January 16, 2017; National Public Radio, “nprED”

Earlier this year, reflecting on what has happened in the 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court announced its landmark Brown v. Board Education ruling, NPQ took a look at the progress made since then. It was not a very pretty picture. Early gains at ending the barriers of formal and informal segregation had seriously eroded. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, U.S. Department of Education data shows that “in the 2000–01 school year, 7,009 public schools were both poor and racially segregated. That number climbed to 15,089 by 2013–14.” The UCLA Civil Rights Project found that “the share of intensely segregated nonwhite schools…more than tripled.”

In commemoration of Martin Luther King Day, NPR’s Terri Gross spoke with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about her work covering education, with a particular focus on desegregation and her personal experience as a parent of a child who attends a segregated NYC public school. She has a unique perspective, looking at both the big picture and seeing how segregated schooling works on a very personal basis.

Brown v. Board understood that in a country built on the subjugation of black Americans, that as long as you separate black Americans from power, which is white Americans, that they will never receive equal treatment. And there’s never been a period of time where we have seen black Americans who are not in the same spaces as white Americans receive the same things that white Americans receive. And that’s true in our schools, and it’s true in our neighborhoods.

A segregated public school system is not only an ethical and moral problem; it causes actual harm to children, with poor children and children of color paying the greatest price. “If a school is in a neighborhood that is highly segregated serving students of color and under-resourced, that is going to have a devastating impact on those who are experiencing a crisis,” said Thena Robinson Mock, project director of the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track program sponsored by the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. “But the others who may not be suffering that crisis at home are also going to suffer from not having enough resources or high-quality teachers. So it will impact the entire school community if those factors are at play.”

As more research becomes available, it is clearer and clearer what the impact looks like.

The data shows is we know if we’re looking at test scores, if we’re measuring the achievement gap, which is the test score gap between black and white students, that gap was the narrowest at the peak of integration in the school integration, which was 1988. As soon as we start to see the segregation increasing again, that achievement gap increases. And we’ve actually never gotten back to that low point that we were at when schools were their most integrated. But there’s also great science out of University of California, Berkeley…[that]…showed is that [integration] changed the entire trajectory of their lives, that it wasn’t just about how well they scored on a test, that black students who went to integrated schools were less likely to be poor as adults, were more likely to go to college. They lived longer. They were healthier, and they passed this benefit onto their own children. And even within the same family, if one child remained in segregated schools and one child went to integrated schools, the child in the same family who went to integrated schools had these same lifelong effects.

The strong community backlash against progress is reflective of segregation being built into the nation’s foundation.

There’s never been a moment in the history of this country where black people who have been isolated from white people have gotten the same resources, not in schools, not in communities. And, you know, Dr. King understood that in a visceral way that integration was about the sharing of power, and it was about full citizenship.

The recent election reflects how difficult giving up power is; anger at being left behind and anger at those who pushed their way to the front of the line emerges from efforts to compensate for the effects of decades of segregation.

The results of the again-growing racial and economic divide are schools that look very different. For schools that serve primarily poor children of color, the resources are just plain not equal.

We often don’t give them the same resources. They often don’t have the same level of instruction. They often don’t have strong principals. They often don’t have the same technology. Federal data shows that. So those schools are less likely to have everything. They’re less likely to offer advanced placement courses, college prep curriculum…they have worse facilities…less likely to have technology…high teacher turnover.

So everything that you can measure, these segregated schools have it worse than schools that are white and middle-class. So when we ask why, we have to go back to the very beginning. We have a caste system. We understand that when we separate the most marginalized students out, we simply neglect those schools. We just don’t care enough. And I think people want some other answer.

With a new administration that is committed to more and more school choice, Hannah-Jones has some words of caution worth listening to.

It is important to understand that the inequality we see—school segregation is both structural, it is systemic, but it’s also upheld by individual choices. As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children, you can support equality as a principle all you want, but we’re not going to see a change. […] We feel like no one has to give anything up or there’s not going to be any tensions or it’s going to be easy, and it simply won’t. One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating the segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it. And that’s the problem.

Pushing this pendulum back may not be so easy, as we do not see race as an important factor in determining how effective our educational programs are. Research conducted by Jon Valant and Daniel Newark found that “64 percent of respondents said it is ‘essential’ or a ‘high priority’ to close the wealthy-poor gap, while only 36 percent said that about the white-black gap and 31 percent about the white-Hispanic gap. […] Half of respondents…said that ‘none’ of [the test] score gap could be explained by discrimination or injustice in society. […] We may need much broader changes in public attitudes toward educational inequities before we should expect policymakers to feel much pressure from the public to close today’s test score gaps.”

Those paying the price for the re-segregating of our schools have already paid this price for too many years. The problem will not be fixed until the burden is shared broadly across our country. And that won’t happen until those who benefit from the status quo are willing to become fully engaged in the effort.—Martin Levine