Sixty years ago this week, the band of 9 brave black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, enrolled in Little Rock Central High school. Just 3 years earlier, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas. But 60 years later, has de-segregation been achieved in our public school system?
Separate but equal has never been separate but equal. After Brown v. Board ruled segregation in the public school system unconstitutional, an order to desegregate schools with “all deliberate speed” was given. From 1960s up until the 1980s, de-segregation was enforced and black kids were bused into white schools. However, desegregation fizzled out soon after due to both lax enforcement and the dismantling of desegregation laws. Now, 74% of black students and 80% of Latino students attend schools that are “majority nonwhite”; the average white student attends a school at is nearly 75% white.
Although the law forced desegregation in public schools, it could not stop white flight, a large migration of whites from urban areas to more suburban, majority white neighborhoods. That movement is still prevalent in our society. Since the current public school system forces residents of a certain area to attend a school designated for their residence, most neighborhoods that are racially or financially segregated will have schools that are also segregated.
And if you think segregation is only a problem in the South, think again. Analysis done in 2011 by the Civil Right Project at University of California, Los Angeles showed that more than half black students in the Northeast attended schools with students populations that were 90-100% black. The worst offending place was New York. And surprisingly, West Virginia has the most integrated schools.
Even cities that are considered diverse are seeing segregation in their public schools. Charlotte, North Carolina is a prime example. The city is 45% white, 35% black, and 13% Latino. It was a model for desegregation in the 1970s. But in recent years, it has seen segregation come back in style.
Why all the fuss about desegregation? Research has shown again and again that desegregation is one of the best ways to bring up the performance of students of color. This is not simply because black kids do better when they’re around white kids. It’s because they have more access to better resources when they get to go to schools with majority white students. The same research done by UCLA showed that the racial achievement gap in k-12 closed more quickly during the peak years of desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s. The gap has widened again in the decades since.
Data released by U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights back in 2014 shows the gap between majority white schools and minority-majority schools. One example from the research looks into the courses offered at high schools. It states, “While 78% and 83% of the schools serving the lowest percentage of black and Latino students offer chemistry and Algebra II, respectively only 66% and 74% of schools serving the highest percentages of black and Latino students offer chemistry and Algebra II, respectively.” More data shows how majority white schools also receive more money in funding per student than schools with black or Latino majority.
Desegregation goes beyond school achievements. The following findings came out of Long-run Impact of School Desegregation and School Quality on Adult Attainment by Rucker Johnson. The analysis looked at data of over 4000 students born between 1950 and 1975. These students were assigned to schools based on 1970 school district lines.
- For black men, 5 years spent in desegregated schools yielded an estimate of 25% increase in annual earnings
- Desegregation resulted in significant long-run improvements in blacks’ adult health
- Each year spent in a desegregated school improved the probability of graduating high school by between 1.3 to 2.9 percent. (That’s each year spent, so imagine the impact it would have for all 4 years of high school for hundreds and thousands of black students as a whole.)
- For black men, spending time in desegregated schools as a child reduced the probability of spending time in jail by age thirty by 14.7% (This is another huge one!)
If you want a deeper understanding of the effects of segregation in schools, please listen to “The Problem We All Live With“, an incredible episode of This American Life that highlights modern day segregation.
So, I believe the answer is a mix of yes and no. Obviously, desegregation has improved immensely in the six decades since the Little Rock Nine. However, it has not kept up the speed it was traveling in the fist couple of decades after 1960. Our students of color are not being given the same opportunities and resources.
Do we need to bring back busing black kids to white neighborhoods? What do you think?