Last week marked the 62nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end school segregation. Coincidentally last week, a small school district in the Delta town of Cleveland, Mississippi that has held out for half a century to preserve separate schools for black and white students was ordered by a federal court to merge its segregated middle and high schools. The court order ends what Jimmie Gates of the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger calls “a five-decade legal battle to desegregate schools in the 12,000-population city in north Mississippi.” Ironically the court order to desegregate this small, Mississippi school district runs counter to what’s happening as the rest of the nation resegregates.
To recognize the anniversary of the Brown decision, researchers who have been tracking school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation for years at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project—Gary Orfield, Jongyeon Ee, Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley—have published a research brief that tracks how the courts and and policy makers have turned away from efforts to desegregate the nation’s public schools racially, ethnically, and economically.
According to the Civil Rights Project’s researchers, the most racially segregated states today are New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and New Jersey. They add: “The relative decline in the ranking of Michigan, which was often up with Illinois and New York as most segregated, probably relates to the drastic shrinkage of the Detroit Public Schools and suburbanization of black families in that metropolitan area.”
Today, the nation’s most populous and urban northern states post the highest rates of black-white school segregation, while the Brown decision was quite successful in integrating the schools across the South. Why is that? “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…. 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. This was a massive oversight since segregation in those regions resulted from residential segregation, itself a result of a myriad of governmental policies and private decisions like segregative school and teacher assignments by school boards, discriminatory housing policies and other local and state policies.”
The report examines demographic trends over the past quarter century and examines data from 1990 to 2013, when the number of public school students grew across the United States from 41.2 million to 49.9 million. “Over a similar time period, the racial composition of the schools changed dramatically, falling from 69% white to 50% white. The share of Latino students during this time soared from 11% to 25%, while the black share of the enrollment remained around 15%. Asian students climbed from 3% to 5% of the enrollment.”
“The year 1988 was the high point of desegregation for black students in terms of the share of students in majority white schools. By 1991, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court authorized the termination of desegregation plans, beginning a period of continuously increasing segregation for black and Latino students that continues through our latest year of data.” “(D)uring the quarter century since the high point in 1988, the share of intensely segregated nonwhite schools (which we defined as those schools with only 0-10% white students) more than tripled, rising from 5.7% to 18.6% of all public schools.”
Latino students have been increasingly isolated during the same period: “California, New York, and Texas have the nation’s highest segregation for Latino students….” with California’s Latino students more segregated than either Latinos or African Americans in any state. “Other studies by our Project show that the epicenter of this segregation is in the greater Los Angeles area. There were few efforts to desegregate Latino students through court orders or Office for Civil Rights enforcement actions after their rights to desegregation remedies were belatedly recognized by the Supreme Court nearly two decades after Brown in the 1973 Keyes decision… What is surprising is the spread of very high segregation of Latinos in some states with a far lower proportion of Latinos in the statewide total enrollment, including in Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.”
What has made racial and ethnic segregation more complicated is the simultaneous growth of family poverty and the overlay of racial and economic segregation: “The massive increase in poverty and near-poverty that makes students eligible for free and reduced priced lunches reflects the lack of mobility and declining real incomes experienced by many millions of U.S. families in the last generation. Over a 20-year period, the proportion of poor students… 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… This double segregation means serious isolation from racial and class diversity and exposure to the many problems that systematically afflict poor families and communities.”
The researchers at the Civil Rights Project blame public policy at the federal level and across the states for ignoring the problems of racial and economic isolation and instead pursuing a different strategy for school reform that most people now agree has been a failure: “The challenge of segregation grows each year and takes on more urgency as nonwhite students make up half of all students, yet it has been a long time since it was approached with vision to further integration and to provide the needed resources to do so. Instead, we have spent decades trying another approach: policies that have focused on attempting to equalize schools and opportunity through accountability and high-stakes testing policies, not to mention the federal subsidization of entirely new systems of school choice, like charter schools, without any civil rights provisions. These policies have not succeeded in reducing racial segregation or inequality.”