Despite Brown We Are Re-Segregating Our Schools

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Mr. Kashatus teaches history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and is a writer for the History News Service.

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Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down desegregation in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, America's schools and universities are struggling with the challenge of providing equal educational opportunity in an increasingly multi-cultural society.

Ironically, re-segregation has become prevalent in some school districts while at the university level affirmative action programs, intended to produce greater educational opportunity for minorities, have lowered admissions standards. Both developments are compromising the original intent of Brown.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal because they deprived black students of equal protection under the law. The Brown decision initiated a worthy struggle to desegregate the nation's public schools and spurred attempts to make college education accessible to a larger numbers of disadvantaged minorities. The intent was to create a more adequate education for minorities in a system that was governed by competent teaching, adequate facilities and rigorous standards.

While public education no longer suffers from the old separate but equal doctrine that once permitted racist institutional policies, successes have been mixed at best. Re-segregation has been on the rise since 1991. Recent polls indicate that white students, on average, attend schools that are 80 percent white, while just 14 percent of white students attend multi-racial schools.

Segregation is most severe in the nation's largest cities and the suburban districts surrounding them. A Harvard University report reveals that the majority of intensely segregated minority schools face conditions of concentrated poverty and do not enjoy the same educational opportunities as their white counterparts. In addition, school officials in Topeka, Kan., Little Rock, Ark., Wilmington, Del., Prince Georges County, Md., and Rockford, Ill. have set aside court-ordered school desegregation plans established under Brown.

Legal arguments are still being heard in Alabama, where disproportionately high numbers of African- American students are placed in special education programs, supposedly reserved for physically or mentally challenged students with special needs. In Jefferson County, Ky., desegregation was abandoned for a managed choice system that places students in a particular school based (among other factors) on parent/student preference.

If re-segregation persists, we can't expect the current generation of students to understand the cultures, value systems, and motivations of people from social backgrounds different from their own. The danger is that the same racial stereotypes that once plagued our society will become re-ingrained in the institutional fabric of our society as these students, in adulthood, assume their places as employees, voters and even public officials.

If the states were to implement standards-based reform, the courts would be able to measure what constitutes an adequate education. Once those reforms were implemented, the state would have a legal responsibility to ensure that schools have sufficient resources so that their students can meet the standards.

The Brown decision has also had an unintended effect on higher education. Affirmative action plans, which were established to ensure equal educational opportunity for minorities, have compromised the integrity of the landmark decision. Those plans have diminished the quality of admissions standards that are so important to educational equality. Instead, federal guidelines intended to increase minority enrollment have resulted in the establishment of a quota system.

Some colleges have adopted lower aptitude scores for minorities because of culturally biased standard achievement tests. These practices are inherently unfair to those minority students who gain admission, leaving them to wonder whether they're respected for their intellectual achievement. Affirmative action has also had legal reverberations. White backlash has resulted in reverse discrimination cases like the University of California v. Allan Bakke in 1978, while as recently as 2003 in two cases involving the University of Michigan, the Court vetoed the use of race in undergraduate admissions but upheld race as a consideration in law school admissions.

Compromising the standards of admission, teaching and evaluation to justify the quota system will diminish student accountability, increase grade inflation and jeopardize the integrity of higher education itself. Perhaps the best alternative can be found in a color-blind system based on individual merit and enterprise. If any preference is to be given to a student, it should be on the basis of economic background.

Often, affirmative action programs cite the culture of poverty as a determining factor in impeding an individual's educational progress. Thus, students from financially modest backgrounds warrant greater flexibility in admissions decisions. Since poverty knows no racial boundaries, a color-blind system would be just as equitable to blacks as to whites.

Such a system can be equitable if candidates, in the interview process, are weighted on motivation, social awareness, and maturity. It can also assure accountability if the faculty members who teach these students are involved in the decisions to admit them and available for counseling afterwards.

Brown v. Board paved the way for significant opportunities in our society for both minorities and whites by ensuring equal justice, fairness and education. As a society, we can't afford to backtrack by allowing re-segregation in our public schools or the lowering of admissions standards in our colleges and universities. Only by re-dedicating themselves to Brown can our schools, universities and courts recover the legacy of that landmark decision.

Related Links

  • HNN Index: Brown v. Board of Education, Fifty Years Later

  • This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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    Derek Charles Catsam - 5/14/2004

    Jesse --
    Though I don't much worry about labels, as most of the time they are things people try to apply to you rather than that you apply to yourself (though I maintain that in the world of labels I am a liberal hawk, left-liberal on domestic policy, liberal-center on foreign policy) I am unclear how my arguing against big business monopoly is somehow libertarian, especially when I would be more than happy to have the government, whether through courts or legislation, smash that monopoly.
    On one of your other points -- I don't see how it is patronizing, however, to point out that certain groups of people may not know things as a rule -- again, more along class than racial lines. (I assume, for example, that the Powell, Thomas, and Rice kids are better at knowing which fork goes with the wilted Arugula leaves and which is the caviar spoon than am I) Not that they cannot, but that pretty demonstably, according to SAT results, they do not. In other words, the SAT claims to be predictive -- it is the SAT, then, that claims that if you don't know X as a high school junior or senior, your potential for college is limited. My anti-SAT argument is almost exactly the opposite -- that there are far better, far more fair guages of intellectual ability and promise. Why rely on a poorly written (I mean, have you seen the SAT verbal section? These people have the audacity to judge verbal ability?) often flawed, and beatable system. One huge class problem I have is with SAT Prep classes, which I once taught and I know the advantage they give their overwhelmingly white, upper middle class clientele.
    Finally, I repeat perhaps my biggest problem with some of the more advanced tests, where presumably many of these class and race issues have been sorted out by the colege education that preceded it -- I still can't go to med school or law school or business school without taking a sanctioned ETS test that makes them enormous amounts of money. Not only that, but in many cases you have to "register" with them so they concoct some profile. When I was foolish enough to consider law school back in the early 1990s I took the LSAT, and I was a poor kid who had to pay a couple of hundred dollars for all of the requirements. And there were no other options. ETS is what Teddy Roosevelt would have called a bad monopoly.
    Basically, other than the big business aspect of it, there is little here for anyone, conservative, liberal, or libertarian, to like. And yet this racket continues unabated and unchallenged.

    Jesse David Lamovsky - 5/13/2004


    You may have a point on the class question. I can recall a columnist for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer citing a question about a regatta as an example of "racial bias" on standardized tests. Yachting, opined the columnist, was a "white sport". Now, maybe yachting was a "white sport" in Groton, Connecticut, circa 1907, but I myself have never seen the inside of a yacht in my life, and I doubt many of my white neighbors have either. Certainly the relevance/irrelevance of this particular question cuts along class line more so than those of race.

    Having said that, there's something inherently anti-intellectual and patronizing in the notion that certain races and classes of people can't be expected to know certain things. And the class issue, while it does provide one plausible explaination for the disparities, it doesn't account for the fact that black students tend to lag behind their white and Asian counterparts even in more affluent communities. I'm not really in a position to speculate on reasons for this... but I will say that, in my opinion, the role of white racism in the poor academic performance of blacks has been greatly overstated. Quite frankly, it's a lazy explanation.

    By the way, your (surprisingly) libertarian view of the standardized test monopoly is spot-on. I know that high school students in Ohio MUST take the SAT in order to attend an out-of-state school (this may be the rule nationwide as well). From this perspective, the problem isn't necessarily that of "cultural bias" against this group or that; problems like these are inherent when you're giving a one-size-fits-all examination to kids from every different kind of ethnic and socioeconomic background.

    Derek Charles Catsam - 5/13/2004

    Jesse --
    I think the cultural biases in the tests are less important than the fact that partiocular groups do score higher than others, and I would suppose that a combination of factors contributes to this, cultural biases being just one component, and one that probably owes less to race than to class. the fact si that African American kids do score lower than white kids do. Unless we think that black kids just aren't as bright or capable (or good at taking tests) these sorts of results are at least worth looking at.
    Of course my biggest problem with these tests is the monopoly they have on people getting into college, grad school, or professional school. One cannot, for example, go to law school without taking the LSAT and paying the concomitant (and pricey!) fees to ETS. How this does not violate antitrust is utterly beyond me.

    Jesse David Lamovsky - 5/12/2004

    I'm curious as to why Mr. Kashutas thinks standard achievement tests are "culturally biased", and whether he has any concrete examples of such a bias.

    I'm also curious as to how standardized tests can be "culturally biased" against English-speaking, American blacks; yet Asian immigrant children who speak English as a second language, and may not even have been born in this country, routinely excel on such tests. Where is the "cultural bias" in this case? And how does this supposed bias account for blacks who excel on the tests?

    I'm also curious as to what Mr. Kashutas's criteria of "social awareness" entails, in interviewing class-based affirmative action candidates.