Saturday, May 15, 2004

Brown vs. Board of Education - Fifty Years Later

Brown vs. Board of Education is the title for the court case which racially desegregated America's public schools. In it, the justices decided that 'separate but equal', the older judicial standard for treating the races 'fairly', can never be truly equal. Never mind the fact that the African-American school districts seldom had the same resources or teacher salaries than the Caucasian ones, the U.S. Supreme Court argued that even if economic equality could have been guaranteed, the very fact of segregation had such harmful psychological effects on minority children that it could not be allowed to continue as government policy.

For fifty years, then, we have had an integrated public school system. At least on paper. In reality, schools are as segregated today as they were in 1971, and Latino students, for example, have become more segregated from white non-Latino students every year from 1970's to 1990's (and possibly even later). In the late 1990's two-thirds of all African-American and Latino children attended schools where the majority of students belong to minority groups.

So what are we to celebrate on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education? The end of racial segregation? Sure, it is no longer legal to segregate the school systems on purpose, and that's a good thing. But while dejure segregation may be over, defacto segregation is well and thriving. Maybe the two dozen white supremacists who marched near the school featured in the Brown vs.Board of Education are right: maybe the segregationists have indeed won.

And if they have would it matter? The answer depends on what we want from school integration. If it is only better schools for minority children, then racial segregation might not matter that much as long as the schools are getting better. There is a certain comfort in a segregated world: birds of a feather and all that. Shared norms, religions and traditions may thrive, and nobody becomes the victim of racial bigotry. Neither is anyone's racial bigotry challenged by this arrangement.

And there lies the problem. A segregated school system does not serve an integrated world, does not increase our understanding of people from other ethnic and social groups, does not reduce the 'Othering' that ultimately lies at the very bottom of every misogynist or racist thought or act. For this reason I lament the failure of school integration.

There is a second reason for my lament, and that is the fact that racially segregated schools are almost by definition going to be unequal schools for minority children. This is because schools are largely funded from local property taxes, and predominantly African-American or Latino areas are, on average, poorer than predominantly Caucasian non-Latino areas. Until we are willing to equalize the spending by child for all school districts in this country, those children who go to poorer schools will have fewer books, fewer computers and teachers who get paid less.

Why has integration failed? There are many reasons, but the most important one is that Americans tend to live in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. To achieve real school integration requires then that some children at least are transported to schools far outside their home neighborhood, and parents don't like this at all, even when the pill is made more palatable by making the target school a magnet school: one with better resources than other available schools.

Another reason for the failure of integration can be found in private schools. It is mainly the Caucasian non-Latino families who send their children to private schools. This often leaves the public schools of even a racially integrated area with a predominantly minority population of children. Once this happens, the parents of children in the private schools are going to be a lot less willing to vote for more tax funded public education (it's not helping their children, after all). The quality of public schools will then drop which causes a further flight to private schools by those who can afford it, and so on. No wonder that our public schools are in crisis.

What will President Bush say in his speech on Monday, to be given at the same school where the white supremacists were marching? Will he say anything like the message of this post? I doubt it. I doubt it very much.