Schools and Segregation, 50 Years After 'Brown 2'

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Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of "Brown 2," the U.S. Supreme Court's second ruling in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that struck down legal segregation in American public schools. What have been the long-lasting effects? And how have new patterns of segregation reshaped today's public schools? Ed Gordon discusses the issue with Abigail Thermstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, and Orlando Patterson, sociology professor at Harvard University.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down its second ruling in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. The court said public schools must integrate with all deliberate speed. Back then, the civil rights activists argued the ruling weakened the intent of the first, which struck down legal segregation in schools. In fact, it was more than 10 years before schools allowed blacks and whites to be in the same classroom. Did Brown II accomplish the high court's ruling, and are public schools today being shaped once again by segregation? Aligail Thernstrom is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York and author of "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap In Learning," and Orlando Patterson is professor of sociology at Harvard University and author of "The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America's `Racial' Crisis."

We thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

Ms. ABIGAIL THERNSTROM (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Thank you very much for having us.

Professor ORLANDO PATTERSON (Sociology Professor, Harvard University): Thank you.

GORDON: Let me...

Ms. THERNSTROM: By the way, I'm co-author of "No Excuses." I don't want to leave out the fact that I wrote it with my husband, Stephen Thernstrom.

GORDON: OK. Yes, Abigail, we want happiness at home, so thank you very much for that.

Let me ask you both this--and, Abigail, I'll start with you--the idea of separate but equal. Many people say today we are still seeing segregated schools across this country, albeit not legally, by law, but by virtue of blacks and whites still seeing a tremendous gap. Do you believe that to be the case?

Ms. THERNSTROM: Well, I think you're talking about two different things there. One is the racial gap in academic achievement. I assume that's what you referred to when you talked about the gap. But the other is the racial composition of schools. And the average black child today attends a school that's 54 percent black, 31 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asians. That's hardly, you know, segregation by our old definition. Indeed, I have great hesitation about using today the word `segregation,' which is so loaded. It really should refer to the de jure segregation that Brown vs. Board brought an end to, although much too slowly. Of course, 10 years after Brown in the Deep South, there was no racial mixing in classrooms.

But the days of segregation are really over and we do have, as I said, racially identifiable schools. But, you know, if the average black child today attends a school that's 54 percent black, one, that's hardly overwhelmingly black and that means that half the black children attend schools that are less than half black. And in addition, we do not have any evidence that racially mixed schools--let's say, schools down--which is not demographically possible given the distribution of racial and ethnic groups in this society, schools that reflect the fact that blacks are 13 percent of the American population of schools--that we would have--that we would close the racial gap in learning. That is the primary problem. There's just zero evidence for that. There's no reason to think that a black child sitting in an overwhelmingly black classroom cannot learn provided you are offering quality education.

GORDON: That being said--and that's the rub, Professor, the idea of whether or not quality education is being provided. Many people are suggesting that perhaps in the '50s it shouldn't have been so much about separate and equal but equal.

Prof. PATTERSON: Look, I think I agree with Abigail that the term `segregation' in the first half of the 20th century means something quite different from what it means today. I want to emphasize that. Then we're talking about Jim Crow, a vicious system, American version of Nazis and which is vile and which sort of just define another group as inferior and not fit to sit with your own kids, and that had to go.

Today, we're referring to basically a statistical demographic and economic situation in which the question is that blacks are attending schools which are--and for a substantial number of blacks, they're primarily with other blacks. Or to be more specific, there was tremendous desegregation as a result of the Brown vs. Board of Education right up to the '80s, and what has alarmed many people is the fact that there's been resegregation of the very schools and very school districts which experienced tremendous desegregation, and that the courts have seemed to turn their backs on the principle of integration. And even in some cases, for instance, Charlotte, where the community itself wanted to maintain a more integrated school, the courts have actually ordered the school districts to, in effect, resegregate.

Now I think there are several things to note. I don't think we can speak of America as a single unit here. As Abigail pointed out, there are some parts of America where integration, certainly for whites, is impossible. North Dakota, which is over 90 percent white, is not going to have a high exposure of whites to blacks. There are only a sprinkling, if any, of them. I don't know any black who ever lived in North Dakota. Similarly, in certain sort of counties in the South which are heavily black or Latino, it's hard to imagine getting integration.

So, I mean, I think what one has to emphasize is that in certain areas, in the South and in the North, which had achieved what looked like increasing etic--integration, there's been a substantial resegregation. That's just a fact. Now the point is, what ...(unintelligible).

GORDON: Let me stop you there for just a moment, Professor...

Prof. PATTERSON: Yeah, yeah.

GORDON: ...and ask Ms. Thernstrom: With that being said, there are many people who clearly believed that, as of today, the school system, the public school system, would have looked vastly different and been given a better opportunity, particularly for those African-American and minority students who come from poverty-ridden communities. In that instance, can we say that the ideal--the ideal of Brown v. Board and Brown v. Board II has failed?

Ms. THERNSTROM: Well, I don't think so at all. I mean, Brown vs. Board was about de jure segregation. Now it had one sentence that talked about equal educational opportunity. But in the context, it really referred to de jure--to doors open for black children. I have to say, I don't buy into this notion of resegregation at all. We have got...

GORDON: Even if it's de facto?

Ms. THERNSTROM: Even if it's de facto. That is, we have now schools that reflect the demographic reality of their--of the setting, of the demographic reality of America. That is, look, if you take our largest cities--and black children are mostly in urban schools--we're down to only--in Chicago and Los Angeles, only 10 percent of the students are white. In Detroit, only 4 percent are white. In New York City, only 15 percent are white. I mean, white enrollment in 25 out of 26 of America's largest urban school districts--and Salt Lake City is the exception--but in 25 out of 26 of America's largest urban school districts, we're down to white enrollment of an average of 17 percent. The schools reflect that demographic reality. And, of course, there's been a huge demographic change with the flood of Hispanics into...

GORDON: Look, professor...

Ms. THERNSTROM: ...urban areas. I mean, you can't create majority white schools.

GORDON: Professor, that speaks to the separate part. It does not speak to the equal part.

Prof. PATTERSON: Yeah.

Ms. THERNSTROM: Well, we--look, these schools...

Prof. PATTERSON: Sorry.

Ms. THERNSTROM: ...are not educating children well, but that is a problem that is--that has to do with the whole structure of public education in this country. We know how to educate kids. Good schools across this country are educating the most highly disadvantaged...

Prof. PATTERSON: Can I get a word in here?


Ms. THERNSTROM: ...and they're not doing it.

GORDON: Professor, please go ahead.

Prof. PATTERSON: With respect to what Abigail just said, I mean, they--what is being reflected--and the term which is missing from the conversation so far--is class inequality. I mean, look, New York; it's ridiculous. It's absurd to think of--I mean, New York is a predominantly white city and one would expect that its school population would be predominantly white--same goes for Boston--and it's not. And what's reflected here is, of course, the fact that there's--America has become, especially urban America, a very unequal society and the schools reflect this inequality. Upper middle-class and middle-class parents are moving their kids out of the public schools into private schools and are going to the suburbs where blacks are free to go to but cannot afford to go--or most blacks. Blacks who can afford it go to highly integrated schools or can go to whatever schools they want. So we're talking about a society which--in which blacks remain disproportionately poor and their poverties reflect--and the same goes for Latinos--in the fact that they go to schools with other poor kids.

Now what is--the important point here is what are the implications of this? Does this--there are two things to note about the attempt at integration. One is its presumed educational sort of benefits. The other is the social benefits. That is, it's assumed that having an integrated education for blacks will close the gap in ...(unintelligible).

GORDON: Professor, we have about a minute left.

Prof. PATTERSON: That has not worked, except in a few cases. The social benefits are substantial, however. That is to say, black and whites sort of living together as students do have benefits later on, especially for blacks. And even when blacks do not improve in their educational skills, it's shown that blacks who went to integrated schools do actually much better later on in life. I do think that, however, the fundamental problem here is class inequality. And the question, of course, is the degree to which we can upgrade the amount of funds which are in black schools. However...

GORDON: All right. So, Professor, it seems...

Prof. PATTERSON: ...having said that...

GORDON: I've got to stop you there, Professor, because I'm up against the clock. But it seems what we're looking at here is the idea that class has, to some degree in this country, superceded race.

Prof. PATTERSON: It's the major factor.

GORDON: Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University, I thank you both for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Ms. THERNSTROM: Thank you.

Prof. PATTERSON: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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