Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As we mark the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education mandating integration of America’s schools, racial segregation in public education in America is on the rise. As a recent report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project put it, “segregation has strong, negative relationships with the achievement, college success, long-term employment and income of students of color.” This persistence of racial segregation helps us to more clearly understand the contemporary crisis of race and democracy in America.
Brown signaled both the coming end of Jim Crow racial segregation in the Deep South and across the nation, as well as the beginning of the civil rights movement’s heroic period. Since then, public schools have became one of the principal battlegrounds for racial justice, economic opportunity, and black citizenship in America. The ongoing resegregation of these schools attests to the long journey before us to fulfill the freedom dreams Brown unleashed three generations ago.
In 2019, a disturbing number of white, Latino and black students are enrolled in segregated, not racially integrated, schools. Black and Latino students overwhelmingly attend segregated public schools in high poverty areas that are under-resourced, that expose them to fewer opportunities, and are less likely to connect them to social networks that can be leveraged toward future success. Almost 24 million white students attend public schools in America, yet they are surrounded largely by students who look like themselves, a circumstance that deprives them of meaningful opportunities to interact with people of color at the precise moment that demographic shifts make such relationships a political and moral necessity.
Too often, the history of America’s modern civil rights movement is told like a national bedtime story in our popular culture. We soothe ourselves about the catastrophic climate of contemporary race relations with a historical narrative of racial progress won through the redemptive sacrifice of civil rights activists. The Brown decision looms large in this narrative as the starting point of a story filled with a cast of characters that includes Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Viewed from this perspective, the Brown decision represents one of the proudest moments in American history; it is the legal victory that serves as one half of the bookends that culminated in civil rights and voting rights legislation eleven years later.
This story, while genuinely inspiring, remains incomplete. The commemoration forces us to come to confront the measure of racial progress since the Brown Supreme Court desegregation decision and how far we still have to go to achieve racial justice in America.
Brown’s legacy is scarcely evident for a majority of white, black and Latino students who attend segregated public schools across the nation. Racial segregation of schools, usually considered an urban phenomenon marked by white flights away from cities has now reached the suburbs, where increasing numbers of blacks have settled in recent decades.
Black students fortunate enough to attend racially integrated schools enjoy, as demonstrated in the recent book “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works,” profoundly better educational and health outcomes than those left behind. These students attended and finished college and found entrée into more selective universities at higher rates than their counterparts. They also experienced lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension as adults.
The heartbreaking reality of the present confronts us with the reality that the long road toward justice and equal opportunity that Brown promised continues, and may be getting longer. The anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic decision offers a national opportunity for self-reflection. Some of the political and policy formulas that gave us initial progress on racial integration in public school have been stymied by ideologically driven court decisions. Racial integration worked for close to two decades in Charlotte, North Carolina, enjoying broad support in the city. But in 1991 the Supreme Court ruled, in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, that school districts under enforced desegregation orders no longer needed federal supervision if they seemed unlikely to resegregate. According to “Children of the Dream,” the city’s public schools have since reversed two decades of success, and over half the city’s black and Latino students go to schools where 90% of their classmates look like them. Thus legal decisions that opened up educational opportunities in one era turned into political weapons to slam these doors shut in another. The injustice remained the same, only our policy solutions and moral understanding of these issues changed.
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And beyond the world of policy, at a more fundamental level, the national mind remains divided on the matter of racial justice – too many believe it’s already been achieved, or worse, debate whether it’s a moral necessity to pursue it at all. Memory increasingly plays a large role in how we define racial progress. The desegregation of public schools, the integration of public accommodations, voting rights and fair housing legislation have become rightfully celebrated symbols of racial progress. Yet these examples obscure as much as they reveal. Segregation, by race and class, remains a large, often unspoken, part of American identity in the 21st century. Yet, in contrast to the civil rights era, we now collectively define such inequality as the legal, ethical, and moral consequence of individual and familial choice, rather than the continuation of a sprawling system of injustice once known as Jim Crow. The anniversary of the Brown decision reminds us that Jim Crow remains frighteningly alive and present in our own time.