Article

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Civic Ideals and Practices

THE BIG READ

Civil Rights

Still Separate, Still Unequal

It’s been more than 65 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools are unconstitutional. Yet many students are once again divided by race. 

As You Read, Think About: How might attending diverse schools benefit students of all races?

Just two days remained before the U.S. history exam, and Tiffani Torres felt completely unprepared. A junior at a New York City high school where 85 percent of students were black or Latinx and most were from low-income families, Tiffani was near the top of her class. She had signed up for an advanced U.S. history course in hopes of doing well enough on the exam to receive college credit.

Over the months leading up to the test, Tiffani had worked hard and attended study groups outside school. But with 48 hours to go, she still didn’t feel ready. As a last-ditch effort, Tiffani signed up to study with students from across the city who’d be taking the same exam. That’s how she met a girl who attended a high school where 88 percent of students were white or Asian American and many were from wealthy or middle-class families.

When they sat down to study, the girl pulled out a pile of test-prep materials she’d been given by her school. The resources included all sorts of information about U.S. history that Tiffani hadn’t been taught in class. In fact, she recalled, “I didn’t even know it would be on the test—and that I needed to know it.” She immediately felt like her school had let her down.

Just two days remained before the U.S. history exam. Tiffani Torres felt completely unprepared. She was a junior at a New York City high school where 85 percent of students were black or Latinx. Most of those students were from low-income families. Tiffani was near the top of her class. She had signed up for an advanced U.S. history course in hopes of doing well enough on the exam to get college credit.

Over the months leading up to the test, Tiffani had worked hard. She went to study groups outside school. But with 48 hours to go, she still did not feel ready. As a last-ditch effort, Tiffani signed up to study with students from across the city who would be taking the same exam. That is how she met a girl who went to a high school where 88 percent of students were white or Asian American. Many of those students were from wealthy or middle-class families.

When they sat down to study, the girl pulled out a pile of test-prep materials her school had given her. The resources included all sorts of information about U.S. history that Tiffani had not been taught in class. In fact, she recalled, “I didn’t even know it would be on the test—and that I needed to know it.” She immediately felt like her school had let her down.

Tiffani is not alone in experiencing how unfair the nation’s education system can be. Even though segregated public schools have been illegal for more than 65 years, schools across the country—in big cities, suburbs, and small towns—continue to be divided by race and class. 

Experts say the main reason schools are segregated today is that neighborhoods are segregated—and most students attend the public school in their community. 

Because school funding is tied to how much residents pay in state and local taxes—and low-income families generally pay less in taxes—schools in poorer communities receive less money from the government. They also tend to raise less money from parents and local fund-raisers.

That means these schools often can’t afford to buy new textbooks or computers. Some can’t offer art, music, or advanced classes for gifted students. They often have trouble attracting and keeping the best, most experienced teachers because they can’t pay them high-enough wages.

Tiffani is not alone in experiencing how unfair the nation’s education system can be. For more than 65 years, segregated public schools have been illegal. But schools across the country continue to be divided by race and class. That is true in big cities, suburbs, and small towns.

Experts say the main reason schools are segregated today is that neighborhoods are segregated. And most students go to the public school in their community.

School funding is tied to how much residents pay in state and local taxes. Low-income families generally pay less in taxes. That is why schools in poorer communities get less money from the government. They also tend to raise less money from parents and local fund-raisers.

That means these schools often cannot afford to buy new textbooks or computers. Some cannot offer art, music, or advanced classes for gifted students. They often have trouble attracting and keeping the best, most experienced teachers because they cannot pay them high-enough wages.

75%

Approximate share of black and Latinx kids nationwide who go to schools where most of their classmates are students of color

SOURCE: UCLA Civil Rights Project

What’s more, such schools often serve mostly students of color, like Tiffani. That’s because government policies have long prevented people of color from moving into white middle-class neighborhoods—and sending their kids to schools there. 

The effects of these differences can be devastating. Studies show that children of color who go to segregated schools are less likely to finish high school, less likely to attend and graduate from college, and, as a result, more likely to be limited to low-paying jobs. 

But school segregation doesn’t affect just students of color. Children of all races and backgrounds who attend integrated schools, including white students, do better academically and are better prepared for life as adults than those who attend segregated schools. Research shows that they tend to have higher test scores and live longer. Diverse classrooms have also been shown to improve critical-thinking, problem-solving, and leadership skills, as well as to reduce prejudices.

“Being educated in an integrated school gives students of all races a better chance to succeed,” says education policy expert Gary Orfield. “Unfortunately, many kids today aren’t given that chance.” 

Also, such schools often serve mostly students of color, like Tiffani. That is because government policies have long kept people of color from moving into white middle-class neighborhoods and sending their kids to schools there.

The effects of these differences can be devastating. Studies show that children of color who go to segregated schools are less likely to finish high school. They are less likely to go to and graduate from college. And, as a result, they are more likely to be limited to low-paying jobs.

But students of color are not the only ones affected by school segregation. Children of all races and backgrounds who go to integrated schools, including white students, do better academically. They are better prepared for life as adults than those who go to segregated schools. Research shows that they tend to have higher test scores and live longer. Diverse classrooms have also been shown to improve critical-thinking, problem-solving, and leadership skills and to reduce prejudices.

“Being educated in an integrated school gives students of all races a better chance to succeed,” says education policy expert Gary Orfield. “Unfortunately, many kids today aren’t given that chance.”

What You Need to Know

©Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Students at a segregated school in Alabama in 1965

“Separate But Equal” This legal principle, established by the Supreme Court in 1896, was used to justify racial segregation. It allowed for separate public facilities for black people and white people—including schools, libraries, and hospitals—as long as they were equal. In reality, they never were; those for white people were always superior. The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education over­turned this principle, declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

“Separate But Equal” This legal principle, established by the Supreme Court in 1896, was used to justify racial segregation. It allowed for separate public facilities for black people and white people—including schools, libraries, and hospitals—as long as they were equal. In reality, they never were; those for white people were always superior. The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education over­turned this principle, declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

A History of Discrimination

The problem of education inequality in the U.S. isn’t new. Before the Civil War (1861-65), most Southern states forbade black people from learning to read and write. 

The end of the war—and the passage of constitutional amendments that protected black people’s civil rights—gave hope to millions of African Americans desperate for a quality education. They knew that going to school would give them the skills they’d need to be active citizens.

Yet soon after the war, white politicians in the South passed a number of Jim Crow laws that made it legal to discriminate against African Americans. As part of this system, officials set up separate—and inferior—public schools for black kids. Classes were often held in run-down buildings with inexperienced teachers and just a few old books, if any.

Education inequality and racial discrimination weren’t limited to the South, however. Nationwide, many white people—politicians, business owners, and ordinary citizens—worked together to keep black people out of their neighborhoods and schools. Many white home­owners refused to rent or sell property to black people. Banks coordinated with the federal government to deny loans to African Americans looking to buy homes. And in many cases, when black families were able to move into largely white neighborhoods with strong schools, the white families left. 

Over time, experts say, this meant black people continued to live in segregated communities. Because of discriminatory policies, few businesses invested in these areas. High-paying job opportunities were scarce. And schools were underfunded and unequal to those in wealthier places where most students were white.

The problem of education inequality in the U.S. is not new. Before the Civil War (1861-65), most Southern states forbade black people from learning to read and write.

The end of the war—and the passage of constitutional amendments that protected black people’s civil rights—gave hope to millions of African Americans who were desperate for a quality education. They knew that going to school would give them the skills they would need to be active citizens.

Yet soon after the war, white politicians in the South passed a number of Jim Crow laws. The laws made it legal to discriminate against African Americans. As part of this system, officials set up separate and inferior public schools for black kids. Classes were often held in run-down buildings. They had inexperienced teachers and just a few old books, if any.

But education inequality and racial discrimination were not limited to the South. Nationwide, many white people, including politicians, business owners, and ordinary citizens, worked together to keep black people out of their neighborhoods and schools. Many white homeowners refused to rent or sell property to black people. Banks worked with the federal government to deny loans to African Americans looking to buy homes. And in many cases, when black families were able to move into largely white neighborhoods with strong schools, the white families left.

Experts say that over time, this meant black people continued to live in segregated communities. Because of discriminatory policies, few businesses invested in these areas. High-paying job opportunities were scarce. And schools were underfunded and unequal to those in wealthier places where most students were white.

Ending School Segregation 

Meanwhile, black leaders were fighting back in the courts against racial inequality. In 1954, with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregated public schools are unconstitutional. 

But the justices didn’t specify how schools should desegregate. And many white lawmakers defied the ruling. In some places, they closed public schools for months or years to avoid integrating them. Instead, officials helped pay for white kids to attend private schools, which weren’t affected by the Brown ruling. In other places, they set district zones to keep students of different races in separate schools.

Meanwhile, black leaders were fighting back in the courts against racial inequality. In 1954, with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregated public schools are unconstitutional.

But the justices did not specify how schools should desegregate. And many white lawmakers defied the ruling. In some places, they closed public schools for months or years to avoid integrating them. Instead, officials helped pay for white kids to attend private schools. Private schools were not affected by the Brown ruling. In other places, they set district zones to keep students of different races in separate schools.

Lee Lockwood/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Police escort black students to school in Boston in 1974 after thousands of white people there violently opposed integration.

Eventually, though, black leaders convinced the federal government to enforce desegregation. As a result, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, in workplaces, and at public facilities.

In the years that followed, schools gradually desegregated. One key way was through a process known as busing, in which school buses were used to take black students to schools in white areas and white students to schools in black areas. 

The process, intended to overcome the fact that neighborhoods are often segregated, faced violent backlash by white families in some cities. But it was largely successful at integrating schools, experts say. By the early 1970s, 90 percent of black kids in the South were going to school with white kids, up from only 1 percent in 1963. 

In the following decades, millions of children nationwide attended integrated schools. The quality of education for black kids improved, as did student achievement. 

Eventually, though, black leaders convinced the federal government to enforce desegregation. As a result, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed racial segregation in schools, in workplaces, and at public facilities.

In the years that followed, schools gradually desegregated. One key way was through a process known as busing. That was using school buses to take black students to schools in white areas and white students to schools in black areas.

The process was meant to overcome the fact that neighborhoods are often segregated. It faced violent backlash by white families in some cities. But it was largely successful at integrating schools, experts say. By the early 1970s, 90 percent of black kids in the South were going to school with white kids. That was up from only 1 percent in 1963.

In the following decades, millions of children nationwide attended integrated schools. The quality of education for black kids improved. So did student achievement.

School Segregation Today

More than 65 years after the Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, many U.S. schools are once again segregated. 

SOURCE: UCLA Civil Rights Project
Note: Numbers don’t add up to 100% because of rounding.

Rapid Resegregation 

But it didn’t last. Starting in the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court rulings made it easier for cities and states to stop trying to integrate schools. The government has said that any remaining segregation is largely due to voluntary housing choices—even though decades of racist policies continue to influence where people of color live.

Over time, many school districts have abandoned their efforts to integrate. In some places, wealthy and middle-class white families have withdrawn from integrated districts to form their own districts. And government agencies responsible for enforcing desegregation have mostly looked the other way. 

But it did not last. Starting in the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court rulings made it easier for cities and states to stop trying to integrate schools. The government has said that any remaining segregation is largely due to voluntary housing choices. But decades of racist policies continue to influence where people of color live.

Over time, many school districts have abandoned their efforts to integrate. In some places, wealthy and middle-class white families have withdrawn from integrated districts to form their own districts. And government agencies responsible for enforcing desegregation have mostly looked the other way.

$11,682

Average amount of funding districts with mostly kids of color receive per student, compared with $13,908 per student for majority-white districts

SOURCE: EdBuild

As a result, the nation’s schools are once again separate and unequal. According to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, about three-quarters of all black and Latinx students nationwide go to schools where most of their peers are students of color. And research by the nonprofit group EdBuild shows that districts that serve mostly kids of color receive $2,200 less in state and local funding per student than mostly white districts.

As a result, the nation’s schools are once again separate and unequal. About three-quarters of all black and Latinx students nationwide go to schools where most of their peers are students of color. That is according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles. And research by the nonprofit group EdBuild shows that districts that serve mostly kids of color get $2,200 less in state and local funding per student than mostly white districts get.

David Grossman/Alamy Stock Photo

Students in New York City recently marched for integration.

Helping All Students Succeed

Across the country, however, many people are trying to solve the problem. In Minnesota and New Jersey, for example, black, Latinx, and white families are suing school districts to force them to integrate. In Texas, city officials in Dallas and San Antonio are promoting integration by redrawing school zones to bring together students from all races.

But much more needs to be done, experts say. For starters, lawmakers need to enforce existing civil rights laws, including those that forbid housing discrimination, some people say. Others believe the government should offer financial rewards to districts that are trying to desegregate.

Students themselves must also get involved, experts say. Tiffani, for one, recently joined a group called Teens Take Charge that’s fighting to integrate New York City schools, which are among the most segregated in the nation. The group brings together young people from all backgrounds to organize rallies, call lawmakers’ attention to the devastating effects of segregation, and demand solutions.

For many students, says Tiffani, “the only support they have is their school. So when their school is failing them, they have no hope. That needs to change. We all deserve an equal opportunity to succeed.”

Across the country, however, many people are trying to solve the problem. In Minnesota and New Jersey, for example, black, Latinx, and white families are suing school districts to force them to integrate. In Texas, city officials in Dallas and San Antonio are promoting integration by redrawing school zones to bring together students from all races.

But much more needs to be done, experts say. For starters, lawmakers need to enforce existing civil rights laws. That includes those that forbid housing discrimination, some people say. Others believe the government should offer financial rewards to districts that are trying to desegregate.

Students themselves must also get involved, experts say. Tiffani, for one, recently joined a group called Teens Take Charge. The group is fighting to integrate New York City schools, which are among the most segregated in the nation. The group brings together young people from all backgrounds to organize rallies. The group calls lawmakers’ attention to the devastating effects of segregation and demands solutions.

For many students, says Tiffani, “the only support they have is their school. So when their school is failing them, they have no hope. That needs to change. We all deserve an equal opportunity to succeed.”

Write About It! What are the causes of segregated schools today? What are the effects? Include evidence from the article in your response.

How YOU Can Help

Even though segregated public schools have been unconstitutional for more than 65 years, many schools nationwide are once again divided by race and class. Inspired to learn more about the issue and how you can take action? Here are some ways to make a difference, regardless of your age.