Commentary

On its 65th anniversary, Brown v. Board of Education and school desegregation are in jeopardy

Tomorrow is the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education — the decision that ordered the desegregation of American public schools. Most of us are familiar with the foot-dragging and obstructionism with which that ruling was met for many years, but fewer are aware of the hard fact that the political right is, quite literally, still doing its worst to reverse the ruling. As advocates for fair courts in Washington have been pointing out with disturbing regularity of late, some of President Trump’s nominees to serve lifetime appointments on the federal bench have refused to affirm that Brown is and should remain the law of the land.

As Paul Gordon of People for the American Way recently explained:

Nominees for the court that issued Brown have long expressed their agreement with the decision without generating headlines. But since President Trump took office, judicial nominees’ support for Brown has gone the way of so many other democratic norms.

Perhaps the first to refuse to acknowledge the correctness of the case was Wendy Vitter, a Louisiana district court nominee scheduled for a confirmation vote this week. Since then, it has become commonplace.

Their excuse is that judicial ethics prohibit them from suggesting how they might rule in a particular case that might come before them. But do they really believe it likely—or even possible—that the principle of Brown is going to be relitigated? Revisiting separate but equal has not been a subject of any serious debate, at least in public.”

Gordon then goes on to list a dozen Trump nominees with “poor records on issues related to racial equality” who help pose a threat to Brown.

Meanwhile, a new report released last week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State University tells the sobering story of the Right’s ongoing resistance to Brown. This is from the a release on the report distributed by the National Education Policy Center:

“Desegregation for Black students peaked in 1988, according to the authors of the report, who include NEPC Fellows Erica Frankenberg and Gary Orfield. Since that time, segregation for Black students in the South has increased by 12 percentage points, while also rising in every region of the United States. Nationwide, the share of intensely segregated minority schools that are 90 to 100 percent non-White has more than tripled, to 16 percent. That’s despite the fact that Blacks comprise roughly the same percentage of the public student population today as they did in the 1950s….

As our nation reaches new heights of racial diversity, why have our schools become increasingly segregated? The UCLA report explains that, starting in the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court decisions ended hundreds of desegregation orders. In addition, aside from the small Magnet School Assistance Program, the federal government today has no programs to support voluntary integration….

The UCLA report concludes with recommendations to reverse the erosion of the legacy of Brown. These suggestions include opposing the breakup of school districts in racially identifiable enclaves, enforcing and implementing fair housing policies, incorporating equity-related goals into school choice plans, and recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching staff in universities and K-12 schools.”

The bottom line? Report co-author Gary Orfield puts it this way:

“Segregation is expanding in almost all regions of the country. Little has been done for a generation. There has been no meaningful federal government effort devoted to foster the voluntary integration of the schools, and it has been decades since federal agencies funded research about effective strategies for school integration. We have to do more.”

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