that, rhetoric?

Tomorrow we will mark the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education as "momentous" and a "turning point in America's history," but, as with all topics we engage online these days, the conversation will eventually shift to something else that will take hold of our collective attention—a video of Miley Cyrus fighting Taylor Swift, perhaps?—and we will wonder why nothing is being done, why our schools are worsening still, why we didn't take a stand sooner. Because, after all, isn't that the way we live now?

[Image via AP]