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Sixty Years After Brown: Still Separate and Unequal?

June 30, 2014

LeighAnn M. Smith

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As the nation celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education,1 there is a renewed debate about the state of equity in our K-12 schools—and the consensus from experts is less than positive. According to a 2012 study conducted by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the makeup of our schools is at a forty-year low when it comes to diversity2.  This means that the integration of our schools peaked in the decade following the March on Washington, and has been in a decline ever since.3  Gary Orfield, the lead researcher on the Civil Rights Project, states that, “It’s segregation by race, ethnicity and poverty and, in the case of Latinos, language as well.”4 And the current state of segregation is not simply a Southern problem—an additional study released by Orfield and his colleagues in March 2014 shows the most segregated schools in the country to be in New York State.5

It is possible that these figures are surprising to those outside the field of education. Forty years after Brown, experts noted that segregation rates in our schools were rising even as federal courts were slowly retreating from the desegregation battle.6 Ten years later, a national Gallup poll revealed that 90% of adults believed that things had improved since Brown, with a majority of white Americans (63%) believing that educational opportunities for black Americans had become equal—with only 31% of black respondents agreeing.7 Yet, if our schools remain segregated, can they be equal?  As Chief Justice Earl Warren cautioned in the Brown opinion, the separation of our children on the basis of race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Implications of Segregated Schools

Segregation continues to undermine equity in the American educational system. Research suggests that diverse educational environments are better for all students’ outcomes; white students also receive positive academic effects in schools integrated along the lines of race and ethnicity.8  Conversely, segregated schooling has negative implications: students segregated along lines of race and ethnicity are less prepared for work and life in a multicultural society.9  Schools segregated on the basis of minority and poverty status also have a negative impact on the verbal achievement of those students.10  Related to the achievement gaps in segregated schools, our educational system as a whole has opportunity gaps along the lines of race. In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) showed that black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native students are less likely to have access to rigorous math and science classes and more likely to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience.11 Similarly, in the discipline context, the CRDC shows that black students are disproportionately suspended from school as compared to their white peers—with these disparities beginning as early as age four, when they are in pre-Kindergarten.12  Thus, whether a function of placement or access, minority students are more often excluded from equitable educational opportunities.

Seeking Innovative Strategies to Achieve Equity in Education

When it comes to equity, there are clear questions about whether students are being afforded equal protection of the law. Indeed, in the decades post-Brown, courts imposed a duty on districts previously in violation of desegregation orders to integrate their schools.13 Yet, as noted above, the federal courts have played a declining role in upholding or enforcing these legal remedies.14 This shift began in the early 1990s; in Oklahoma City v. Dowell,15 the Supreme Court decided that as long as these districts have made a “good faith” effort to remedy past segregation, they had no further duty to overcome demographic shifts in their efforts integrate their schools. By 2007, the Court decided that, where districts are not under mandatory desegregation orders, racial diversity cannot be achieved by considering race on the individual-student level in determining admission to public schools.16 In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And just earlier this year, a federal judge ruled to end the additional funding for desegregation efforts in the Arkansas school districts encompassing Little Rock Central High School, a historic site of the integration movement.17  Post-Brown,­ strategies to achieve equity through racial integration are no longer implemented by the federal courts with the same force and effect.18

Given this climate, are there legal remedies for the current desegregation slip? Certainly, there are still direct educational challenges to be made. On April 1 of this year, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit against the State of New Mexico challenging its provision of a sufficient education to all students.19 Such efforts continue to have significant importance in individual states; however, broad change is undoubtedly more difficult to come by via enforcing traditional educational claims to equity.

Thus, it is perhaps time to seek solutions beyond litigation and enforcement. As previously detailed by thought leaders both here on the “Ed Equity” blog20 and elsewhere,21 there is a strong relationship between the residential segregation we see in our communities and that of our schools. This isn’t to say the solution is easy—such segregation is a complex issue of race and class. Neighborhoods with the longest history of being non-white see declines in property values and tax capacity, and thus in services, even in periods of economic growth.22 Businesses and individuals capable of such economic decisions in these communities choose to leave and relocate, leaving those in non-white communities without such choices behind.23 At the same time, data shows that our worst schools are geographically closest to, and therefore serving, our most economically disadvantaged neighbors.24  However, there are links between the provision of affordable housing and stability, health, and educational benefits.25 And, importantly for the education field, in many respects the legal rights and remedies for securing fair housing now appear stronger and more numerous than those regarding the integration of schools.26

Though the potential solutions are numerous, one thing is for certain: action is necessary. And the times appear to call for a collaborative effort—one that will ensure we are heeding the call of Brown by moving the hearts, minds, and bodies of our children further away from separate, and much closer to equal.


  1. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
  2. Study available at: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/news/press-releases/crp-press-releases-2012/civil-rights-project-reports-deepening-segregation-and-challenges-educators-and-political-leaders-to-develop-positive-policies, as reported by: Aljazeera: America, at  http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/25/56-years-after-littlerockusschoolssegregatedbyraceandclass.html
  3. http://www.epi.org/publication/unfinished-march-public-school-segregation/?utm_source=Economic+Policy+Institute&utm_campaign=fd50c528d7-EPI_News&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e7c5826c50-fd50c528d7-55924721
  4. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/25/56-years-after-littlerockusschoolssegregatedbyraceandclass.html
  5. http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder
  6. Davison M. Douglas, The End of Busing? Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education by Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. New York: The New Press. 1996. 95 Mich. L. Rev. 1715 (1997).
  7. http://www.gallup.com/poll/11521/race-education-50th-anniversary-brown-board-education.aspx
  8. http://www.school-diversity.org/pdf/DiversityResearchBriefNo8.pdf
  9. Jayakumar, U.M. Can Higher Education Meet the Needs of an Increasingly Diverse and Global Society? Campus Diversity and Cross-Cultural Workforce Competencies, 78 Harvard Educational Review, 615-34 (2008).
  10. http://www.school-diversity.org/pdf/
  11. As reported by: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/21/us/school-data-finds-pattern-of-inequality-along-racial-lines.html?_r=0 Actual data collections available at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-discipline-snapshot.pdf ; https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-early-learning-snapshot.pdfhttps://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-college-and-career-readiness-snapshot.pdf; https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-teacher-equity-snapshot.pdf
  12. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-discipline-snapshot.pdf ; https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-early-learning-snapshot.pdf
  13. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1970).
  14. Davison M. Douglas, The End of Busing? Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education by Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. New York: The New Press. 1996. 95 Mich. L. Rev. 1715 (1997).
  15. 498 U.S. 237 (1991).
  16. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007) (finding that race cannot be utilized in the individualized context, but leaving open the broader considerations of race in considering district and neighborhood makeup for assignment plans).
  17. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/23/desegregation-fundingdriesupinlittlerockbutproblemsremain.html
  18. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/25/56-years-after-littlerockusschoolssegregatedbyraceandclass.html
  19. http://www.maldef.org/news/releases/maldef_challenges_nm_denial_of_education/
  20. Community Development and Fair Housing Approaches to Education Equity
  21. http://www.school-diversity.org/pdf/DiversityResearchBriefNo7.pdf
  22. http://www.law.umn.edu/uploads/e0/65/e065d82a1c1da0bfef7d86172ec5391e/Diverse_Suburbs_FINAL.pdf
  23. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/PRRACHousingLocation&Schools.pdf
  24. http://www.nhc.org/media/files/Insights_HousingAndEducationBrief.pdf
  25. http://www.nhc.org/media/files/Insights_HousingAndEducationBrief.pdf
  26. Community Development and Fair Housing Approaches to Education Equity

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