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59 Years after Brown vs. Board of Ed, the Spectrum of Segregation Persists
Taiyyaba Qureshi attended a roundtable discussion with other members of the eastern North Carolina community during a stop on Matt and Elisa’s Listening Tour. On the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, she and her colleague, Mark Dorosin, explain how the specter of segregation is resurfacing in schools.
Although racial segregation in public schools was held unconstitutional in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education, massive resistance by segregationist state and local governments prevented meaningful implementation of this landmark ruling for over a decade. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, and in response to community activism, litigation, and intervention by the federal government, that the doors of educational opportunity were finally forced open to create equal access for children of color.
Today, almost 60 years after Brown, its promise of an integrated and equal education remains unfulfilled. The cross-exposure of black and white students—an important measure of integration—peaked in the mid-1980s but, by 2000 was even lower than in 1968.
Schools are also increasingly socio-economically segregated, with children of color disproportionately concentrated in high-poverty schools. These racially and economically isolated schools are less able to secure the fundamental prerequisites to a quality education: access to high quality teachers and administrators, adequate funding for a complete range of educational programs and technology, a climate of high academic aspirations, an environment of respect and tolerance for all people, and parental and public support.
The persistent legacy of Jim Crow segregation, coupled with recent state actions that seem nondiscriminatory but abandon or deliberately undermine laws and policies intended to promote integration, have left us with a spectrum of educational disparities that ranges from districts that failed to genuinely integrate to those that did achieve integration, but have since become resegregated to nearly pre-civil rights era levels.
Halifax County, a majority-African American rural county in eastern North Carolina, is an example of a district that never truly desegregated in the first place. Halifax maintains three racially isolated school districts. Most Black students in Halifax attend one of two high-poverty, underperforming districts, both of which are 80-95% black. The other city school district maintains a 70% white student body with lower poverty levels. The racially isolated districts are maintained through structural exclusions rooted in residential and educational segregation. With most schools in the county performing below the state average, all students in Halifax are being denied the benefit of a racially diverse learning environment and a sound basic education.
There are also districts in the state that are still under a federal court order to desegregate. In 1965, Pitt County was ordered to move from a “dual” (segregated) to a “unitary” (integrated) system. Almost 50 years later, the district has yet to fully comply with the court’s order. As a result, African American (and now Latino) students in Pitt County attend schools with significant racial disparities in student and faculty assignment. District disciplinary policies also have racially discriminatory impacts. This summer, the school district and plaintiffs, represented by the University of North Carolina’s Civil Rights Center, are preparing for a trial on the issue of whether the district has eliminated the vestiges of segregation.
Finally, at the other end of the spectrum are school districts that have resegregated after a period of successful integration. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were placed under court order to desegregate following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. By 2000, following years of an intense and dedicated commitment to diversity including numerous race-conscious school policies that prioritized integration, the district had integrated its schools. The court subsequently declared the district unitary, even over the objection of the district itself, which feared resegregation if it would be prohibited from considering race in student assignment.
In less than five years, Charlotte’s adoption of a proximity-based school assignment policy, also known as “neighborhood” or “community” schools, has returned the district to a level of racial and economic segregation that nearly mirrors the era before the court orders. Other districts are similarly elevating proximity as the only value in student assignment, ignoring the continuing impacts of residential and neighborhood racial and economic segregation. This creation of high poverty, majority one-raceschools erodes decades of hard-won progress towards integration.
Public schools, which have historically been at the forefront of helping build an integrated and more equitable society, have now become the primary tool to subvert that ideal. These issues implicate nontraditional public schools as well. Without adequate oversight and accountability and a commitment to diversity, charters can also further the resegregation in publicly-funded education.
The spectrum of segregation should concern all of us. Segregation is a fundamental barrier to creating schools that can provide a quality education. While racial and socio-economic diversity alone is not sufficient, it is a necessary first step to eliminating the range of educational inequities that disproportionately disadvantage low-wealth students and students of color.
Make no mistake—segregated schools undermine the education of all children and prevent all students—and in turn our communities—from reaching their collective potential. The creation and maintenance of racially and economically segregated public schools creates a two-tiered system of winner versus loser schools that further entrenches these disparities and inevitably erodes support for public education overall.
The UNC Center for Civil Rights is a legal organization that uses action-oriented advocacy to make America’s promise of justice, opportunity, and prosperity a reality for all people. The Center uses a range of strategies – litigation, public education, research, and policy analysis – to represent community-based grassroots organizations combatting the impacts of racial exclusion and segregation. Mark Dorosin is the Managing Attorney and Taiyyaba Qureshi is the Educational Advancement and Fair Opportunities Attorney-Fellow. For more information, visit: http://www.law.unc.edu/centers/civilrights/