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

Part 2 of 2

Color Blindness

My wife Valerie, who was born and raised in France, has known a particular friend for several years. At one point, well into their relationship, Valerie said to me, “Did you know she was Black?” I told her, of course, it was evident to me. But she hadn’t seen it; race wasn’t something meaningful to her in categorizing people.

Societies evolve in their own particular fashion, and there is no question that France has its own issues with bias and inequality. Still, the difference in our perceptions is telling. As an American, I see racial distinction clearly, because it has been a defining feature of our country since Blacks were first forcibly brought here. Race is a choice we make. We could have chosen, and can still choose, to be color blind, to judge people on their “content of their character” rather than what they look like. Dissertations can be written about why this is, but the fact that such distinction exists and has been made to be so relevant means that it is imposed and enforced at places that have the most meaning to us—where we educate our children.

So White community leaders in the South can take a look around and make a deliberate distinction between White and Black and intentionally create ways to separate children in their schools. White parents in New York City and other urban areas can look at high schools for their children and narrow their choices to those that provide what appears to be the best settings for them. Other White parents in urban areas can set out for the suburbs, judging that high property taxes and strong community support make for well-funded and successful schools. Others choose private schools, whose astronomical price tags speak for themselves. When we make these choices, we may not be doing so because of race, but we are not unaware of the demographics of these schools.

And Black and Latino parents stay in their communities for many reasons, because that is what they can afford or because, well—these are their homes. Their children have grown up there and they want to live there. I walk through these communities every day in the Bronx on my way to and from work. Yes, the median income is less than that where I live; yes, the housing stock has been somewhat in decline over the decades. Still, there is an atmosphere of pride and place as strong as that I see in any suburb. Children race down the sidewalks in scooters and buy pizza and pastelitos from corner stores. But I am the only White face. And the schools are over 90-95% Black and Hispanic.

As long as parents have the means, freedom, and incentives to make decisions on their children’s education, and as long as they continue to do so in ways that lead to inequitable schooling, then what can be done about it? On this front, the free market alone has failed, and therefore, any remedy would require government intervention. However, having the government enforce some kind of de-segregation system has run into problems before, if not legally then certainly politically. Boston parents famously fought against busing in the 1970s, and cities such as Seattle and Charlotte have experienced re-segregation patterns of their own.

We are therefore stuck. Parents make decisions largely or partially based on race that lead to separate but equal (though probably not equal) schools. Government at all levels has no political mandate or will to step in and restrain or rectify this behavior, and the federal government is certainly taking less of an interest in this issue under the current administration.

Why Does this Matter

So what? If we’re talking about schools, isn’t it more important how students are taught and what content they are learning than whom they are sitting with? If we can create and maintain excellent schools in minority communities, why should we worry about patterns of segregation?

Actually, research and experience have shown that this matters to a very great extent. The Brown opinion noted, after all, that “segregation with the sanction of law . . . has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system." More tangibly, as Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, recently pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, “schools with concentrated poverty and racial segregation are more likely to have less-experienced teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities and fewer classroom resources.”

On a larger scale, I wonder what this portends for the long-term future of our country. There are many factors that are dividing us right now--including the hyper-partisan nature of our government and cultural and religious differences--but as the non-White population grows (including immigrants and their families, as well as Americans of African descent), and as non-White citizens see their children increasingly shut out of certain opportunities and choices, how will they react? Will people continue to accept this situation?

The Future

Imagine it is June 2050. The Supreme Court has not officially overturned Brown v. Board of Education, but the increasing trend of separate schooling has continued. Yes, there are some schools with the advantages of a diverse population, but for the most part the pattern is clear. Over 80% of White students go to schools that are 80% White, and many Black and Hispanic students never see a White student in their schools.

Veterans of the civil rights movement have long since passed away, and their grandchildren do not have the memory of non-violent resistance from almost a century ago now. With their grandchildren growing up in legally separate schools, some are starting to grumble, others to agitate. New means of social communication and networking are spreading these feelings faster than we can now imagine.

Perhaps there is an economic downturn, and many schools experience severe cuts in funding, particularly in urban areas. Suburban districts are still able to cover their needs through property taxes, and urban schools with middle class populations do so through persistent fundraising. White schools in poorer areas feel the brunt of this for sure, but the real motivation for change comes from Black and Hispanic parents. A rising movement in many such communities asks why this situation needs to persist. They plead with their government, but as before, there is no institutional will to change. Some families cross district lines to try and enroll their children in different schools, but they are rebuffed. More of them try to do so. Demonstrations grow. Violence ensues. This is not unlike the protests of the 1950s and 1960s but with a key difference; this isn’t confined to the South, and is taking place across states and districts.

This is one scenario, and other visions are certainly plausible. But the upshot is that, if a growing majority of families feels largely excluded from a system, it is not a stretch to assume that such deliberate racial segregation will lead to some sort of conflict.

To Conclude

This being a blog post, I can write about such deep and important subjects only in a relatively shallow fashion. Books and studies have been written on many of the underlying issues that underlie school segregation—housing patterns, school choice, educational finance, and urban policy and planning.

My disappointment with the current situation is genuine; so is my fear. Now that the promise and hope of Brown v. Board of Education has eroded, will we have the courage as a society to make the fair choice, the right choice, the smart choice?Experience and evidence tells me that the dream of fully integrated and equitable schooling is as far from reality as it ever was. Is there any hope to be found, any next step to be taken?

My one small source of inspiration is that my thoughts are not mine alone. There have been numerous articles written lately about our segregated schools and the impacts this situation may have on our society. Perhaps with more awareness, new leaders will emerge to address this issue directly. I look forward to having a bold leader in our future willing and able to take a stand on this principle.

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