Is school segregation a problem of the past, or a fact of the present?
Sixty years ago this past Saturday, the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" schools based on race were unconstitutional, legally putting an end to segregated schools. But today, “one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened,” according to a report by ProPublica.
ProPublica goes on to report that the number of “apartheid schools” — schools where 1 percent or less of the student body is white — in the U.S. has grown from 2,762 in 1988, which was the highest rate of school integration, to 6,727 in 2011.
“School segregation doesn’t happen by accident; it flows inexorably from housing segregation,” said Jamelle Bouie of Slate. “If most black Americans live near other blacks and in a level of neighborhood poverty unseen by the vast majority of white Americans, then in the same way, their children attend schools that are poorer and more segregated than anything experienced by their white peers.”
“We could fix this,” he continued. “We could commit to a national assault on concentrated poverty, entrenched segregation, and housing discrimination."
Bouie believes that while change is possible, it would require total dedication to eradicating racism. “And given our high national tolerance for racial inequality,” he said, “I doubt we’ll rise to the challenge.”
John McWhorter, a prominent author on the subject of race relations in the U.S. and writer for The Daily Beast, does not agree that these “apartheid schools” are necessarily a bad thing.
“I say it’s time we reexamined this take on what segregation means, because it verges on a grievous insult to black people,” said McWhorter. “We are meant to cringe at the sight of a photo of an all-black classroom and ask cynically where the white kids are [but] blacks at the time of Brown brought into our present day would be baffled, and even irritated, by the idea that black kids are automatically worse off when white kids aren’t around.”
McWhorter went on to give the example of the all-black school Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., which frequently outperformed local white schools on standardized tests. Their higher scores, he says, began as early as 1899, when Jim Crow laws and mandatorily segregated schools were still very much in effect.
Unlike Bouie, McWorter did not express a need to fix segregated housing or to try to increase integration in schools. Instead, his emphasis is on changing the way we view black students and primarily black schools.
“Otherwise,” said McWhorter, “we’re stuck with the soft bigotry of thinking black kids are the only ones in human history who can only open their minds when there aren’t too many other people like them in the room.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2
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