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All but Overruled: The End of Brown vs. Board of Education and a Promise Unfulfilled

Part 1 of 2

Imagine it is June 2020. The Supreme Court is issuing its major rulings for the term, and this year is one of the most consequential of all. For the first time in decades, the Justices are ruling on a school segregation case. The chamber is packed, and protesters fill the plaza outside. Television news reporters stake out their position in front of the building. Editors back in the newsrooms are waiting in their offices.

Interested citizens watch CNN and other news outlets, or are checking their computers and devices. Down in Alabama, veterans of the civil rights movement, now in their 80s, anticipate the outcome, as do local residents in mostly white towns nearby. Residents of the north also await the Court’s ruling. For a time, all government business stops.

Making one of the most significant statements over the last several decades, Chief Justice John Roberts settles in his chair. He is surrounded by his colleagues, who sit mostly stone-faced. The Chief Justice reads in his powerful voice. As he does so, the ruling becomes clear: A majority of five Justices has, over vigorous dissent, overturned perhaps the most famous ruling of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education.

This news rockets outside of the hall and down the marble columns and steps to the street. All the major news outlets pick up the story as soon as it is announced, and phones buzz with alerts. Reaction is swift. Progressives and Democrats are up in arms. Several Republicans also make statements in opposition to the ruling. One Senator emotionally states, “This is a sad day for the country to wake up and find out that separate but equal is once again the law of the land.”

Social studies teachers, who have made Brown a bedrock of their curriculum are baffled; how will they contextualize this new ruling? Protesters in major cities plan to take action in the streets, while some people in predominantly white areas rejoice, at least in private. Yet one group sits impassively—the grizzled civil rights veterans. Their reaction is calm, even muted. They are not ready to protest, as they have fought this fight, and they know something that may not have dawned on their fellow citizens:

This new decision hardly makes any difference at all.

For the reality is, that for all intents and purposes, Brown v. Board of Education has been effectively overturned. This groundbreaking decision hardly carries the force of law at this point in our history, and this has happened in plain view of American citizens, government, media, and interest groups. The result is that school segregation exists throughout most of American society, and it is hard to imagine what we can do to fix the situation.

Resegregation in the South

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black students who faced vehement protest in desegregating Central High School in Little Rock, AR. As Ebony Magazine points out, the situation today has hardly changed since 1957, as few White and Black students share the same classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones cover story in The New York Times Magazine from September 10, “The Resegretation of Jefferson County,” illuminates this situation in depth, describing how the city of Gardendale, Alabama, was seeking secession, in other words, to split off from the majority-Black Jefferson County school district. While Jefferson County as a whole is racially mixed, other white-majority towns had already had success with their secession strategies, and Gardendale wanted to be next. Hannah-Jones writes, “Gardendale’s secession would not eliminate black students from their schools, but by ensuring only students who lived in Gardendale could attend in the new district, it would significantly decrease their numbers.”

Because Jefferson County was still under court order dating from the 1954 Brown decision, Gardendale needed permission from a federal court in order to secede. Two of the afore-mentioned civil rights veterans took center stage in this battle— Rickey Reeves, a military veteran and the grandfather of a student who lives in North Smithfield, currently part of the Gardendale district, added his family to the lawsuit, and testified against secession. U.W. Clemon, who grew up in segregated schools and became one of Alabama’s most prominent attorneys and judges, argued to prevent Gardendale from splitting off. As Clemon laid out the case, he recalled his own experience growing up with segregation.

This past April, in a split-the-difference verdict, the federal judge stated that Gardendale’s decision was clearly motivated by race. However, the judge agreed to allow the city to take control of two elementary schools, for various legal and practical reasons that are well explained in the article. In effect, secession was allowed to go forward.

Citing this event in a broader historical context, Hannah-Jones recalls how school districts in the South, under judicial order following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, managed to integrate their schools, a successful outcome resulting from Brown and subsequent court orders. That success created a backlash, however, as districts, once they have been removed from such orders, have been rapidly re-segregating, Gardendale being one of the more recent examples. Now, as Hannah-Jones poignantly notes, while U.W. Clemon’s children did not live through segregation, “too many of the grandchildren of Brown have known nothing but.”

White Supremacists Aren't the Problem

In the aftermath of events during the recent summer of 2017, including the violence in Charlottesville, Va., the actions and beliefs of white supremacists and Nazis were brought to the public consciousness. While I don’t mean to minimize the evil of these extreme right-wing groups, their blatant odiousness may make them less of a threat than those who advance racism through hidden or indirect means. As Martin Luther King stated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

Throughout our history, racism has been adept at taking on less hostile guises. Slavery morphed into Jim Crow, which continued the violent abuse of the Black population, while maintaining strict separation of races. When this southern caste system was finally purged at the end of the civil rights movement, control of Black bodies continued through the system of mass incarceration. Even today, this continues, with one-third of Black males likely to spend time in prison during some point of their lives. (AJC)

Resistance to school desegregation also proceeded in the absence of direct racist language, as part of what Hannah-Jones calls “race-neutral rebranding.” White communities have justified their secession policies by saying they wanted “local control.” For example, as Hannah-Jones describes, a parent group calling itself Focus (Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools) Gardendale was organized to split off the Gardendale schools from the larger Jefferson County district. One of Focus’ founders stated that the benefits of splitting off to form the city’s own school system was to have “local control and locally controlled funds.”

Meanwhile, as districts have fought back and reintroduced segregation, both the executive and judicial branches of the federal government backed away from supporting desegregation efforts. Presidents Nixon and Reagan selected seven Justices between them, most of whom were more conservative than their predecessors. As a result, the Supreme Court issued rulings against further school desegregation—not overruling Brown, but certainly not expanding it either. Under Reagan, the Justice Department stopped seeking court orders to desegregate schools and often sided with school districts fighting desegregation. This gave communities leeway to carve out majority White districts, again citing the principle of local control.

How We Choose Schools in the North

Here in the North, we never suffered the violence of Jim Crow. We didn’t have a series of court orders in the wake of Brown. At the same time, we have our own version of school segregation. Do a google search for “segregated schools in New York City” to find a number of articles on the topic. Try the same for Los Angeles or Chicago. Unlike a city such as Detroit, which is 83% Black, New York, LA, and Chicago are relatively mixed. But not in our schools.

Look at the choices we make as families, when we have the means. My sons did go to an elementary school that was relatively diverse, but still in a solidly middle-class neighborhood. In searching for high schools, we attended the citywide fairs and looked at all the schools’ promotional materials, but when it came down to it, all the majority-minority schools were off our radar. We had our sons look at a confined list of schools that, while not all mostly white, have fewer students of color than most others in the city. Thus, in New York City, we have pockets of selective, mostly White schools and a host of mostly Black and Hispanic ones.

Majority White public and private schools exist in surrounding suburbs of Westchester, Nassau, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Similar patterns exist in other White cities; as parents seek out the best education for our children, we end up enrolling them in schools that have children who mostly look like they do. We do this for the benefit of our children, and few of us are willing to take our chances and do anything outside this pattern. Paraphrasing a former boss of mine, who wants to experiment with their own kids?

In short, this means we have school systems across the country that are only going to be more segregated by race as time goes on. How much does this really matter? I will get to that in part 2, in a few days. Stay tuned…

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