How We’re Still Failing, 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

The barriers to fulfilling its vision, from family breakdown to persistent residential and educational segregation, remain formidable.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 21: A black student, Nathaniel Steward, 17, recites his lesson surrounded by white fellows and others black students, 21 May 1954 at the Saint-Dominique school, in Washington, where for the first time in USA the Brown v Board of Education decision which outlaws segregation in state schools is applied.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
April 24, 2014, 3:21 p.m.

Two mile­stones in the his­tory of Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion are con­ver­ging this spring. The second is re­shap­ing the leg­acy of the first.

The first land­mark mo­ment will ar­rive May 17, with the 60th an­niversary of the Su­preme Court’s Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion de­cision strik­ing down “sep­ar­ate but equal” se­greg­a­tion in pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The second wa­ter­shed will fol­low in June, with the com­ple­tion of what is likely to be the last school year ever in which a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s K-12 pub­lic-school stu­dents are white.

That demo­graph­ic trans­form­a­tion is both re­in­vig­or­at­ing and re­fram­ing Brown‘s fun­da­ment­al goal of en­sur­ing edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­ity for all Amer­ic­ans. The un­an­im­ous 1954 Brown de­cision was a genu­ine hinge in Amer­ic­an his­tory. Al­though its man­date to dis­mantle se­greg­ated pub­lic schools ini­tially faced “massive res­ist­ance” across the South, the rul­ing provided ir­res­ist­ible mor­al au­thor­ity to the drive for leg­al equal­ity that cul­min­ated in the pas­sage of the Civil Rights and Vot­ing Rights acts a dec­ade later.

Com­ing nearly 60 years after the Su­preme Court had up­held se­greg­a­tion in the 1896 Plessy v. Fer­guson de­cision, Chief Justice Earl War­ren’s ringing opin­ion in Brown was the be­lated mid­course cor­rec­tion that began Amer­ica’s trans­form­a­tion in­to a truly mul­tiracial world na­tion.

But a dis­tinct note of dis­en­chant­ment is sur­fa­cing as schol­ars and ad­voc­ates as­sess Brown‘s leg­acy. “Brown was un­suc­cess­ful in its pur­por­ted mis­sion — to undo the school se­greg­a­tion that per­sists as a cent­ral fea­ture of Amer­ic­an pub­lic edu­ca­tion today,” Richard Roth­stein, a vet­er­an lib­er­al edu­ca­tion­al ana­lyst, de­clared in a pa­per this month.

That seems ex­cess­ively pess­im­ist­ic. Just be­fore Brown, only about one in sev­en Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, com­pared with more than one in three whites, held a high school de­gree. Today, the Census Bur­eau re­ports, the share of all Afric­an-Amer­ic­an adults hold­ing high school de­grees (85 per­cent) nearly equals the share of whites (89 per­cent); blacks have slightly passed whites on that meas­ure among young adults ages 25 to 29.

Be­fore Brown, only about one in 40 Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans earned a col­lege de­gree. Now more than one in five hold one. Edu­ca­tion­al ad­vances have also keyed oth­er gains, in­clud­ing the growth of a sub­stan­tial black middle-class and health gains that have cut the white-black gap in life ex­pect­ancy at birth by more than half since 1950.

Yet many oth­er dis­par­it­ies re­main. Whites (es­pe­cially from more af­flu­ent fam­il­ies) still com­plete col­lege at much high­er rates than Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. That’s one reas­on census fig­ures show the me­di­an in­come for Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies re­mains only about three-fifths that for whites, not much bet­ter than in 1967. His­pan­ics, now the largest minor­ity group, are like­wise mak­ing clear gains but still trail whites and blacks on the key meas­ures of edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment, on some fronts sub­stan­tially.

Brown‘s core mis­sion of en­cour­aging in­teg­ra­tion can best be defined as un­fin­ished. Many civil-rights ad­voc­ates, such as Gary Or­field, co­dir­ect­or of the Civil Rights Pro­ject at UCLA, ar­gue that after gains through the late 1980s, the pub­lic-school sys­tem is un­der­go­ing a “re­seg­reg­a­tion” that has left Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino stu­dents “ex­per­i­en­cing more isol­a­tion “¦ [than] a gen­er­a­tion ago.” Oth­er ana­lysts ques­tion wheth­er se­greg­a­tion is worsen­ing, but no one denies that ra­cial and eco­nom­ic isol­a­tion re­mains daunt­ing: One re­cent study found that three-fourths of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and two-thirds of His­pan­ics at­tend schools where a ma­jor­ity of the stu­dents qual­i­fy as low-in­come.

The second big edu­ca­tion­al mile­stone ar­riv­ing this spring should re­cast the de­bate over the first. From Brown to the on­go­ing af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion de­bates that the Su­preme Court re­vis­ited again this week, fair­ness has been the strongest ar­gu­ment for meas­ures meant to provide edu­ca­tion­al chances for all. But as our so­ci­ety di­ver­si­fies, broad­en­ing the circle of op­por­tun­ity has be­come a mat­ter not only of equity but also of com­pet­it­ive­ness.

The Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion­al Stat­ist­ics re­cently pro­jec­ted that minor­it­ies will be­come a ma­jor­ity of the K-12 pub­lic-school stu­dent body for the first time in 2014 — and that ma­jor­ity will stead­ily widen. As re­cently as 1997, whites rep­res­en­ted more than three-fifths of pub­lic-school stu­dents. This trans­form­a­tion isn’t just lim­ited to a few im­mig­ra­tion hubs: Minor­it­ies now rep­res­ent a ma­jor­ity in 310 of the 500 largest pub­lic-school dis­tricts, fed­er­al stat­ist­ics show.

These minor­ity young people are the na­tion’s fu­ture work­ers, con­sumers, and tax­pay­ers. If more of them don’t ob­tain the edu­ca­tion and train­ing to reach the middle class, the U.S. “will be a poorer and less com­pet­it­ive so­ci­ety,” says Rice Uni­versity so­ci­olo­gist Steven Mur­dock, former Census Bur­eau dir­ect­or un­der George W. Bush and the au­thor of Chan­ging Texas, a re­cent book on that state’s demo­graph­ic trans­form­a­tion.

The in­creas­ing di­versity and shrink­ing white share of Amer­ica’s youth pop­u­la­tion com­plic­ates Brown‘s ori­gin­al aim of pro­mot­ing in­teg­rated schools. But that change only adds great­er ur­gency to the de­cision’s broad­er goal of en­sur­ing all young people the op­por­tun­ity to de­vel­op their tal­ents.

The bar­ri­ers to ful­filling that vis­ion, from fam­ily break­down to per­sist­ent res­id­en­tial and edu­ca­tion­al se­greg­a­tion, re­main for­mid­able. The dif­fer­ence is that as our so­ci­ety grows in­ex­or­ably more di­verse, the con­sequences of fail­ing to over­come those bar­ri­ers are rising — for all Amer­ic­ans. “These are real­it­ies,” says Mur­dock, “that we are go­ing to have to live with wheth­er we are left, right, or in between.”

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