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70 Years of Abandonment: The Failed Promise of ‘Brown v. Board’ (Opinion)

Editor’s note: For additional perspectives on the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Education Week Opinion Contributor Bettina L. Love invited R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy to contribute an essay for a brief series on the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Ten years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., while speaking at The New School in New York City, told the crowd: “The Negro had been deeply disappointed over the slow pace of school desegregation. … At the beginning of 1963, nine years after this historic decision, approximately 9 percent of Southern Negro students were attending integrated schools. If this pace were maintained, it would be the year 2054 before integration in Southern schools would be a reality.”

While King’s insightful analysis primarily centers on the South, it would be incomplete not to mention that several Northern cities, including Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia viciously resisted school integration, oftentimes picking up arms to keep schools white.

White America’s outright rejection of school integration from the onset is far from over, even as this year marks the 70-year anniversary of Brown. The case was intended to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine known as “separate but equal,” but what children of color have endured since the 1954 ruling is a resistance so powerful, so pervasive, and full of white rage that it has created a public school system that is separate and unequal by design to not only appease white dissent but to ensure a racial caste. Seventy years after Brown, public schools across the country are still deeply segregated and unequal.

Atlanta, the city that birthed and raised Rev. King, is also the city I have called home for over 20 years. Although it is known for its racial progress, Atlanta’s racial disparities are so repugnant that injustice is the norm. Public officials would like Atlantans to believe that these injustices are a special condition of circumstance, not structure.

According to the 2020 census data, Atlanta’s population was nearly 50 percent Black and 40 percent white; however, white residents have 46 times more wealth than Black residents. In its 2022 working paper, the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the racial wealth gap in the United States in 2020 was “effectively the same value” as it was in the 1950s.

In 2022, 7 of the 10 public high schools in Atlanta did not have a single white student in attendance, according to Kamau Bobb, who served as an alternate on the city’s superintendent-search panel. In one of the three remaining schools that are integrated, white students are overrepresented in the International Baccalaureate program, essentially carving out primarily white elite private schools within public schools with public dollars. This level of segregation is cynically unsurprising in a city with a wealth gap akin to the days of the civil rights movement.

Moreover, nationwide data from the fall of 2022 shows that 75 percent of white students in America went to majority-white public schools.

School integration is no longer moving at a slow pace, it is in reverse motion “with all deliberate speed” because Brown continues to be gutted legislatively, locally, and at the school level. Immediately after the Brown ruling, segregation academies were opened in the South and received federal tax exemptions. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that funding schools based on local property taxes rather than equally distributing funding among all school districts did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, effectively allowing unequal school funding to continue.

According to a 2019 report from EdBuild for the 2015-16 school year, a $23 billion funding gap exists between white school districts and districts that serve Black and brown students even as “they serve the same number of children.”

The 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, in a major setback to Brown, rejected a desegregation plan that encompassed the Detroit school district and the neighboring suburban school districts, which were all-white. The Court exempted the suburban districts from the desegregation plan, holding that the district lines had not been drawn with a racist intent and therefore were not responsible for Detroit’s segregated schools. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by three other justices, wrote: “Under such a plan, white and Negro students will not go to school together. Instead, Negro children will continue to attend all-Negro schools. The very evil that Brown 1 was aimed at will not be cured but will be perpetuated for the future.”

Today, the last vestiges of Brown’s legacy are fading quickly. According to recent UCLA data from the Civil Rights Project, intensely segregated public schools (with a zero percent to 10 percent white student population) nearly tripled over the last 30 years nationwide, rising from 7.4 percent to 20 percent.

We must take a critical look at the fundamental issue: If this nation is going to outright refuse integration through every possible personal, political, and legislative measure, then Black people must demand this country revisit the separate but equal doctrine. Centuries have taught us that we cannot force this country to live up to the promise of integration.

As we mark the 70-year anniversary of a decision this country has clearly shown it never intended to uphold beyond the window dressing of the rhetoric of integration, let us turn to the reality and not idealism. Our schools are separate, and most white Americans appear unwilling to integrate them based on the evidence. So, if separate is the reality for millions of Black and brown students for the foreseeable future, the demand needs to be for reparations.

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