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Linda Brown was only nine years old when she became a public hero and central figure in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that outlawed de jure school segregation.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to separate Black and white children in schools because it denied Black children the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The case was heralded as a watershed moment for segregation.
Except it is now 2017 and millions of Black students remain mostly segregated—and it’s a number that grows steadily every year. This, sadly, is by design. Zoning laws dictate which schools kids have access to depending on the neighborhoods they live in, and racist housing policies—like redlining, an unfair banking practice that denies Black families loans in white, better-to-do neighborhoods even if they qualify—has kept Black families locked into impoverished neighborhoods. So Black children are often forced to go to the resource-lacking schools connected to those high-poverty communities.
A 2016 report from the United States Accountability Office found that the number of high-poverty schools—characterized by having a majority Black and Hispanic student population where at least 75 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch—has more than doubled between 2001 and 2014. It also reported that the country saw a nationwide rise in the percentage of schools separated by race and class, from 9 percent to 16 percent, in the past decade and a half.
Meanwhile, a study done by the University of Maine reported that poverty and school performance are intricately tied. It concluded: “Without question, the evidence examined in this study indicates that levels of school poverty and student achievement are related. The magnitude of the relationship varies, but the single best predictor of performance is school poverty level.”
Black and minority schools have always underperformed historically, not simply because they are Black or minority, but because they lack funding and the necessary resources to enhance the performance of their students. The fight for school integration refused to outright acknowledge that Black people do not want to attend white schools for the white people in them—but to gain access to more resources and better educational opportunities. After all, the Black experience in predominantly white schools is strife with racism, isolation, and blatant hostility that no human being would want to expose themselves to.
Integration, while perhaps well-intended, has proven problematic in many fundamental ways. Ask Black people who have attended white-majority schools. In an essay published by Mademnoire.com in 2015, writer Charing Ball detailed her first day at a majority-white school, when she encountered a white girl who she thought would be her friend.
“Hi Dani,” I said grinning from ear to ear. We sat quietly for a few moments, staring and smiling at each other. I thought for sure that I had made a new friend and had already begun daydreaming about all the fun girlfriend things we were going to do together. She was going to teach me who “youse” was and I going to introduce her to some real pie. But then, in the most sincerest of tones my new friend asked me, “Why don’t you go back to Africa, Black monkey?”
A 2017 Teen Vogue essay by writer Stephanie Tate titled “What It’s Like to Be Black at a Predominantly White School” highlighted similar run-ins with racism at her predominantly white university.
She wrote, “In the fall semester, students were caught using the N word and speaking about bringing guns to a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in the app GroupMe. Toward the end of the fall semester, white supremacist fliers surfaced around campus and one ended up in a Nubian Message newsstand.”
The plain fact is that many white parents in predominantly white neighborhoods do not want Black children to attend schools alongside their children. That was evident after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling when white parents blocked the entrance of schools and voted to close them, rather than let Black children attend. That remains evident still to this day as white people all across the nation fight to overturn segregation laws and regain control of local school systems.
For example, in the Stout v. Jefferson County case 2014, a middle-class Birmingham, Alabama, suburb called Gardendale fought to leave the Jefferson County school system. Residents of the mostly white area claimed race had nothing to do with its push to secede, but the county argued otherwise. If Gardendale gained control of its school, many feared Black children would no longer have access to a good education—and those fears are real. All across America, similar ploys have allowed mostly white areas to bar Black students from attending local schools—from Baton Rouge, where white residents are fighting to create their own new city split across racial and economic lines, to New York City, where white parents from the Upper West Side showed up in droves to protest rezoning that would make their children’s schools more diverse.
If white people believe Black people want to attend white institutions where they will be mocked, discriminated against, and treated like second-class citizens, they are sadly mistaken. Black people just want their kids to attend schools where they will have the same opportunities and rights as their white counterparts. That will never happen as long as socio-economic inequality persists and the wealth gap continues to grow annually. That will never happen if Black families remain confined to poor neighborhoods with underperforming schools.
On the day that we celebrate the life of Linda Brown and acknowledge the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education, it is important that we not sanitize America’s continued racist reality. It is important that we learn the lessons taught by Black children exposed to white schooling and those left behind in poorly funded Black schools. It is also hard to remain blind to the truth that Black people do not primarily need integration. What we need is economic justice and choice. We need the resources to fund our own institutions where our children will be free to thrive and excel without being subjected to abuses because of their skin color. To have the choice to attend school wherever we desire and be treated with dignity and respect.
For Black students, the fight for access to white schools has never, and likely will never, ensure those things.