Half a century after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of American education, schools are almost as segregated as they were when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, according to a report released today by Harvard University researchers.
The study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, shows that progress toward school desegregation peaked in the late 1980s as courts concluded that the goals of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education had largely been achieved. Over the past 15 years, the trend has been in the opposite direction, and most white students now have "little contact" with minority students in many areas of the country, according to the report.
"We are celebrating a victory over segregation at a time when schools across the nation are becoming increasingly segregated," noted the report, which was issued on the eve of the holiday celebrating King's birthday.
Triggered by a civil rights case in Topeka, Kan., the Brown decision marked the start of three decades of intensive efforts by the federal government to integrate public schools, first through court orders that opened white schools to minority students and later through busing. Its most dramatic impact was in southern states, where the percentage of blacks attending predominantly white schools increased from zero in 1954 to 43 percent in 1988.
By 2001, according to the Harvard data, the figure had fallen to 30 percent, or about the level in 1969, the year after King's assassination.
"We are losing many of the gains of desegregation," said Harvard professor Gary Orfield, the primary author of the report. "We are not back to where we were before Brown, but we are back to when King was assassinated."
The Harvard study suggests that Hispanic students are even more segregated than African American students, while Asian Americans are the most integrated ethnic group in the country. The increase in Latino segregation has been particularly marked in western states, where more than 80 percent of Latinos attend predominantly minority schools, compared with 42 percent in 1968.
Despite the national trend toward resegregation, there are significant differences among states and regions, Orfield said. Maryland is one of the most "rapidly resegregating states" in the country, he said, partly because of the phasing out of court-ordered busing in Prince George's and Baltimore counties and partly because of migration patterns.
The District of Columbia has long been one of the most segregated school districts in the nation, a trend accentuated in recent years by the exodus of white middle-class families.
The most segregated states for black students are New York and Illinois; the most integrated are Kentucky and Washington. For Latinos, the most segregated states are New York and California; the most integrated states are Wyoming and Ohio. Virginia ranks somewhere in the middle for both African Americans and Hispanics.
According to Orfield and other researchers, the resegregation trend picked up momentum as a result of a 1991 Supreme Court decision that authorized a return to neighborhood schools instead of busing, even if such a step would lead to segregation. The consequences were particularly dramatic in school districts such as Prince George's County's that were declared "unitary" by the courts, meaning that they had made a good-faith effort at integration.
According to the Harvard data, the average black student in Prince George's County attends schools with 12 percent fewer white students than a decade ago. In Charlotte, black exposure to white students has dropped by 16 percent, and in DeKalb County, Ga., it has declined by 72 percent.
"Most schools in this country are overwhelmingly black or overwhelmingly white," said Elise Boddie, head of the education department of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., which litigates civil rights cases. "We have still not committed ourselves as a country to the mandate of Brown versus Board of Education. If these trends are not reversed, we could easily find ourselves back to 1954."
The report said that a massive migration of black and Latino families toward the suburbs is producing "hundreds of new segregated and unequal schools and frustrating the dream of middle-class minority families for access to the most competitive schools." It predicted that the suburbs soon could be threatened with the problems of "ghettoization" that have already affected big urban areas.
Such a development, the report warned, would bring the nation closer to the "nightmare" of "two school systems" and "two housing markets" mentioned by King in one of his last public appearances.
"There have been considerable gains in some areas, such as the number of [minority] students attending college," said John Jackson, education director for the NAACP. "But you still find many school districts across the country that are segregated and unequal. The implications are the same as in the '50s: Minority students in high poverty areas are not getting a quality education.
The law of unintended consequences. For integration to have worked we would have had to put vast amounts of money into the educational system; more than equalizing funding even as schools merged. We didn't do that.
Faced with a relative decrease in perceived quality of education and fears of increased risk to their children, middle class Euros (anglos, whites) left the cities and wealth Euros enrolled children in private schools. The urban public school system came to resemble the unequal and underfunded Black public schools of the the 1960s.
I don't think preserving busing would have changed things. And I don't think we're getting closer to the "nightmare" of two systems, I think we're already there.
In the meanwhile Euros will be a minority majority soon; we already are in California. So the equation will change again.
I don't know what would have worked for America. If I didn't distrust Republicans so intensely and deeply I'd try vouchers -- but the vouchers would never be adequately funded by this administration -- and special needs children would be abandoned to the wolves.