May 17th marked the 62nd anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing so-called separate but equal public schools. As usual, the annual anniversary of the Supreme Court decision prompts reflection and an examination of the status of school desegregation in the United States.
The decision effectively superseded the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding racial segregation. In an earlier case, Chief Justice Roger G. Taney wrote in the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that he believed that Blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
Brown was lauded as a long overdue break with that kind of defective thinking and was expected to pave the way for the equal treatment of all of the nation's citizens. Not only were the public schools not immediately desegregated in the wake of Brown, more than six decades later, we seem less committed to school desegregation.
A research paper produced by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA documents a troubling trend.
"Since 1970, the public school enrollment has increased in size and transformed in racial composition. Intensely segregated nonwhite schools with zero to 10% white enrollment have more than tripled in this most recent 25-year period for which we have data, a period deeply influenced by major Supreme Court decisions (spanning from 1991 to 2007) that limited desegregation policy," the paper stated. "At the same time, the extreme isolation of white students in schools with 0 to 10% nonwhite students has declined by half as the share of white students has dropped sharply."
Over the years, the Civil Rights Project has identified the most severely segregated states as New York and Illinois, followed closely by Michigan and New Jersey. Maryland and California have now joined that group. Michigan, partly because of a shrinking public school base, has dropped in the rankings.
"Because of the dramatic changes in southern segregation produced by the enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, none of the 17 states that completely segregated schools by law (e.g., the type of mandatory segregation that was the focus of the Brown decision) have headed this list since 1970 - in spite of the fact that twelve of them have higher shares of black students than the most segregated states today. The ironic historic reality is that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court supported very demanding desegregation standards for the South while the interpretation of Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation limited the impact of Brown in the North and West."
It wasn't until almost two decades after Brown that the Supreme Court issued a school desegregation order involving a district outside those 17 states. That decision, Milliken v. Bradley, covered the city of Detroit, but not most surrounding suburban districts.
The report also noted, "The statistics we report ... show that all racial groups are experiencing a stunning increase in the average share of poor students attending their schools... Over a 20-year period, the proportion of poor students (as defined by federal standards for subsidized or free lunch eligibility) in the school of the typical white student has shot up from 17% to 40%, which is actually higher than the school poverty level was, on average, for black students at the beginning of the same period. Black students at that time were in schools where low-income students made up 37% of their peers. In 2013, that same figure for black students is 68%, identical to the number reported for Latino students."
Authors of the report state that the family income and race of students matters.
"Black and Latino students were in the most impoverished schools two decades earlier but those schools had a clear majority of non-poor classmates. Now the pattern is reversed, so that black and Latino students attend schools with substantial majorities - two-thirds - of poor classmates. This double segregation means serious isolation from racial and class diversity and exposure to the many problems that systematically afflict poor families and communities."
It added, "The Civil Rights Project has issued many reports on these enrollment changes and their impacts on segregation of schools across the country in the last 20 years," it noted. "We have done that because of massive and growing research evidence that (1) segregation creates unequal opportunities and helps perpetuate stratification in the society and (2) diverse schools have significant advantages, not only for learning and attainment but for the creation of better preparation for all groups to live and work successfully in a complex society which will have no racial majority."
The report recommended, "The need for governmental action is urgent, and while the Obama Administration's recent efforts are an encouraging first step, the magnitude and complexity of these issues requires more substantial efforts.
"Given the expanding and deeply rooted nature of segregation highlighted here, the sustained focus of all three branches and levels of government is desperately needed. It will also take efforts beyond schools, such as serious economic strategies to raise the income of families so that they have enough money to pay for their children's school lunches and meet other basic needs."
George E. Curry is President and CEO of George Curry Media, LLC. He is the former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA). He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at twitter.com/currygeorge, George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook, and Periscope. See previous columns at http://www.georgecurry.com/columns.