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60 years after Brown v. Board, school segregation isn’t yet American history

May 16, 2014 at 6:22 PM EST
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the question of how far we’ve come in eliminating segregated education is not a simple one. Gwen Ifill leads a discussion with Cheryl Brown Henderson of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, Sheryll Cashin of Georgetown University, Catherine Lhamon of the Department of Education and Ron Brownstein of Atlantic Media.
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PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Saturday marks 60 years since the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared separate schools for black and white students are unconstitutional.

Gwen Ifill recorded a conversation about the anniversary earlier this week, but, first, some background.

GWEN IFILL: The case was named for Linda Brown, a third-grader in Topeka, Kansas, forced to travel more than an hour each day to an all-black elementary school, rather than attend the all-white school located just blocks from her home.

Government-sanctioned racial discrimination was the law of the land in 1954. The Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling half-a-century earlier had ruled that, as long as separate facilities were considered equal, segregation itself wasn’t a violation the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

But the Browns, Linda and her two sisters, who were joined by families of students in four states and the District of Columbia, said no. Their class-action suit eventually reached the Supreme Court.

Retired Baltimore public school principal John Stokes was one of the original plaintiffs in the Virginia case included in the Brown litigation.

JOHN STOKES, Plaintiff, Brown v. Board of Education: It was separate, though it was never equal.

GWEN IFILL: He describes the conditions at his overcrowded all-black high school in Farmville, Virginia, as deplorable, with no running water or indoor plumbing, and a potbelly stove that leaked soot into the classroom.

JOHN STOKES: We knew we were being programmed for failure. It was very obvious. We could not only see it. We could smell it, and when that soot fell down from that flue, we could taste it. We could actually taste it. So we knew we had to do something to make a change.

GWEN IFILL: After Stokes helped organize a school-wide walkout, the NAACP took notice, asking the more than 100 students involved to join the broader suit.

Chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the Supreme Court’s first African- American justice, led the oral arguments before the court.

On May 17, 1954, in a unanimous decision crafted by chief Justice Earl Warren, the high court declared: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

When the ruling came down, Stokes celebrated, but cautiously.

JOHN STOKES: I said, the war has just begun. I said, these folks are not going to sit down and take this lightly. And they didn’t.

FMR. GOV. GEORGE WALLACE, D, Ala.: I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

GWEN IFILL: Indeed, the separate but equal debate was far from over. Opposition to the ruling was fierce, especially in the South, and anti-integration protests sprang up in communities around the country.

But the Brown ruling proved to be the turning point that led to the unraveling of Jim Crow laws, and paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act a decade later.

Sixty years later, just how far have we come in eliminating segregated education and increasing opportunity?

For a deeper look at the many answers to those questions, I’m joined by Cheryl Brown Henderson, whose father, along with 12 other Topeka parents, filed the original suit brought by the NAACP. She’s now president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research. Sheryll Cashin is professor of law at Georgetown University. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and is the author of the new book “Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America.”

Catherine Lhamon is the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, and journalist and author Ron Brownstein is editorial director for Atlantic Media and a columnist for “National Journal.”

Welcome to you all.

I want to start by reading to you the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Brown v. Board.

He wrote: “In these days, it is doubtful that any child can be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity where the state has undertaken to provide it is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Catherine Lhamon, 60 years later, the majority of all school — large school districts in America are majority non-white. Have we fulfilled that promise?

CATHERINE LHAMON, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education: We have not.

We have come far, but we obviously have not come far enough. And that’s the depressing reality that I think has to light a fire under all of us. It certainly lights a fire under me in the work that I do. And we need to be working to deliver on that promise.

But there are so many things that are different and that are better in the 60 years since Brown was decided. My mother was 10 years old when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided. She attended racially segregated schools before Brown. She attended them after Brown. It didn’t change her educational experience, but it dramatically changed her life experience.

And I didn’t attend racially segregated schools as a result, for which I’m enormously grateful, and my children don’t. And I’m enormously grateful for that. And I work every day to make sure that other people’s children also can learn in the educational environments that the Brown court promised for all of our children.

GWEN IFILL: Cheryl Brown Henderson, you’re the person at this table who had direct impact as a result. Brown is in the decision. Brown is in your name.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON, Plaintiff, Brown v. Board of Education: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Sixty years later, how do you look at it?

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: I think we have to look inside the promise.

We talk about the fact that segregated school systems exist still. And that’s a function of, I think, the pushback in Brown v. Board, because power conceded nothing. And so, quite frankly, what power did was decided that we would red-line, we have would housing in certain areas, we would work very hard to make sure schools would remain segregated.

And we also have to look inside the promise, because as you read from Earl Warren’s statement, which is my favorite part of the Brown decision, by the way, we have to be concerned about educating our kids. African-American parents were only concerned about making certain their student — or their children had the best education possible.

And I think sometimes we scapegoat our children by suggesting, if they’re not sitting next to somebody of a certain ethnicity, that they can’t possibly be getting a good education. So, I think that we can’t get lost in — while we’re pursuing this lofty goal of diversity in education at every level, we can’t get lost in that and stop educating our children where we find them.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like you’re saying integration for its own sake was not necessarily what Brown was about.

And I want to ask Sheryll Cashin about that.

As a constitutional lawyer, as a parent, you look at this now and you say, was it worth it?

SHERYLL CASHIN, Georgetown University Law School: Well, absolutely.

We had to dismantle Jim Crow, right? And the decision paid enormous psychic benefits. We went in one generation because of Brown from being a country where the majority of the people accepted racial hierarchy and white supremacy to where a majority of the people absolutely reject that.

Where we have fallen down post-Brown is, we haven’t built enough strong multiracial constituencies for public integrated education. But I want to say, it’s not hopeless. The Hartford area, which is very segregated residentially, there’s a movement called the Sheff Movement.

Black and Latino and white parents, city and suburban, have gotten together and said we like diversity, we support it, and they have created 31 magnet schools in that metropolitan area that enables people of all colors to access high-quality education decoupled from where they live.

So there are strategies that work, but you have to be overt at building constituencies for the right policies.

GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, but it is still true that, if your school system is 80 percent black, you don’t have the same resources as if you are 90 percent white. So is it because the world has changed or because the law didn’t live up to its promise?

RON BROWNSTEIN, Atlantic Media: The decision was a genuine hinge in history.

It put us on track to be the nation we are now, a truly diverse, multiracial world nation. And it really began a process that was irreversible. A lot of the numbers are just dramatically different. Before Brown, only one in 40 African-American had a college degree. Now it’s one in five. Only one in seven had a high school degree.

Now the share of African-American young adults with a high school degree is about the same as among whites. So, it is — the world is a different place. But, as everyone has said, it’s a mistake — no one would claim that opportunity is equal at this point.

There are very, very different circumstances. The reality is that roughly two-thirds to three-fourths of African-American and Hispanic kids attend schools in which a majority of the student body are qualified as — or classified as low-income.

And you talk about the resources. The resources issue is not only the amount of dollars that are coming into the school; it’s the community resources; it’s the parental resources. And kind of the challenge we have in education is the schools — the students that need the most often get the least in terms of the quality of the teachers, experience.

So that’s a challenge. And the nature of the challenge is changing, because the demography is changing the challenge. This is the future work force. A majority of the K-12 system starting September nationwide, not only in the big cities, will be kids of color. This is the last class ever probably in U.S. history of K-12 students that will be majority white nationwide.

GWEN IFILL: Well, then why — whatever happened to all deliberate speed then in creating the environment K-12 especially that the Brown decision promised?

CATHERINE LHAMON: Well, what our history showed us was that we had a lot of delegation and very little speed. Right?

It took fully 10 years before we even began to see real integration in schools at all. And then we saw material progress in 1965 to maybe 1980, where we saw real change in integration in our schools. And then we saw a very significant backlash.

And, you know, that was — that’s significant in terms of the numbers and what kids’ experiences are in schools today. It’s also significant in terms of the opportunities that we see for our kids. And I think all of us have been talking about what it’s like to be a child in school today.

My office, when we do our investigations now, we are finding too many places that are racially segregated, but we’re also finding too many places where we’re communicating a message of very little value to our kids, where we’re saying you’re not who we expect to see succeed in school, you are not who we’re going to deliver our resources to.

We’re not having equitable distribution of teachers. We’re not having equitable of high-rigor courses in our schools. We disproportionately discipline our students of color and push them out of school. We are sending a message about who is valuable and who is not in school, which is directly contrary to the Brown message, it is directly contrary to our federal promises, and it is directly contrary to the law.

So, that’s what we need to change.

GWEN IFILL: Sheryll Cashin, you have written a book that talks, that makes the connection between what has happened in our K-12 schools with what happens once we go on to higher education. And given what we have seen play out the court on affirmative action, is there any — how do you make that playing field level, when you start out at such a disadvantage?

SHERYLL CASHIN: Well, I argue that universities have an ethical obligation to mitigate the fact of separate, unequal schooling.

And so I argue place, not race. Actually, only 42 percent of Americans of all races live in middle-class neighborhoods. And that’s down from 65 percent in 1970. And, increasingly, there’s a commonality of experience between working-class struggling whites and kids of color.

If you’re in a high-opportunity setting, you have access to selective, high quality K-12 education. Everyone outside that context gets a different deal. So, I’m arguing that there are strivers from all neighborhoods and that universities should give a leg up in admissions to high-achieving students who’ve done the best they can with under-resourced schools.

But I also think, post-Brown, post-civil rights America, we need to begin to have an overt discourse where we link the common struggles of communities of color to struggling whites in order for us to — you know, frankly, you talk about backlash. Where we are today is, there’s a lot of white resentment.

A lot of whites feel that the post-civil rights gains that you talk about came at their expense. And there are a lot of people out there, politicians, media, who stoke that resentment, and that’s the true challenge for progressives.

RON BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Cheryl Brown Henderson about this, because, if indeed we are falling short or if indeed this inequity is still the system, the playing field is not yet level, why do you think that is?

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: The backlash began immediately.

And it was relentless, and it hasn’t let up, and, for example, the Southern Manifesto and some of the documents coming out of our leaders in Congress, and then schools closing.

I mean, what greater message can you send than I’m going to close public schools for five years, as they did in Farmville, Virginia, rather than allowing African-American students in?

So, this has been relentless. And Thurgood Marshall — and I’m glad to learn that you clerked for him — reading Juan Williams’ book about Thurgood Marshall, one of the comments I found really profound, he said Brown was never about sitting next to white children. It was about having access to the resources.

RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I was going to say that no one would say this is the same country as 60 years ago.

Obviously, many, many things have changed. And to me, one of the most important things that changed is that terms that — the demography is overwhelming the terms of the debate. When we think about things like equality of opportunity, usually, it’s been framed as an argument of fairness. If we are the country we say we are in the Declaration of Independence, everyone should have a chance to go as far as their talents take them.

And I think that is still true, but it’s no longer the central — I think the central argument. Over the next 15 years, the estimate is that all the net growth in the work force will be minority workers. The number of white people working in 2030 is projected to be smaller than it is today, not only the share, but the absolute number.

And in that world, ultimately, there is not really a question of fairness, but it’s self-interest. If we don’t do a better job of getting more of these kids into the middle class, who is going to pay the payroll taxes to support Social Security and Medicare?  Who is going to buy the houses?  Who is going to generate the economic activity through household formation?

There’s a self-interest argument here to kind of an older white middle class that ultimately has a stake in helping more of these kids succeed, because without more of them succeeding, it is going to be awful hard to sustain Social Security and Medicare that they’re relying on.

GWEN IFILL: So, Catherine Lhamon, where are the available political, governmental tools to get to the root of it, whether you think it’s about fairness or about just being competitive?

CATHERINE LHAMON: Yes.

It’s my job to enforce the federal civil rights laws in our schools all over the country for 49 million public school students and also in all our of institutions for higher education. So, we are aggressively there to make sure that the promise of Brown is a lived experience for as many of the kids as we can reach, and we’re very excited about that.

But I also think, Cheryl, your point about the Farmville experience, which was at a time when we shut down — in the state of Virginia, we shut down for five years the public schools in that community because we didn’t want to integrate there.

And it’s an ugly past history. But it also is such an indicator of who we are as a country and what we can become, because, as a nation, we came together with children in Ohio saving their pennies and sending their money to be able to start new schools, to create a school system for one year that wasn’t that public school system, that was privately funded, that had teachers, integrated teachers coming from all over the country to teach kids who had been out of school for five years, who had made serious losses in their learning, to be able bring them back to make enormous gains and to come together as an integrated community and say, this is who we are as a nation.

Regardless of what locally we said we would be, this is who we are as a nation and who we will become. And I think that’s a lesson for all of us about what we can still do and the gains that we can still make.

RON BROWNSTEIN: No one doubts that all of this would be a lot easier if you were not dealing with schools that were as segregated and poverty that was a concentrated. Right?

Roughly three-quarters of African-American kids and two-thirds of Hispanic are in schools where a majority of the kids are low-income. And that makes things harder. But, as you say, that cannot — you cannot wait to solve that problem. Right?

And there are plenty of big urban districts where there are a lot of resources. The issue isn’t only the amount of money that is spent in the schools. It’s how it’s spent. It’s what kind of resources they get in terms of talent. It’s what kind of resources the kids can draw on at home, in their community, helping parents work better with their kids.

Would it be easier to equalize opportunity if you didn’t have as many kids studying in concentrated poverty? Sure. But can you say we can’t do anything until that’s solved? I don’t think you can say that.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you whether they’re — we have run now the gamut. Have we run to the limits of governmental and judicial intervention? Is this something…

SHERYLL CASHIN: No.

GWEN IFILL: … happen somewhere else?

SHERYLL CASHIN: It’s true that you have a lot of large school districts with concentrated poverty in the center.

But there are innovations out there. I go back to the Sheff example. Many of the suburbs surrounding Hartford have said, we will take a certain number of kids to come into our school. There are — there’s the METCO program in Boston. So there’s cross-district solutions.

There are also innovations that you can do in terms of changing the finance system. Why is it? We haven’t — we haven’t really tried this many places, but why is it that states require schools to be funded based on property taxes?

GWEN IFILL: Final question.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, since your life span and your — your arc of your life has traced Brown v. Board, I want to know whether, on the 60th anniversary, you find yourself optimistic or pessimistic about where we are now.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: No, I’m optimistic, because Brown what did, I think, above all else, it was dismantled, the legal framework for any kind of discrimination, whether it was against women or people with disabilities or whatever. I mean, it did a huge thing for this nation.

So I try to look at it that way, because it was all about opportunity, and it succeeded when it comes to that. It opened the doors for the legal cases and the legislation that came after. So I’m optimistic.

What we didn’t do that I would love to see us do in terms of being optimistic was to have some sort of reconciliation. I look at Nelson Mandela and what happened in South Africa. It was amazing. But where’s the courage here to have that kind of reconciliation panel and that real dialogue?

After Brown v. Board, we missed a huge opportunity, I think. I taught school in the ’70s. And I taught at one of the schools that had been segregated, where my mother had gone, where my sisters had gone. And then their kids had gone there post-Brown and I taught there post-Brown.

But what I discovered is that the white, my white colleagues didn’t want to be there. It was still 95 percent African-American. So we missed an opportunity to really sit our educators down and talk about reconciliation, talk about their jobs, talk about children being children, talk about education as a value and they being charged with the responsibility of imparting that education.

Deliberate means slow. So why are we even pondering? Why are people — why we still dragging our feet, when they put that word in the decision?  Why that word, when it means painstakingly slow? The only thing that scares me, too, is when you look at parents involved in community schools back in 2004, and the Supreme Court ruled against them. That was voluntary.

So if people are going to come along, challenge voluntary programs, and have a court that would strike down those voluntary programs, that’s frightening to me.

GWEN IFILL: Well, one of the things we can do is keep looking backward and forward as we acknowledge these series of anniversaries we have been doing the last year or so.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, Ron Brownstein, Sheryll Cashin, and Catherine Lhamon, thank you all so much for a great conversation.

RON BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Thank you.

CATHERINE LHAMON: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, we have a tale of two city high schools only four miles apart, one a vibrant model for diversity, and the other isolated by race and poverty. That’s on our Education page.