60 years after 'Brown v. Board of Education,' segregation and the poor go hand in hand.
Sixty years after the Supreme Court's landmark school desegregation decision rendered in Brown v. Board of Education, care to venture a guess on the most integrated state for black students? How about the states that are the most segregated? If you guessed West Virginia for most integrated, and California and New York as most segregated, you'd be right.
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With all due respect to West Virginia and the highly regarded African Americans it has produced, friends such as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the iconic musical artist Bill Withers, I learned firsthand when I visited the state in 2011 that the only reason West Virginia wins the "most integrated" sweepstakes is because poor black children live right alongside poor white children. They have little choice but to get schooled together in the same public classrooms.
California, where I live, and New York are different. There are pockets of poverty up and down the California coastline and throughout New York populated almost exclusively by poor black and Latino citizens.
Whether we're talking West Virginia, California or any state in between, we are not going to solve the school segregation problem until we solve the housing segregation problem. In too many of America's cities and suburbs, both economic and racial segregation are certain and severe. The data remind us that these issues are inextricably linked. Even where racial segregation has eroded over time, economic segregation produces the same results: We are still two Americas. Still separate, still unequal.
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According to a new report just released by the Civil Rights Project called "Brown at 60," "Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but white and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools."
This double segregation doesn't just condemn these precious children to an often inferior education, it also strips them of their humanity and their dignity. Race and poverty shouldn't matter more than shared humanity.
And the problem is getting worse. Desegregation progress for black fellow citizens was substantial from 1967 to 1988. And then came the Reagan years, according to the report: "Education policy shifted dramatically following the ... A Nation at Risk report in 1983 and the adoption by almost all states of the report's agenda of increased testing and accountability. The policies followed since — and reaching an extreme form in the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002 — have assumed that segregation and poverty are not important."
The results are clear. From 1988 to 2011, the percentage of black students attending 90%-100% minority schools crept back up in every region of the nation.
Mixing rich, poor
It was intolerable 60 years ago for your race to determine your educational opportunities, but how do we justify this absurdity of racial and economic segregation decades later in the era of the nation's first black president?
Recently, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens suggested in a new book that we consider six changes to the Constitution. I would like to add to that list a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every child in America access to an equal high-quality education. It has been introduced in Congress but has gained minimal traction.
Maybe it's time we start mixing rich children and poor children together in the classroom to both enrich their lives and to create the kind of society we really want to live in. We know we can't guarantee the same outcomes for all children, but decades after Brown, why have we not figured out a way to guarantee every child in America — regardless of race or income — a place at the same starting line?
If we don't act soon, the problem we find ourselves dealing with could become worse than we ever imagined.
At the time of the Brown decision, Census didn't even count the Latino population. Today, Hispanics are America's fastest growing ethnic group. While the number of white students in school is down 29% since 1968 and black enrollment is up 19%, Hispanic enrollment is up 495%. In the Western and Southern USA, Hispanics are more segregated into 90%-100% minority schools than black students are.
If we don't figure this out 60 years after Brown, we could soon be talking about three nations. Increasingly separate. Even more unequal.
Tavis Smiley, managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS, is author of the forthcoming Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year.
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