As the 50th anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, is commemorated, many recognize the progress, retreat and failure of the desegregation of U.S. public schools. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared that segregation deprived Black students of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Said Chief Justice Earl Warren, “Separate but equal has no place in the field of public education. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court asked the states to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed,” but set no guidelines and allowed local school districts to decide how and when to comply.
Brown v. Board combined cases in five different states that attacked forced segregation of Black students. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund led the fight with attorney Thurgood Marshall at the forefront. Similar cases had been in the courts since the 1800s. In 1947, a federal appeals court, in the Mendez v. Westminster School District decision, struck down segregated schools for Mexican Americans. Then-California Gov. Earl Warren signed a repeal of a state law that segregated Native American and Asian students.
But racism was so deeply embedded within our society that strong and violent resistance by whites to desegregation prevented implementation of Brown v. Board for years.
In 1971, desegregation became widespread, with the busing of Black students to white schools. By 1980, 45 percent of formerly all-white schools in the South were racially integrated. But integrated schools existed only a short time in many Northern cities due to “white flight” to the suburbs. In 1974 the Supreme Court ruled against metropolitan cross-district desegregation in Detroit, effectively preventing desegregation there. Re-segregation accelerated in the 1990s. Today Illinois, New York and New Jersey – not the South – have the most segregated schools in the country.
Even in many desegregated schools, Black students are segregated by tracking and biased testing, and are treated differently from white students. Segregation has always been about resources and Black schools have been systematically separated from needed resources. For many leaders, the focus is now on equity for Black schools.
A recent survey by the AARP and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights showed a great change in attitudes since the 1950s. Seventy percent of whites said they approve of interracial marriage, compared to only 4 percent in 1958. Over 57 percent of whites said they would rather live in a racially mixed neighborhood and send their children to a mixed school.
But when asked if the goals of the civil rights movement had been accomplished, 56 percent of whites said “yes” while 79 percent of Blacks said “no.” Asked if Blacks are treated fairly or very fairly in the U.S., 76 percent of whites said “yes,” while 62 percent of Blacks said “no.” Clearly, although attitudes have changed, the white majority has a false idea of what it means to be Black or Latino in the U.S.
Racism hurts everyone, but especially African Americans and other people of color. The lack of quality education, along with diminishing living wage jobs, the illegal drug trade, the guns industry, an unjust criminal justice system and a growing prison industrial complex, is funneling young Blacks into prisons and jails – over 1 million incarcerated, 48 percent of the prison population. This frightening crisis must be addressed.
Racism is a powerful tool of the ruling class that keeps the working class divided. Every child should have the opportunity to learn with children of other races. This is the only way to destroy the myth of “white supremacy” and build unity within the working class. Children learn what they live.
Education must be a primary issue in the 2004 election. We must build a powerful social justice movement for the 21st century and turn our country away from the brink of disaster.
Rosita Johnson is a retired teacher and a member of the editorial board of the People’s Weekly World. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.