School Segregation Is Still With Us

Yesterday marked the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which undid Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine established 120 years ago today. (Sage has compiled archival Atlantic readings on the Brown decision.) But the fight to desegregate schools continues. Just last week, a Mississippi judge ordered the state’s Cleveland School District to desegregate. City Lab’s Brentin Mock has details:

One city that just never succeeded at school integration is Cleveland, Mississippi, where the school district was sued by a group of parents way back in 1965 for its failure to comply with Brown. Black families were concentrated (both then and today) in neighborhoods to the east of a railroad track that split Cleveland in half, both physically and racially. Black children were forbidden from attending schools located to the west of the tracks, where white families lived almost exclusively, due to Jim Crow policies.

This sequestering of black students persisted for decades after that lawsuit was filed, despite numerous consent decrees and court orders for the Cleveland school district to desegregate. The district was never able to come up with a plan that could convince white parents to send their kids to schools on the black side of town. Now, the federal government wants Cleveland to squash its schools’ race-based reputations by folding the east-of-the-tracks black middle and high schools into the historically white schools to create single, blended schools for each age group.

“The wheels of justice have been said to turn slowly,” wrote Shannon Lerner in a piece for us last year covering the Cleveland School District on the ground. She continues:

And few things move quickly here in Cleveland, Mississippi, a town of 12,000 people with no movie theater and a quaint commercial district that’s shuttered on Sunday. But when a deadline on a school desegregation suit—originally filed in 1965—came and went last month with opposing sides still unable to agree on a resolution, some locals admitted frustration.

“If you fight for something for 50-some-odd years and it don’t work out? Good gravy, that’s a long time,” said Leroy Byars, 67, who is known around town simply as “Coach.”

Cleveland isn’t alone. Last month, Alana reported from Little Rock, Arkansas, on the persistence of school segregation there. She tells the story of LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, whose parents “volunteered her to integrate Forest Heights Junior High in Little Rock in 1961”:

Bell-Tolliver looks at Little Rock schools now, though, and wonders if her years of hell were all in vain. In the decades since the schools were first integrated, Little Rock has become a more residentially segregated city, with white residents in the northwest part of town and blacks in the southwest and south. Because the vast majority of children attend schools in their neighborhood, the schools have become re-segregated too.

And those separate schools are not at all equal. For example, 58 percent of the students at Roberts Elementary, located in northwest Little Rock, are white, though the district as a whole is just 18 percent white. Roberts was completed in 2010 and has a climbing wall, a state-of-the art computer lab, a chemistry lab, telescopes, high ceilings, natural light, and a cafeteria with a stage and TV screens. Wilson Elementary, 72 percent black, is located in a majority-black neighborhood and, according to a lawsuit filed this year, has failing air conditioning, squirrels that died in the air ducts, and a cafeteria that was closed by the public-health department.

One reader has a cynical reaction:

It’s wrong to deny resources to majority-minority schools. But no matter how liberal, every parent wants their children to attend a high-performing school. And no doubt about it, those schools are white.

On that note, Alia posed the following question to New York Times Magazine investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones during our Education Summit yesterday: “What do you say to parents who really believe in [integration], but they don’t want to sacrifice their kid’s education?” She added, “They don’t want to send their kid to a school with bad test scores. What do you say to them?”

Hannah-Jones’s response:

Well, one, I would say test scores are often a reflection of the socioeconomic status of the kids in the school, and what the data shows is that middle-class parents who go into these schools, their kids do just fine. My daughter is doing just fine. She’s reading above her grade level; she’s thriving. Because anything that the school would lack, I can provide for her. But also she has come into the school with a certain level of knowledge and privilege. So I think that that’s a fear that is often unfounded, but it’s a fear all the same.

I think the other thing is the notion that we’re going to get equality without having to give up any of our privilege is just a false notion. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t say, “I want equality, but at the same time I want my child to have every advantage.” That’s not equality.

You can watch the full exchange below (Alia’s question starts around the 9:25 mark):


For more from Hannah-Jones, check out “The Problem We All Live With,” an episode of This American Life looking at desegregation and the achievement gap.