A lot of people will gather for special events this week celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools.
On Friday, first lady Michelle Obama will speak about it at the “senior (high school) recognition day” ceremony in Topeka. On Saturday night I’ll be among people at the Kansas state capital for an event honoring the anniversary and the civil rights movement.
But should we be celebrating or crying?
The Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision had made segregation the law of the land, chaining blacks to inferior schools, housing, health care and public accommodations. Blacks also were mostly disenfranchised. The 1954 ruling dissolved those laws, giving blacks the legal right to attend better funded white schools.
The long-sought Brown decision also inspired change. The civil rights movement pushed to open up America, enabling people of color to integrate schools, businesses, health care and housing.
The change included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, granting constitutional freedoms long kept from minorities. But the last 40 years have eroded many civil rights gains with affirmative action being all but dead.
The 21st century trend is as condemning as the Brown ruling was inspiring. An Economic Policy Institute report last month notes that “Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission — to undo the school segregation that persists as a central feature of American public education today.”
People shouldn’t celebrate Brown. They should mourn the opportunity that has been bungled and lost. “Initial school integration gains following Brown stalled, and black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been available (1970),” the report notes.
The report should shock the U.S. to end segregation. But it won’t. Segregation has always given too many whites a sense of privilege and superiority over minorities.
The report notes that black schools were inferior before the 1954 ruling. “Inequalities still exist in some places, although they are much smaller. But resource equality itself is insufficient; disadvantaged students require much greater resources than middle-class white students to prepare for success in school.”
Kansas City Public Schools and urban districts nationwide need wrap-around services. The institute report says: “Expensive but necessary resources include high-quality early childhood programs, from birth to school entry; high-quality after-school and summer programs; full-service school health clinics; more skilled teachers; and smaller classes.”
But will America have the stomach to fund such essential education programs for students of color? Don’t hold your breath.
The institute notes: “Even with these added resources, students can rarely be successful in racially and economically isolated schools, where remediation and discipline supplant regular instruction, excessive student mobility disrupts learning, involvement of more-educated parents is absent, and students lack adult and peer models of educational success.
“Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Raising achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow. Education policy is housing policy.”
But federal requirements for residential integration “have been unenforced, and federal programs to subsidize movement of low-income families to middle-class communities have been weak and ineffective. Correcting these policy shortcomings is essential if the promise of Brown is to be fulfilled.”
So this week we will celebrate the Brown decision in integrated crowds, and then return to where we live in mostly segregated America — sadly satisfied with the way things have always been.