ProPublica has published Segregation Now, an in-depth history of school integration and re-segregation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The experience of Tuscaloosa is a microcosm of the history of the South’s experiment with school integration and the slippage from that goal when, in the 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court released school districts from their court orders and accelerated its move away from support for voluntary school integration and affirmative action.
It is clear in Tuscaloosa’s story—and evident all across America this week, as on Saturday, May 17th, we mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education—that once courts release communities in the South from their court orders, re-segregation becomes inevitable. Deeply segregated northern cities and their rings of suburbs follow a similar path. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, the most segregated schools in the nation for black and Latino students are in New York.
In Tuscaloosa, according to ProPublica, since 2000, decisions have been made and deals cut to build new schools in white neighborhoods to attract families back from private schools, but the promises for greater investment in the schools of the black neighborhoods have been broken and abandoned. “The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central, board member Bryan Handler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while Northridge (high school in the white neighborhood) offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central (built in the black neighborhood) went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.”
In many places in the South and the North, as families—black, white, and Hispanic—have moved up economically, they have chosen to insulate themselves in private schools and the suburbs and to leave behind the children whose families are unable to move. The schools being punished by today’s school “reform”—including school closures and privatization now being incentivized by the U.S. Department of Education and cast into state law—are too often the schools of the children who have been left behind, schools now hyper-segregated by race and poverty. Today’s school reform policy—that ranks schools and teachers by the test scores of the students and punishes the bottom 5 percent in places like Chicago and Detroit and Newark, and Philadelphia—only further stigmatizes schools like Tuscaloosa’s Central High School as “failing” and deserving of punishment.
Our philosophy these days seems much closer to “separate but equal” than the vision represented by the Brown decision, but as always, separate seems to mean unequal. At a public education town hall in December of 2011, the Rev. Jesse Jackson encapsulated our dilemma in this pithy statement about our propensity to organize our educational philosophy to support those who can figure out how to escape the places isolated by race and poverty: “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run. Instead, ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
What is startling on this 60th anniversary of Brown is not only the degree to which our society harbors structural and institutional racism in the institutions where we form our children, but also the tragic lack of leadership to help us build the political will to support the schools that serve our poorest children. In the short run, even if we cannot figure out how to overcome the fear and animosity that separate us, our top educational priority must be investing in opportunity in the schools that serve our poorest communities.