Skip to main content Accessibility

Weekend Read: Brown v. Board of Education and modern-day segregation

Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous ruling that outlawed racial segregation in public schools as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In the ruling, the court emphasized that education was “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and that school desegregation was necessary for the integration of our society as a whole.

In the years that followed, federal judges held hundreds of desegregation hearings; the National Guard was deployed to protect nine black students integrating Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas; tens of thousands marched on Washington in support of integration; and Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

But our schools, in recent years, have become re-segregated. And it’s not just hurting students of color. The research is clear that it’s hurting all of us.

Our Teaching Tolerance team found that “the average black student attended a school that was 48.8 percent black and 27.6 percent white. On the flip side, the average white student attended a school that was 72.5 percent white and only 8.3 percent black.”

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Nikole Hannah-Jones reported for ProPublica that “1 in 3 black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.”

In Charlottesville, Virginia, railroad tracks literally divide the city, with three predominantly white schools in the north and three predominantly black schools in the south.

In Mississippi, inadequate funding and inferior educational opportunities in predominantly black schools have created a racial achievement gap.

But segregation isn’t unique to the South.

A coalition of civil rights groups and students are suing the state of New Jersey over policies that require most children to attend their neighborhood schools, which has resulted in extreme racial and economic segregation. The suit argues that this segregation hurts the academic performance and personal development of all students in the public school system and perpetuates preexisting societal prejudices.

Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, spoke with our team about the issue. “Schools are more segregated today than at any time in the last 45 years. The reason that they’re more segregated is because the neighborhoods in which they’re located are segregated.”

But the impacts of residential segregation are compounded by other factors.

In New York City, 40 percent of kindergartners do not attend their local elementary school. The city has a vast network of private schools, and public school students gain admittance to schools based on performance. As a result, children are stratified by factors such as race, class and economic opportunity from an early age.

The children attending the city’s public schools are 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Yet New York City’s public schools are the most segregated in the country.

Despite these troubling trends, the Trump administration has aggressively rolled back Obama-era policies designed to increase diversity in classrooms and on campuses; delayed the implementation of rules that would address racial disparities in school placement; and dismissed more than 1,200 civil rights investigations started under the Obama administration.

We cannot continue to accept the low standard of desegregation, where our classrooms and communities simply cease to be entirely homogeneous. The antithesis of segregation isn’t desegregation, it’s integration. We must create classrooms and communities that proportionately reflect the makeup of our society – and ensure equal access to opportunity for all, regardless of race or class.

We need to invest, equitably, in our public schools; end discriminatory housing policies that exclude low-income and minority families from certain communities and neighborhoods; and prioritize programs that promote diversity in our schools.

Segregation didn’t happen accidentally. We must pursue integration with the same intentionality.

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.