Brown v. Board Fifty Years Out:
Still Separate and Unequal

by Paul Street
May 17, 2004

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On the 50th anniversary of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, I have been reflecting on America's persistently segregated and unequal schools. Up until Brown, the standard justification for black-white school segregation held that black schools were "separate but equal," to use the Supreme Court's language in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. That justification was a terrible joke. The black schools of Jim Crow America were miserably inferior in quality and funding.

After a belated series of partial victories in the 1960s and 1970s, with the strongest and most persistent gains in the South, we have been moving back towards school re-segregation during the last two decades. A big part of this has to do with "white-flight" out of predominantly black and Hispanic cities. Another part has to do with policy. Particularly relevant here is the Supreme Court's decision during the mid-1970s that Brown could not be interpreted to require integration across city and suburban lines. That decision ensured that the racial composition of local school districts would mirror America's starkly segregated residential landscape, reflecting and furthering the well-known division of our great metropolitan areas between predominantly black, brown and poor cities and more affluent, predominantly white suburbs.

How far backwards? According to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, "the proportion of black students in majority white schools" has "fallen to a lower level than any year since 1968." Fifty years after Brown, less than a third of African-American students attend integrated schools in "the world's leading interracial democracy," as American elites like to describe the U.S.

This is no place for a full treatment of all that, but let me interject a few notes from my own home base. The last time I looked, the black-white school "segregation index" for the Chicago metropolitan area was 84, which means that 84 percent of black kids in the 6-county region would have to switch school districts in order for African-American children to be evenly distributed throughout the area's schools. The black school "isolation index" was 78, meaning that the average black kid in the metropolitan area attends a school that is 78 percent black.

Within Chicago itself, the black-white segregation index is higher than in the metropolitan area and 54 percent of black students attend schools that do not have a single white student. Most of those schools have poverty rates well over 50 percent, as is typical in predominantly black and Hispanic schools. With at least some justice, the city's public school officials note that they don't have enough white students left to justify the judicial desegregation order they have been (supposedly) operating under since the early 1980s.


So our schools are still separate. What about the equality promise of Brown? According to the thoroughly mainstream Education Trust, a leading Washington DC think-tank, there is a chronic and widespread funding shortfall for U.S. school districts with large numbers of black and Hispanic students. "Thirty-seven out of 48 states," the Trust reports, "provide fewer cost-adjusted dollars (using the [standard] 40 percent cost adjustment for lower-income students) to the districts with the most minority students, with 12 states showing gaps of more than $1000 per student [per year] (See The Funding Gap). In New York, the minority school funding gap is more than $2000.

As one black student asked the great educational justice fighter Jonathan Kozol in Los Angeles, "why do those who need the most get the least and those who need the least get the most?" Indeed. There are rich white districts in the Chicago suburbs that spend as much $15-$18,000 per year per student. Median household income for families with children under 18 in such communities is well into the six figures. There are poor black Chicago suburban districts than spend less than $7,000 per year and yet where median household income is less than $31,000 per year. This reflects a privilege-preserving school-funding system that bases per-student expenditures largely on the local property tax base - a wonderful U.S. formula that is technically "color-blind" but in fact heavily racialized, thanks to persistent black residential segregation (and discrimination) and the persistence huge racial wealth and property disparities that have deepened considerably since 2001.


As Kozol recently pointed out in a conference I helped organize in Chicago, the per-student spending disparities are only part of a broader system of savage "educational apartheid." To really grasp how badly our post-Brown educational structure mistreats children of color, you need to visit inner-city schools where kids have no idea that Cornell, Columbia, and Northwestern are universities and where teachers chronically quit to escape a militarized, test-based curriculum, absurdly high student-teacher ratios and rotting, dangerous schools. Then visit shiny and leafy white suburban schools that serve as defacto private college preparatory academies within the "public" system. These latter schools attract the best, most energized teachers who enjoy the opportunity to practice their craft in pleasing structures with low student-teacher ratios and the best and latest materials.

I recently read (for the first time I am embarrassed to say) Kozol's first classic book, Death at An Early Age: the Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967), written as the civil rights movement was bringing its clarion call for an at-once integrated and just social order to the urban north and as the United States' then predominantly liberal masters of war and empire were escalating their bloody crucifixion of Vietnamese children and adults. Among many lines in Death At An Early Age that stand out to me as holding special contemporary relevance, one comes on page 53. Kozol has just presented numbers showing shocking disparity between the amount spent per student in Boston's all-white schools and the amount spent in the city's under-funded majority black schools. He has also noted the large number of temporary, part-time, "fill-in" teachers in the black schools.

"These seem amazing facts," he writes, "in a country which daydreams about exporting its democracy. Looking at these figures openly," he concludes, "it is hard not to wonder whether we did not export our democracy a long time ago and now don't have very much left for our own people." That simple and elegant formulation on the intimate relationship between empire and inequality was written in 1966. It applies to 2004.


Later in Death At An Early Age (one of the great documents of moral witness in modern literature), Kozol addressed the insipid faith of liberals that "things are changing" in the right direction for black children. The liberals' "schedule for correction of grievances," he noted, "was plotted so slowly. Is there any reason to think it will be different in the future? Next year some integrated readers in a few schools, maybe. And then, with luck, some day later on, they may even use ... racially honest readers in public schools all over town...And then one day possibly not merely the texts but real children in the real schools also will be integrated and will no longer go to school separately but will be sitting in the same classrooms side by side. In that day, five, twenty years hence, possibly the teachers as well will begin to think of things differently and will no longer assume that Negro children are poor material because they will not read books that deny them and because they will not work out of their hearts for white teachers who despise them. Perhaps, by the time another generation comes around, the great majority of these things will be corrected. But if I were the parent of a Negro child in school today I know that I would not be able to accept a calendar of improvements that was scaled so slow" (pp. 83-84).


It's a generation later and the masters' "schedule for correction of grievances" has turned out to be slower than anyone might have imagined. As Kozol said last Monday in Chicago, there's no reparation for the betrayal and poisoning of a childhood. Neither the liberals nor the "conservatives" - better now perhaps to say "the conservatives and the Radically Regressive Republicans" - have much to offer the forgotten children of color, contemptuously abandoned to their own devices in the de-industrialized, hyper-segregated neo-Dickensian slums of the inner city and the growing poor black suburban ring that absorbs a rising share of gentrification's outcasts. For many of those children, boys especially (but not at all exclusively), school is just a first step on the path to incarceration and lifelong felony marking. In the spring of 2001, I learned some time ago, there were 20,000 more black males in Illinois state prisons than in the state's public universities. The annual cost of incarceration in Illinois, it seems worth noting, is $25,000. It's an interesting statement of public priorities, when compared with the expense of educating one of our children in the "land of Lincoln."

Paul Street is an urban social policy and civil rights researcher and public lecturer from Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at pstreet@cul-chicago.org.

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