Milliken v. Bradley: Supreme Court Case Has Helped Keep Schools Segregated Today, "inequality is endemic" in America's public schools, according to a new report.
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This Supreme Court Case Made School District Lines A Tool For Segregation

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This Supreme Court Case Made School District Lines A Tool For Segregation

This Supreme Court Case Made School District Lines A Tool For Segregation

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Picture two communities. They share a grocery store and maybe a Main Street - people living just blocks or a couple miles apart. But for their kids who go to different schools, they are a world apart. On one side of the line, you have fresh paint and new computer labs. On the other, many fewer resources and many more students of color. Now, these boundaries show a country where schools remain segregated and unequal, and a big factor in that is a Supreme Court decision that came down 45 years ago today.

NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited Long Island, N.Y. She has this story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Often called the first modern suburb in America, Long Island stretches out from New York City north and east toward the sea, water on both sides. In the middle, it's one of the most racially and economically segregated places in the country. Case in point - two neighboring towns, Hempstead and Garden City.

ELAINE GROSS: I'll just turn down Front Street here.

NADWORNY: Elaine Gross, who runs a local nonprofit called ERASE Racism, is driving me back-and-forth between the two communities.

GROSS: You know immediately that on this one street, you've left Garden City and now you're in Hempstead.

NADWORNY: Behind us, big houses, a country club. In front of us, a commercial strip with a laundromat and an auto repair shop.

GROSS: The schools - they mirror the residential segregation.

NADWORNY: Hempstead's public schools are only 2% white, while Garden City schools are almost 88% white. The difference in funding is also stark. Hempstead gets almost $5,000 less per student per year.

REBECCA SIBILIA: There are kids who see this every day.

NADWORNY: That's Rebecca Sibilia, the founder and CEO of EdBuild, a nonprofit out with a new report today on school segregation and funding inequities.

SIBILIA: Kids are living sometimes across the street from their neighbors who are going to whiter and wealthier schools.

NADWORNY: This inequality - it's happening all over the country, not just Long Island. According to EdBuild's massive database, there are nearly a thousand school districts that have substantial race and revenue gaps with their neighbors. And the whiter, wealthier sides of those lines - they're also getting more money - on average, about $4,000 more per student per year. EdBuild estimates about 8.9 million students go to school in the districts on the losing side of those borders; that's about one in five public school students. The fact that schools can look so different just across district lines, Sibilia says...

SIBILIA: That's all thanks to Milliken.

NADWORNY: Milliken - she's referring to the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, a decision that came down 45 years ago today. The case centered around a desegregation plan in Detroit, a predominantly black city, and its white suburbs. Up for debate - would neighboring districts have to integrate across district lines? No, the court found. Borders couldn't be crossed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THURGOOD MARSHALL: The court, today, takes a giant step backward.

NADWORNY: That's Thurgood Marshall, the lone African American justice on the court in 1974, in his dissent. The majority decision had said that the white suburbs had played no role in the creation of the segregated schools in Detroit and, therefore, they didn't have to assist in the plan to integrate. Marshall, who two decades before had argued Brown v. Board as an NAACP lawyer, predicted that the decision would make integration nearly impossible.

Here's audio from oyez.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARSHALL: Under such a plan, white and Negro students will not go to school together. Instead, Negro children will continue to attend all-Negro schools. The very evil that Brown was aimed at will not be cured but will be perpetuated.

NADWORNY: In the North, racist housing policies had made where you live largely a reflection of your race. So after Milliken, if white families didn't want to send their children to schools with kids of other races, they could simply move to white communities with different school districts, often just a mile or so down the road.

SIBILIA: Milliken has basically created the school district border as a fundamental tool to further fracture society.

NADWORNY: Sibilia of EdBuild says after the decision, borders became shields warding off desegregation.

SIBILIA: Once you're in your own school system and once you have a border anywhere, then the courts have no justification and no jurisdiction to order desegregation across that line.

NADWORNY: And because school funding is largely tied to local wealth, like property taxes, these invisible-yet-powerful district lines also create unequally resourced schools. In most places, states have not been able to make up the difference in that local money, despite decades of funding formulas designed to do just that.

Take Hempstead and Garden City in Long Island. The state of New York does give more money to Hempstead, but it's not enough to make it equal to its neighbors. EdBuild found these divisive school borders are most prevalent in the North.

SIBILIA: What Long Island shows us is how Milliken has been used to reinforce all of these negative and detrimental policies of the past. And what I'm talking to specifically here is housing segregation.

GROSS: We are now in Garden City again.

NADWORNY: As we continue our drive, Elaine Gross recounts the history of that discrimination, the legacy of which we see right out our window. The houses are getting bigger, their yards greener.

GROSS: And you see the difference in the houses.

NADWORNY: It used to be just potato fields out here. But then the housing developers arrived and created new homes, many of which were only sold to white families. The deeds on those houses kept that going, saying original owners could only resell to other white people.

GROSS: The intention was to forever keep out black people. Talk about a structural impediment. You can't get any more obvious than that.

NADWORNY: History sets these notions in place, says Gross. And that is hard to shake.

DARAENO EKONG: It takes a lot to change the way people think.

NADWORNY: Daraeno Ekong is a senior at Hempstead High School. I met up with her on one of the last school days of the year.

EKONG: Today I have AP literature, AP biology.

NADWORNY: She's heading to Yale University in the fall. And a few weeks ago, when she visited the campus, she got to talking with other students from other school districts. And their experiences - they made her a little nervous to start college.

EKONG: They have more resources that they've had at their schools, so kind of finding a way to kind of catch up to them.

NADWORNY: When I ask her about Garden City just next door, she said she's never been to their schools or spent time with any of their students.

EKONG: They see what Hempstead is on the news or, like, in the newspaper, but they don't actually interact with Hempstead students to see that, oh, we might be thinking the same way or we might do the same things.

NADWORNY: That's the very point Thurgood Marshall was trying to make in that dissent 45 years ago today.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Long Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKIRA KOSEMURA'S "KALEIDOSCOPE OF HAPPINESS")

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