Are America's Schools Still Segregated?

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Updated on Jan 14, 2011

Brown versus the Board of Education—perhaps one of the most significant judicial rulings in the history of the United States.

When the Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation “violates the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws,” the court, according to the Brown Foundation, “laid the foundation for shaping future national and international policies regarding human rights.”

Segregating people—whether based on the color of their skin, their abilities, gender, religious beliefs, or otherwise—violates their rights as human beings.

But as significant as the 1954 ruling was, it was only one of many turning points in an ongoing effort to make America's classrooms reflective of the greater demographic. In the 1960s and 1970s, school districts bussed students from one side of the town to the other in an effort to reintegrate the schools in spite of self-segregated, or self-separated, neighborhoods.

Then this practice stopped.

“Beginning in the 1990s there was a series of Supreme Court decisions that undermined desegregation efforts,” says Gary Orfield, Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning and Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “There’s been virtually no resources from the federal government for desegregation since 1971.”

Part of the problem goes back to the original Civil Rights Act of 1954. Title VI of the Act prohibits discrimination in assigning students to schools, classes, or courses of study in program or activities that receive federal financial assistance. This act was revised in 1998. Edwin Darden, Director of Education Law and Policy for Appleseed, a nonprofit network of public interest justice centers, explains that the courts have ruled in recent years that the individual student is most important. “You have to take into account the individual students as opposed to the school at large, or any one particular group of students,” Darden says. Long story short, when parents today want to bus kids to get more diverse groupings of students, in most cases, the law says they can’t.

“Conservatives say the natural thing is to have neighborhood schools,” Orfield says, “but our statistics show that black and Latino kids when they go to neighborhoods schools end up in impoverished schools. So now it’s segregation by race, by poverty, and by language—it’s double and triple segregation.”

According to Orfield, misconception about desegregation is prevalent. “People think this is about benefiting only the blacks and Latinos, but it benefits the white kids, too,” he says. “Too many white children are very poorly prepared for the society they will live in as adults. There are nearly half nonwhites already in this country, and within the next decade, it’s going to be a predominately nonwhite America.”

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