Decades after Brown v. Board of Education inequality is still a pervasive problem in our schools.
Would it stun you to learn that today, decades after Brown v. Board of Education, some of our nation’s schools are now more segregated than they were in the late 60s? UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles yields this and other alarming findings in a report released last month, a report that lucidly illustrates the backwards-trajectory of educational equality in American schools.
What the report highlights is the pervasiveness of the achievement gap—a catchall term that describes the disparities we see in test scores and post-school outcomes for White and non-White students. This problem and its magnitude should haunt our collective consciousness just as it haunts the daily realities of Black and minority families. But ignorance on the issue abounds, ranging from sheer obliviousness, to misconceptions about where and how education is segregated today.
Chief among those misconceptions are these: many assume that as schools become increasingly racially integrated, equality of opportunity within individual schools is a natural given; similarly common is the assumption that educational inequality is a uniquely urban issue. After years of studying the achievement gap in a suburban city, it is with confidence that I endeavor to dispel both of these myths.
This problem and its magnitude should haunt our collective consciousness just as it haunts the daily realities of Black and minority families.
Though the suburbs were once thought to be an ideal place for raising children and living out the American Dream, long gone are the economically uniform, racially homogenous, ostensibly idyllic Leave-It-To-Beaver suburbs of yore. Today, while the suburbs are still the common roost for well-off, predominantly White families, the Brookings Institution (using recent census data) reports one-third of the nation’s poor reside in suburbs, and notes that there are now more poor people living in suburban areas than in cities. Further, more than 50 percent of the urban Black population lives in the suburbs.
This demographic shift means that suburban schools, which have almost exclusively educated middle- and upper middle-class children for decades, are now faced with the challenge of educating children across the socioeconomic and racial spectrum. As a consequence they have become prime proving ground to see if the education of children across race and class fulfills the dream of the Brown decision.
Unfortunately, suburban education is deeply separate and unequal. In my research on suburban schools, I found that while all parents wanted quality education for their children, access to opportunities were unequal. In diverse schools, affluent and White families had greater leverage with school administrators and subtly hoarded opportunities that were more difficult for Black and lower-income families to attain.
For instance, when White parents approached the school demanding their children be moved into specialized programs, or alternately, protested when their children were slated for slower-paced special education programs, their concerns were met. Black families, on the other hand, were considered “problem” families when they advocated for their children in the same ways their White counterparts did, and rarely were their requests honored.
Everyday inequalities such as these accumulated to produce drastically different educational experiences. In one 4th grade classroom I observed, 50 percent of African-American students were classified as in need of special education! The favorability of administrative and faculty responses to parents lobbying for their children’s placement within school programs routinely broke down along racial and socioeconomic fault lines.
The seeming intractability of this prejudice is understandably discouraging to less privileged families. While visiting the home of Ms. Towles, an espresso-complexioned African-American mother of a child in my study, I met Sharon, a friend of hers who she was entertaining. By way of introduction, Ms. Towles said, “Sharon, this is L’Heureux, and he’s here to fix the achievement gap.” At this, both women erupted in laughter and before I could stammer a response, Sharon blurted, “Good luck!”
On its face, their reaction reveals their incredulity at the prospect of closing the achievement gap. However, in the course of my research I found that Black families still believed in education. What they had more trouble believing was the sincerity of those who trumpeted their concerns about the “achievement gap” and “segregation.” The activism of Black parents on behalf of their children makes plain the value that they see in putting their kids through quality schools. Clearly, Black families have not given in to this discrimination, nor have they given up on the promise of Brown—but, we must ask ourselves, has the nation?
As we reflect on the significance of Brown and its declaration to offer equal access to opportunities for students of all races, we must realize that the issues of old have found new iterations on the suburban frontier. While the legal barriers to segregation stand, the houses we live in and the schools our children attend remain deeply divided. Celebrating the anniversary of a landmark decision should not just be a commemoration of the past, but should also birth a renewed commitment to achieving its original goals.
R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy (@dumilewis) is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies in the Colin Powell School of the City College of New York (CUNY). He is the author of Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling.