NYC's - and the Nation's - Schools are Segregated, 50 Years After Brown v Board of Education
Brown v. Board of education changed American public school education forever.
Or did it?
Lesson in equality
Historic case went deeper than integrating schools
By Scott Rothschild, Lawrence Journal-World
Friday, May 14, 2004
TOPEKA - Fifty years after what some call the greatest court decision on human rights in U.S. history, people are still getting it wrong.
And as attention focuses on Topeka for Monday's opening of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Cheryl Brown Henderson and historians hope to set the record straight.
"None of what you all have been reporting to the public is true, and we need to stop it," Henderson said recently.
Henderson is the daughter of Oliver Brown -- the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit -- and she is president of The Brown Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides information and educational materials about the history of the case.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision that declared unconstitutional racial segregation in public schools. The ruling was a lethal blow to apartheid-like Jim Crow laws as the struggle by blacks for full civil rights gained momentum.
Kansas University professor Norman Yetman said the importance of the decision by the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren could not be overstated.
"It was a dramatic reversal of three and a half centuries of American history," said Yetman, who taught a course this semester on the Brown case and events leading to the decision.
But Henderson said the case had little to do with her family -- the Browns -- the often-told story about her older sister Linda's long bus ride to an all-black school or even education.
"Brown was about African-Americans as a community wanting to be enfranchised in this country," Henderson said.
The Brown name became forever linked with the history of civil rights through a series of historical twists of fate.
In 1950, the NAACP decided to challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine in schools allowed under the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson when the court permitted racial segregation.
In summer of 1950, McKinley Burnett, president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP, started recruiting black parents to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Topeka school board challenging segregation.
The Rev. Oliver Brown, an assistant pastor at St. John's A.M.E. Church and welder for the Santa Fe railroad, signed up on behalf of his then-8-year-old daughter, Linda. Linda had to cross the railroad tracks and take a bus about a mile to all-black Monroe Elementary, though an all-white elementary school was just four blocks away from their home.
In 1951, the NAACP filed the lawsuit and Oliver Brown was listed at the top of the plaintiffs, probably because he was the only male.
As the Topeka case moved up the judicial ladder, the U.S. Supreme Court consolidated it with other appeals from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The Brown case was selected as the lead case, though the reason for that has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Some historians said the court picked a non-Southern case so to not inflame the South further at a time when racial tensions in the region already were at a breaking point.
But others say the Topeka case was chosen because at the lower court level, U.S. District Judge Walter Huxman, a former Kansas governor, allowed testimony into the record by Louisa Holt, an assistant professor of psychology at Kansas University in the early 1950s, and other sociologists on how segregation implied that blacks were inferior.
The lower court said it had to uphold segregation because of the Plessy decision. But the social science information was crucial to the U.S. Supreme Court reaching a decision.
Writing the Supreme Court's decision, Warren said: "The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs: 'Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a [racially] integrated school system.'"
Yetman said many people had a simplistic view of the civil rights movement that has made the Browns icons. In reality, Yetman said, the Browns stood on the shoulders of generations of black people who struggled for equality, including the dozens of families who were plaintiffs in the other cases.
"This was the collective effort of hundreds of people including those who lost their lives, property, were run out of town and constantly intimidated and terrorized. The effort they made basically is unsung," he said.
Yetman said the plaintiffs in the Southern states "put their lives on the line."
He added, "I don't want to diminish what Oliver Brown did, but he didn't face the same kind of terrorism that many people who tried to fight for their basic rights endured."
Steve Adams, National Parks Service superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education site, said in travels to other civil rights battlegrounds there was some animosity that the Brown decision seemed to get all the attention.
"It's extremely important that when we tell the story, we tell the true story," he said.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said some of the misperceptions about the Brown decision stemmed from ambivalent feelings about it in Topeka.
"It is ironic that the Browns don't want attention now because in 1954, when the case was settled, they and other Topeka litigants received little media attention," said Beatty, who also taught a course focusing on the case.
When the Supreme Court decision was announced, Topeka papers published the news but ignored the local plaintiffs.
The Topeka State Journal on the day of the decision had a banner headline that read: "School Segregation Banned," but nowhere on the front page did it mention the title case was an appeal from Topeka.
"The newspapers here showed it as a Southern issue and a problem that the South needed to deal with, and it was good for America and that Kansas was a leader in civil rights," Beatty said.
The Topeka school superintendent at the time, Wendell Goodwin, was quoted as saying the Supreme Court decision would have no effect on Topeka schools because "segregation is already being terminated in an orderly manner."
Bush, Kerry among scheduled visitors
Topeka -- The 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling will bring plenty of dignitaries to Topeka through Monday. Among those scheduled to visit:
• President Bush is the key speaker at the grand opening of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, 1515 S.E. Monroe St. The event starts at 10:30 a.m. Monday.
• U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., will attend a state commemoration proclamation at 8:30 a.m. Monday on the south steps of the Capitol.
• The Rev. Jesse Jackson will speak at 11 a.m. Sunday at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, 610 S.E. Lime.
Of course, segregation was a problem in Kansas, Beatty said. It took decades for the Topeka school district to desegregate. The case was reopened again in 1979 and wasn't settled until 1999 when the supervising court declared that the district had complied with the court's goals.
Beatty said Topeka had been "very hot and cold about this case."
"On Monday, we are dedicating a national historic site at Monroe Elementary school, and at one point it was a week from being torn down," he said.
Unlike Yetman and Henderson, Beatty said he saw no problem with people focusing on the story of Linda Brown, as long as that leads a person to further study of the civil rights movement.
"You can't escape what Linda Brown symbolizes, and her story makes a good starting point," Beatty said, especially for youngsters who can relate to her age when the case was winding through the courts.
Yetman said another danger in focusing too much on the Brown decision was the tendency by some to say the case ended discrimination.
"Today we still have situations that are dramatically separate and unequal," he said.
The current struggle over school funding in Kansas -- where a judge has declared that Kansas unconstitutionally discriminates against poor students -- is an extension of the court's rulings in Brown, he said.
Linda Brown currently is a program associate for The Brown Foundation. She and Cheryl Brown Henderson go on speaking engagements across the country on the case, but they rarely give interviews.
Henderson's comments came during a surprise visit with media that were meeting at Monroe Elementary to be briefed on Monday's celebration.
Henderson urged people to read about earlier cases leading up to the Brown decision, such as lawsuits in Oklahoma and Texas that challenged segregation of graduate students at universities.
She said the Brown case was another milestone in the civil rights movement, but that her family's role was minimal.
"I don't enjoy it -- taking credit for something we never did," she said.
History of public school desegregation
The Rev. Oliver Brown filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education, seeking equal education for his daughter Linda. May 17, 1954, The Supreme Court ruled in the Brown case that a "separate but equal" education system is "inherently unequal."
In the decision known as "Brown II," the Supreme Court ordered districts to desegregate with "all deliberate speed." Many Southern states continued to resist.
National Guard troops escorted nine black students into their high school in Little Rock.
Prince Edward County, Md., closed public schools to avoid implementing the Brown decision.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in voting, public accommodations, schools and employment.
The Supreme Court ruled that busing is an acceptable means of desegregating public schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.
Black lawyers returned to court in Topeka seeking to speed desegregation of the school system.
School integration reached an all-time high. Almost 45 percent of black students in the United States were enrolled in majority-white schools, according to the the Harvard Civil Rights Project.
The Supreme Court allowed school districts to declare themselves integrated in Oklahoma City vs. Dowell. The national resegregation trend picked up momentum.
A federal judge ordered the Topeka school district to "eliminate the vestiges" of segregation. The subsequent remedy included closure of 13 predominantly black schools and the opening of two magnet schools.
The Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in higher-education admissions in Grutter vs. Bollinger but also ruled against fixed racial quotas.
In New York City, if you are an African-American child, you most probably attend a school that is segregated. All the beautiful, glossy, multi-colored brochures will not change this sad fact, nor will these documents sway the heartache minority parents have over the inequality in public school education they see with their own eyes every single day. Parents who have not read any studies on this are very aware of the racial divide, and the very obvious consequences of this gap. Anyone who talks to African American parents or guardians (often the grandparents) will be told about the run-down school facility; the lack of supplies, books, good teachers, even homework assignments. In these schools, 50 years after the momentous Brown v Board of Education decision, very little has changed, and not one official from the Bloomberg/Klein/DOE administration have stepped forward to explain why this is so, or what they will do to change this.
ACORN studied this problem Secret Apartheid:A Report on Racial Discrimination Against Black and Latino Parents and Children in the New York City Public Schools[several years ago, and followed up with two other studies. It was ACORNS' evidence of the lack of equity in the provision to all parents, fair access to the range of programs in the schools that captured the attention of the regional office of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Ultimately, the claim ACORN filed with OCR resulted in the resolution agreement ( MOU) with the Board of Education which compeled the Board of Education to institute concrete measures to
democratize access to information about the schools and their programs. The two subsequent studies were:
Secret Apartheid II: Race, Regents, and Resources
Secret Apartheid III: Followup to Failure
This segregation is all the more disastrous for New York City, because we have a Mayor who has staked his political career on education reform in New York City and has done nothing to end this problem. Does this mean that he does not really care about the segregation, or that he does not really believe this is a political situation that needs to worry him? Or both? African-American Benjamin Tucker, appointed by Chancellor Klein to oversee the school violence and security, quit two weeks ago without comment.
The New York Times:For a Historic Anniversary, Few Hurrahs for New York
By SETH KUGEL [May 9, 2004]
P.S. 68 in Wakefield, the Bronx, is 87 percent black and 1 percent white. P.S. 21 in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, is 93 percent black and 0.35 percent white. P.S. 56 in Staten Island is 1 percent black and 90 percent white.
A week from tomorrow, educators and others around the country will observe the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark court decision outlawing school segregation. But according to a nationwide study of elementary schools conducted by the Lewis Mumford Center at SUNY Albany, New York doesn't have much to celebrate.
In fact, New York's is the only one of the nation's 30 biggest school systems in which black-white segregation increased from 1968 to 2000, according to the "dissimilarity index," a measure used in the study. The index calculates the percentage of black or white children who would have to switch schools to achieve an even distribution. In New York, that percentage rose from 72.2 in 1968 to 81.7 in 2000, while everywhere else, it fell. "New York City has been stuck since the 1960's, and surprisingly so," said John R. Logan, the sociologist who did the study.
Choosing how to gauge segregation, however, is tricky. Mr. Logan favors the dissimilarity index, but Gary Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard and an expert on segregation, called it "a terrible measure" in cases where the school system has few white students. In 2000, New York's elementary schools were 15 percent white and 34 percent black, with Hispanics and Asians making up the bulk of the rest.
But Mr. Orfield agrees that New York is badly segregated, and a second measure used in the Mumford Center study, the exposure index, leads to the same conclusion. This index calculates how many whites are in the school attended by the typical black student. In 1970, this hypothetical school was 21 percent white, but, by 2000, it was just 5 percent white. Although New York's was not the only big school system to regress, it fell the most.
Why has the city fared so badly? First, most segregation lawsuits were filed in the South. "Nobody ever had the money to sue New York," Mr. Orfield said.
Also, integrating areas like the South Bronx, where whites are rare, is difficult. "Reducing barriers in the housing market is, in the long run, the best and perhaps the only viable solution," Mr. Logan said.
Jerry Russo, a spokesman for the city's Department of Education, would not address the racial breakdown of schools directly, but said the department was seeking to furnish an equal education to all children.
New York has a few bright spots. White-Hispanic segregation has dropped since the late 60's, although less so than in many cities. And the average New York student is attending a school that is, on the whole, more diverse (though less white) once Hispanics and Asians are counted.
Still, the city is hardly a model for the nation. When Mr. Orfield comes to New York, he said, he likes to announce: "I'm glad to be here in the heartland of segregation."
New York Schools: Fifty Years After Brown
by Gail Robinson [Gotham Gazette,May 05, 2004]
Even parents who can afford private schools send their children to P.S. 6 on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The school offers instruction in political cartooning and foreign language and a joint program with the Museum of Natural History. And all the innovation apparently pays off. More than 92 percent of the students at the school meet the state standards in reading and math for their grade level.
But there is another P.S. 6 in New York City, this one in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Despite a well-regarded principal, only 40 percent of its students meet the state standards in reading and less than a third in math.
The Manhattan P.S. 6 is overwhelmingly white and includes only a smattering of poor students. Its East Flatbush counterpart is more than 92 percent black, with almost 90 percent of its students from families with low enough incomes to qualify the children for a free school lunch.
The differences between these schools reflect the state of education in New York City public schools today, 50 years after the Supreme Court outlawed legally enforced school segregation in the United States. Despite a far greater ethnic diversity, with an increasing number of Asian and Hispanic students, New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country. But, if integration has not been achieved, few New Yorkers seem to see it anymore as the most important goal in education.
THE BROWN DECISION
On May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, legalized segregation in the country had just started to crumble in the wake of World War II. But separate and decidedly unequal still held sway across much of the country, particularly the South, with black Americans forced to sit in the back of the bus, drink at different fountains, and sit in separate train cars. They were barred from Woolworth lunch counters and could not try on clothes in department stores. Poll taxes, tests with arcane questions and intimidation prevented them from voting.
Linda Brown, a black third grader in Topeka, Kansas, had to attend a school a mile from her home, even though a white elementary school was only seven blocks away. The principal of the white school refused to admit Linda, setting in motion the events that would lead to the historic court ruling.
In defense of its dual school systems, the Topeka school board argued that segregated schools prepared youngsters for the segregated society in which they would live and were not harmful to black youngsters.
After years of argument and deliberation, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, rejected those claims. In the decision, Warren wrote, "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn."
Brown and a related ruling "reflected and encouraged developments that would soon spark the burst of humane, bold and heroic action that we now know as the civil rights movement," Eric Foner and Randall Kennedy wrote in a special issue of The Nation magazine commemorating the Brown decision.
Some predicted all schools would be integrated within five years. But change came slowly. In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation could proceed "with all deliberate speed," a phrase that many school districts took to mean "as slowly as possible." And so a decade after Brown, less than two percent of black youngsters in the South attended integrated schools.
But the civil rights movement helped change that. And by 1974, 20 years after Brown, almost half of all black children throughout the nation went to white-majority schools. Despite what many call the 'resegregation' of the last few decades, some of that change remains, including in Topeka, the city that gave birth to Brown.
But this is not the story in New York City, where the racial composition of schools today almost resembles those in the South of the 1950s.
Indeed, the city's schools were not much more integrated than Southern schools when the Brown decision was issued -- even though Governor Theodore Roosevelt had directed the New York State Legislature to abolish the last two officially black schools in New York City way back in 1900. But as recounted by Diane Ravitch in her book The Great School Wars in 1954, Kenneth Clark, a psychologist whose research bolstered the NAACP arguments in the Brown case, issued another report concluding that New York City had a segregated school system and that black children received an inferior education. The head of the New York City Board of Education then, Arthur Levitt, said the segregation had not "been deliberately imposed by legislation" but was nonetheless "not good educational policy."
At the same time, the population of the school system was undergoing a huge change, as many whites left the city for the suburbs, and more and more Hispanics moved to New York. There were many subsequent efforts to address the segregation in the city -- some sincere, some cosmetic, few successful.
NEW YORK'S SEGREGATED SYSTEM
Today, of the approximately 1.1 million students in New York City public schools, about 13 percent are Asian, 15 percent white, 32 percent black and 40 percent Hispanic. Given the makeup of the student body, one reason for segregation of New York City schools, said Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, is that "there are no kids to integrate with."
But the population of many schools is even more skewed than the student population as a whole. Some 60 percent of all black students in New York State, including those in New York City, attend schools that are at least 90 percent black, according to a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University; more Latinos in New York State than in any other state go to schools that are 90 percent or more Latino.
Another study, this one by the Lewis Mumford Center at the State University of New York at Albany, found that Asians and Hispanics are more segregated from whites in New York schools than in any other school system in the country. For black-white segregation, New York ranks third.
The Mumford study also found that, in 2000, the typical black student attended a school where only five percent of the other students were white, a sharp drop from 1970.
This segregation has a different cause than that in the South of the 1950s. In New York, "the segregation in the schools reflects segregation in the housing market," said John Logan, who conducted the Mumford center study. While New Yorkers think of this as a progressive city, it is Logan, said, "one of the most segregated cities in the country in terms of blacks and whites."
But the city has had little success implementing policies that might reduce the effects that housing segregation has on schools.
Particularly at the high school level, the city established schools with special programs around the city, in an effort to encourage students to leave their neighborhoods. But the effort has not done much to improve integration. Although some of the individual school programs are good, "I don't believe school choice has made New York a less segregated city," said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, which works on school issues.
In another attempt to encourage diversity, the city requires that some high schools with special programs admit the same number of students who do poorly on standardized tests as those who score substantially above average. But this gives the lowest scoring students a better chance at admission because far fewer of that group applies. And some parents, many of them white, complain that their children are being unfairly denied a place in these schools.
Partly in response, white parents in several communities have lobbied to bring back the neighborhood high school, at least in their communities. "Despite paying the highest tax rates in New York City, we don't have a school that will prepare our children to go to the superior colleges they are qualified to attend," a proposal by East Side parents said.
The parents won creation of the new Eleanor Roosevelt High School on East 76th Street, but the school admits children from a broad swath of Manhattan, not just the immediate neighborhood, as the parents had wanted. Eleanor Roosevelt, now in its first year of existence, is 10 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, 35 percent Asian, and 40 percent white.
Parents in the white, affluent Park Slope section of Brooklyn fought to revamp John Jay, a high school attended largely by black and Hispanic students from outside the community. They believed that three new small schools, with grades 6 through 12, would enable more Park Slope kids to attend high school in their neighborhood. They won their fight but may have achieved a Pyrrhic victory. Top students from Park Slope have been slow to embrace the three new schools and at least one is plagued by discipline problems and a poor reputation in the area.
THE EFFECTS OF SEGREGATION
If the schools are still segregated, does segregation still matter? Some would argue that it does.
Claude Steele, a professor at Stanford University, listed some effects segregation has on black students. "They are more likely to go to poorly funded schools in run-down buildings and more likely to be taught by uncertified and poorly trained teachers," he wrote. "They are likely to be counseled with lower expectations. They are more likely to go to schools with few or no Advanced Placement courses, and they are likely to have less access to test-prep courses and related tutorials."
Although there are exceptions, schools in New York City with higher test scores tend to have greater numbers of white and Asian students, while struggling schools are more likely to be composed primarily of black and Hispanic students.
In the 1990s, the community group ACORN charged that many junior high schools in predominantly black and Hispanic areas did not teach students what they needed to know in order to do well on the test for the selective specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant. In response, rather than improve the program for all youngsters, the city began offering special instruction for selected students. Despite the classes, less than 10 percent of students at Stuyvesant are black or Hispanic.
Black and Hispanic students score significantly lower than whites and Asians on virtually all standardized tests and are less likely to finish high school. About 94 percent of white youngsters in New York State who started high school in 1999 were seniors in June 2003, but only 61 percent of Hispanic children and 65 percent of black students were.
As New York increasingly relies on standardized tests, some critics worry that black and Hispanic students will be most affected. For example, most students at Taft High School and Bushwick High School, both of which are 98 percent black and Hispanic, did not pass even one of the five Regents tests required for graduation. "On the 50th anniversary of Brown, we've come full circle," said Jane Hirschmann of Timeout From Testing. Relying so much on Regents and other tests, she said, "is very unequal and very unfair."
Test proponents argue, however, that the lack of firm standards in education has been discriminatory, awarding black and Hispanic students diplomas but without giving them the skills they need to earn a living or function in society.
Black and Hispanic students also bear the brunt of discipline in the city schools. More than 90 percent of students at Second Opportunity Schools for students serving lengthy suspensions were black or Hispanic, according to Advocates for Children.
Academics, educators and politicians endlessly debate the reasons for these disparities. But one factor could be that, along with the achievement gap, there is a resource gap. Predominantly black and Hispanic New York City spends $10,500 per pupil, about half the $21,000 that the rich -- and largely white -- Long Island suburb of Manhasset spends, Jonathan Kozol has noted. At the same time, many senior teachers avoid poor, minority schools in the city in favor of richer schools.
The gap to some extent reflects the fact that much of the money for schools comes from local tax revenues, and more affluent -- usually white -- communities have more money to spend than the black and Hispanic communities that tend to be less affluent.
But critics charge that New York State does nothing to erase the gap, and some things that make it worse. According to David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, in New York State "school districts with the highest percentage of minority students receive over $2,000 annually less than school districts with the lowest percentage of minority students." He blames the state's method of allocating funds to districts.
THE BENEFITS OF INTEGRATION
The demand for integration is not purely academic. Students who attended the more integrated schools of the 1970s, and those who attend the segregated schools of today, apparently see the value of diversity.
A recent study by Columbia University Teachers College looked at people who had attended school in the peak integration years of the 1970s before courts began rolling back orders requiring busing and other integration measures. While the integration may not have completely reformed society, it did change individual members of the class of 1980.
The study concluded that the integrated schools did more than any other institution, except perhaps the military, to "bring people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds together and foster equal opportunity." And, the people interviewed said they found