No Longer “Separate but Equal”?
Way back in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the concept of “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. The much-celebrated Brown v. Board of Education decision addressed and repaired a glaring injustice, and segregation was forever banished from American schools.
That’s the story most of us learned, anyway.
The reality is much more complicated.
The Problem that Never Went Away
Desegregation didn’t really get going for almost a decade after Brown, but then it finally started to take hold, reaching a peak at around 1988. And guess what? Integration worked. The achievement gap, for example, between white kids and Black kids closed—dramatically.
But desegregation faltered in the face of massive “white flight”— when white people moved out of cities all around the US (especially in the Northeast) rather than keep their kids in integrated schools. And it ran up against the seemingly intractable legacy of racist zoning policies and racist mortgage lending that created segregated (and often impoverished) communities in our cities and suburbs.
A Failure of Will
Why did desegregation fail? Look to politics, leadership, and the courts—you’ll see shifting priorities and a failure of will.
And so here we are, right now, with school segregation at 1968 levels. Separate was never equal, not decades ago and not today. This unjust and unfair system continues to put Black and Latinx children at a severe disadvantage. Indeed, the kinds of schools most white children attend may as well be located in a different world.
Preschool is for Rainbow Art, Not Racism
The problems show up as early as preschool. Remember preschool? Learning to write your name, playing with dolls and blocks, jumping in puddles. That’s the preschool experience. Also part of the experience? Racism. It turns out that a disproportionate number of Black families lack access to high-quality preschool. And that when their kids do go to preschool, they’re treated unfairly: Black students are much more likely to be suspended from preschool than white students.
Why is this? Does anyone really believe that Black preschoolers are simply more terribly behaved?
A Suspicion of Guilt
A 2014 study might shine some light on what’s going on. Although it doesn’t cover preschool-age children, it found that Black boys as young as 10 are routinely perceived to be significantly older and less innocent, when compared to white boys of the same age. In our society, this suspicion of guilt follows people of color throughout their lives.
The Story Continues in K-12
Sadly, you won’t be surprised to discover that the news doesn’t get better for K-12 kids. Let’s run through some of the data released by the US Department of Education in 2014:
- When Black students and white students commit similar infractions, Black students are suspended and expelled three times more often than white students.
- Black students make up 16% of student enrollment, but represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to arrest. White students, on the other hand, make up 51% of enrollment, 41% of students referred to law enforcement, and 39% of those arrested.
Call the Cops
The “school-to-prison pipeline” is what some have taken to calling the way school discipline increasingly involves law enforcement and channels students into the criminal justice system (where people of color can expect unfair treatment as a matter of course). When a simple altercation at school leads to an arrest for assault, something has gone terribly wrong.
“So Maybe I’ll Just Drop Out”
Repeated suspensions and expulsions also eventually convince many students to drop out, and a huge number of those leaving school are Black, Latinx, or Native American. A 2004 study found that only about half of Black, Latinx, and Native American students graduate high school. Think about that: only half!
The racial wealth gap in America is huge, and systemic racism is responsible both for its creation and its persistence. Those zoning laws and mortgage practices we mentioned earlier have not only kept cities and communities segregated, they’ve ensured that people of color are unable to accumulate and pass on wealth in the way that white families can. The poverty in these communities means that schools attended predominately by people of color are chronically underfunded.
Kids who attend these schools regularly have inexperienced and even unlicensed teachers. Their academic performance suffers as a result, which can lead many to drop out, while putting the dream of college at risk for those who remain.
Our segregated education system is a mess—it’s bad news all around, no doubt. So what can we do? Lots of people are clearly worried about it. Education experts suggest new programs every year and write dozens of op-eds touting their supposed benefits, all while neglecting one solution that, when tried, actually worked:
Desegregation really worked.
Integrated schools result in:
- Higher student test scores
- Higher college enrollment rates
- Lower dropout rates
- A reduction in racial achievement gaps
And beyond that, going to school with a racially diverse student body can actually reduce racism, counter stereotypes, and lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of people who are different than we are. All of which sounds like something we desperately need.
Be Part of the Solution
Systemic racism is a corrosive and widespread problem in our society, at all levels, and we all need to do a better job of confronting it—in our neighborhoods, at our schools, and in ourselves.
Want to be part of the solution? Here are 12 ways you can take action.