Saffron Restaurants reservation Opinion: America has promised to desegregate its schools. Here’s what happened instead.

Opinion: America has promised to desegregate its schools. Here’s what happened instead.


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When it comes to fulfilling the implied promise of Brown vs. Board of Education, “backsliding has derailed integration,” writes Keith Magee.

Editor’s Note: Keith Magee does senior fellow and visiting professor of cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is Chair and Professor of Practice in Social Justice at Newcastle University Law School and the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion, and Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.


A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at an opening conference on Black literacy, examining what organizers called an “alarming literacy gap” between Black students and their peers. I was honored to give the speech, but saddened and angry that such an event would even be necessary in 21st century America.

Aaron Dunworth

Keith Magee

We were once promised a very different future. On May 17, 1954, in its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine, which for generations had supported legalized racial segregation in American schools, was unconstitutional. An education system that trapped black children in poor and underfunded schools was anything but “equal,” according to the court. It was a pivotal moment for race relations and paved the way for subsequent victories for the Civil Rights movement, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act.

However, the positive effects of desegregation were certainly not noticeable overnight. The school system I studied in in the 1970s and early 1980s, deep in the Louisiana bayou, was still struggling with integration, with black and white children coming together in the classroom but virtually nowhere else. The white students even had their prom at the local country club, while the black students’ prom was held in the school gymnasium.

I’m relieved that things are different for my nine-year-old son. His school is really diverse and that mix is ​​reflected in the friends who invite him for weekend sleepovers. Both things make him exceptionally happy.

Political activist Angela Davis has often said that education is the means by which we gain freedom. I believe education has the potential to bring both freedom and justice, by equipping an entire generation of American citizens with the collective desire and tools to dismantle systemic racism from the ground up.

This week we celebrate 70e anniversary of Brown as a nation that has never had a more ethnically diverse student population; More than half of the children enrolled in our K-12 public schools are black or brown. But despite the progress made in school desegregation in the thirty years that followed Brown, the pushback has derailed integration.

A new report from researchers at Stanford and the University of Southern California (including an accompanying interactive tool) finds that racial and economic segregation has actually increased dramatically in large school districts over the past thirty years. Researchers found that legal decisions, such as releasing districts under desegregation orders from court oversight, and policies to expand school choice are mainly to blame.

Today, Black, Hispanic, and Pacific Islanders are likely to attend a public school where at least 75% of their classmates are also children of color. And it has always been true that racial and economic injustice go hand in hand: The majority of students in those schools are likely to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches (FRPL), a key indicator of poverty. And since schools with large numbers of poor black and brown students tend to be drastically underfunded, the correlation between poverty and lower academic achievement is not surprising. The result is a negative cycle of educational disparity, perpetuated by a lack of resources and opportunities.

Meanwhile, nearly half of white students attend schools where most of their peers look like them. Like students of color, they too live in economic isolation – but at the opposite end of the wealth scale. More than two-thirds attend schools where only a minority of students qualify for FRPL, schools where better funding and opportunity mean better outcomes.

There can be little doubt that the integrated, equal education for all that was supposed to be Brown’s legacy is still shockingly out of reach. We should all be outraged by this betrayal, and not just because of the gap in achieving goals. Why? Because high levels of racial and economic resegregation in schools prevent students, communities, and our beleaguered democracy from benefiting from our greatest national resource: our diversity.

We need all children, regardless of their skin color or their family’s income, to leave school so they can fully contribute to America’s increasingly diverse society. Only a truly racially and economically integrated education system will make that possible. Research shows that inclusion increases the achievement levels of all students – not just those who are black, brown and poor. Integration also promotes positive relationships between groups, reduces stereotypes and promotes empathy.

In other words, it’s hard to dehumanize someone who reminds you of your high school friends. And if you cannot dehumanize someone, it becomes very difficult to deny them equal rights or tolerate injustice. Or vote for a candidate who wants to stir up racial hatred for electoral gain. And let us not forget that education is the fertile ground without which democracy itself cannot flourish. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Education should enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to distinguish the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and to distinguish fact from fiction.” With disinformation posing an existential danger to the democratic process, the quality of our public education system has perhaps never been more important.

I would urge all Americans to lobby school districts and policymakers at the federal and state levels to actively promote integrated education. This may mean distributing resources more equitably, rethinking school choice policies, improving public transport networks or expanding school boundaries. It means school leaders must create an inclusive environment by training them in what Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” calls “the ABCs: Affirming Identity, Building Community, and Cultivating Leadership.”

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In many areas, the integration of education will require the desegregation of entire neighborhoods to forge diverse communities that will be reflected in their local schools. While inclusive housing policies are essential, they cannot achieve the scale of change required without an associated change in attitudes in society. We need to convince every parent that a child who learns in a racially or economically isolated classroom and then goes home to a racially or economically isolated neighborhood is a child who is missing out.

We may not be able to rely on the current U.S. Supreme Court, which recently trampled women’s reproductive rights and struck down affirmative action in college admissions, to lead the country toward justice and equality. But perhaps, for the sake of the future of all our children, we can finally realize the promise of a fairer America expressed in Brown v. Board of Education.

Better seven decades late than never.