This year the nation will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that brought major changes in national and social policy and focused the nation on the issue of racial discrimination in public education. As we approach this anniversary, it's important for us as to take a look back at this landmark decision and examine its legacy.
Why should we re-examine Brown at this time? If Brown was our effort to achieve the ideals of liberty, freedom, justice, and equality for all of our nation’s children, it is important to determine what progress we have made.
While the civil rights movement made incredible strides in doing away with legally sanctioned segregation in our schools, the amount of desegregation that has occurred in our schools and society is debatable.
In the 1990s, due to changes in the Supreme Court, issues with busing, and growing dissent about the best way to create equal educational opportunity, many schools actually became more segregated. According to Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, the percentage of black students in majority white schools is now at about 31 percent, down from about 43 percent in the mid-80s. More and more school districts under desegregation orders have successfully had these orders lifted, and there appears to movement back to the idea of "separate but equal."
Today, many school districts are successfully petitioning to end desegregation orders — arguing that mandated desegregation simply doesn't work and that continued efforts to desegregate schools are an exercise in futility. Other opponents to desegregation argue the merits of neighborhood schools and local control.
Given this trend, we must ask why some people gave up on desegregation? The reasons are numerous, and critics of desegregation exist both on the left and the right. Some believe that Brown achieved its objectives and that educational opportunities are equal; others believe that desegregation is patronizing and devalues minority communities and their efforts to educate their own children. Still others believe that desegregation increased racial tension and eroded educational standards. What I believe is that people have grown weary of the struggle for equality and have become blind to the problems associated with the inadequate education that many minority children experience in increasingly segregated and poverty-stricken schools.
What are the consequences of keeping minority students in schools that may lack the resources to prepare them for college or improved employment opportunities? In economic terms, lost productivity; in political terms, disengagement and disaffection; in moral terms, a loss of hope.
Are we, as a nation, willing to continue teaching our children that this is a land of opportunity while ignoring the plight of some of our fastest-growing populations? As an educator, I want to be able to talk about America as a place where the poorest, most disadvantaged children can have the same opportunities as everyone else to learn to read and write, understand and appreciate mathematics and the sciences, and think critically. Sadly, I know that this dream stands in sharp contrast to the reality of millions of students attending increasingly segregated schools.
As it stands today, the work toward integration that was sparked by Brown is a largely incomplete project that continues to hold promise for millions of students in segregated communities and schools. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet that will make this problem go away.
The solution requires the political will to address the fundamental inequalities that exist within our educational system. At the national and state level this means expanding the educational debate beyond the issue of student achievement to include the economic and social factors that can result in unequal access to resources and poor student performance. At the local level, this means creating an environment where it is clear that all children are valued and cared for and that the problems of our neighbors’ children are also our own.
Abe Feuerstein is head of the education department at Bucknell University. To help spark a dialogue about the Brown decision’s importance and legacy, he has organized a series of programs at Bucknell that continues through April 6.
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