60 Years after Brown v. Board: School “Reform” Ignores Injustices of Urban America

On May 17, we’ll mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, has prepared a short brief to summarize where we were in 1954, how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go in the area of racial justice in our public schools.  It is a discouraging picture for a lot of reasons.

But first, a bit of the history Rothstein presents. “In fact, black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been collected.  Of course, Brown did accomplish a great deal….   Although today, typical black students in Southern states attend schools where only 29 percent of their fellow students are white….  in 1954 the percentage was zero… Black student achievement, nationwide, and in every state, has improved at a spectacular rate since Brown… The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows, for example, that black fourth-graders now have average math scores that are better than average white math scores only a generation ago. Yet because average white achievement has also improved, the gap between black and white achievement remains…”

But, as Rothstein explains, Brown was not merely “a principled objection to the idea of ‘separate but equal.'”  It was also an objection to “Southern states’ unrestrained contempt for the ‘equal part of the formula’.”  In Clarendon County, South Carolina, spending for white schools was four times the spending in black schools. The value of school facilities for whites was nine times higher than the schools provided for blacks;  white schools had lavatories while black schools had outhouses.  The student-teacher ratio was 28-1 for whites and 47-1 for blacks. Black students walked long distances to school and they and their teachers cleaned the buildings themselves, while white schools had custodians.  Significant disparities also separated the curriculum, which too often emphasized “manual skills” in home economics and agriculture at black schools.

To understand racial injustice at school sixty years after Brown, however, one must look more broadly at the history of economic and racial injustice in urban America, for much of racial injustice in education has now become an urban phenomenon.  Reading Rothstein’s article, or sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s extraordinary 2013 book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality,  or Thomas Sugrue’s classic 1996 history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, one is quickly overwhelmed by the realization that the history of public school inequality since the Brown decision is not merely the story of public schools.  These writers describe the complex and troubling social ecology of the twenty-first century American urban landscape, with Sugrue the historian examining the seeds of American industrial decline back into the 1940s.

Sharkey explains that, “inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.” (p. 14)

Sharkey and Sugrue describe public policies since World War II—policies derived from political tradeoffs at the local, state, and federal level along with industrial decline and relocation—that  have perpetuated and enhanced inequality and segregation.  The condition of urban public schools across America on this 6oth anniversary of Brown is only one part of a much larger and little discussed urban crisis.  Sharkey notes: “Prior to the civil rights era, racial inequality had been tacitly or explicitly supported by law.  In the post civil right period racial inequality has been maintained by a combination of informal actions of individuals, organized collective action,and political efforts and public policies designed to maintain and reinforce racial and class inequality in urban neighborhoods,”  that have included “massive subsidization of white outmigration from central cities, combined with a concerted effort to consolidate black urban populations with centralized public housing.” (pp. 58-59) This began with redlining by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s which “then extended to subsequent home mortgage programs… run through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA).”  To promote neighborhood stability, according to Sharkey, “The official FHA guidelines discouraged loans to racial minorities and prohibited loans that would lead to racially or economically integrated neighborhoods.” (p. 60)  Other policies included local zoning laws and minimum lot sizes in the suburbs.  Federally subsidized “urban renewal” beginning in 1950 cleared massive tracts of slum housing but merely displaced poor communities as the land was often left empty or used for other purposes but not redeveloped for housing. Highway building policies made suburbia possible, and as Rothstein details in his piece, enforcement of fair housing laws has been lax.

Through the lens of Detroit’s history, Sugrue traces the other primary contributor to today’s crisis: the last half-century’s de-industrialization of the American city. While employment in the auto industry had opened for African Americans during WWII, by 1967, “somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of young blacks (between ages eighteen and twenty-four) were out of work.  The combination of persistent discrimination in hiring, technological change, decentralized manufacturing, and urban economic decline had dramatic effects on the employment prospects of blacks in metropolitan Detroit.  What was even more striking was the steady increase of adults who were wholly unattached to the urban labor market.  Nearly one in five of all Detroit adults did not work at all or worked in the informal economy in 1950.  The number grew steadily in the 1960s… By 1980, nearly half of the adult male population had only tenuous connections to the city’s formal labor market.” (pp. 261-262)

In today’s ghettos, Sharkey describes the paired phenomena of high unemployment and over-policing: “These communities are … the product of the punitive response to widespread economic dislocation, in which increasingly harsh punishment has led to levels of imprisonment that are unmatched in the world and that are targeted toward the by-products of deindustrialization: young, less educated minority men.” (p. 79)

In the conclusion of his profound history of Detroit, Sugrue adds one more serious concern: about a sort of policy disdain that has come to describe America’s response to its urban crisis: “The most enduring legacy of the postwar racial struggles in Detroit has been the growing marginalization of the city in local, state, and national politics.  Elected officials in Lansing and Washington, beholden to a vocal, well-organized, and defensive white suburban constituency, have reduced funding for urban education, antipoverty, and development programs.  At the same time, Detroit—like its counterparts around the country—grapples with a declining tax base and increasingly expensive social, economic, and infrastructural problems.” (p. 268)

In the two decades since Sugrue published this book that portended the collapse of Detroit today into bankruptcy and its school district into state-controlled emergency management, we see government policies across the country at federal and state levels that fail to name, let alone address the real problems in urban America.  In public school policy, legislatures dominated by representatives of the suburbs pass laws to reduce state taxes and urban investment.  Federal policy thrusts Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark and a host of other public school districts into “portfolio school reform” that mandates public school closure or privatization of so-called “failing” schools.  Today we blame and scapegoat the teachers in urban schools when they are unable to deliver high test scores by children.  And when they are unable to deliver us from our urban crisis.

I wonder when we’ll admit that the current wave of school “reform”—like urban renewal in the 1950s—is only making things worse? Today’s policies are deepening injustice for the children hyper-segregated by race and poverty in a very unequal America sixty years after  Brown v. Board of Education.

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