Combating Racism – Understanding Educational Disparities – Part 1

It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be 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.

— Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education opinion


Last year we noted the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision, yet all evidence today shows that even as American society is growing more racially and ethnically diverse, many of our schools are headed in the opposite direction. Across the country, many schools today are characterized by growing racial and socioeconomic isolation. Moreover, no major political leader has stepped forward either to call attention to this trend and its implications, or to offer ideas on what might be done to reverse it.

Most legal scholars still regard Brown as a historic, groundbreaking decision. In 1954 the Supreme Court decreed in Brown v. Board of Education that public education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the case is credited not only with starting the process of eliminating racial barriers in education, but also with setting precedent for the elimination of racial barriers to voting, housing access, employment, transportation, and other facets of life in America that are essential to full citizenship.

Nevertheless Brown initially provided little practical guidance for how to desegregate schools. A subsequent ruling in a second decision (Brown II), ruled that schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed” yet the language was not forceful enough to compel all schools to desegregate and left room for resistance by segregationists.

Many of the school desegregation efforts reached a peak in the mid-1970s, following a period of aggressive enforcement from the U.S. Department of Education. This included withholding federal funds from over 200 school districts in the south who refused orders to desegregate. Then the U. S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) subsequently discontinued aggressive enforcement in the Reagan administration. Following Reagan’s administration, these agencies advocated with Congress to change laws to eliminate busing as a federal statutory remedy; practical desegregation fell substantially and persists to this day. In many cases, the progress that had been achieved has been reversed.

Any objective appraisal of where we stand as a nation today with respect to integrating the nation’s schools reveals that Brown—and the Court's call for it to be implemented with "all deliberate speed"—clearly has not lived up to its promise or potential. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “there are many millions of students who are unable to access a quality public education due to inequities in public education finance. With insufficient financial resources, our nation’s public schools struggle to provide a quality education on equal terms. Evidence is concrete that the U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world.” This is due in part to subsequent court rulings that weakened and undermined Brown's power and to the persistence of residential segregation. But it is also attributable to continued racism in our society, a lack of civic will, and the absence of political courage.

We should all be concerned. At a time when our nation is becoming irreversibly more diverse, our lack of commitment to racial integration poses a major threat to the cohesiveness and stability of American society.


In the U.S., children are sent to school from around the age of 5 until graduation at the age of 18. During these years, they are expected to transition from illiterate children to mastering the skills and knowledge needed for their futures, however varied they may be.

But why does public education exist in the first place? According to the National School Boards Association, public education exists to serve the following purposes, among others:

  • Prepare students for college and the workforce, including preparing them for jobs that may not even exist yet due to rapidly changing technology,
  • Help children fulfill their diverse potentials,
  • Enable students to become well-rounded individuals, focusing on the whole child and not just mastery of academic content,
  • Prepare students to live a productive life and become good citizens, while obeying the social and legal rules of society, and
  • Mastery of assessments, activities, sports, technology, literacy, etc.


Now, more than ever, jobs requiring only what we call the basic skills are going to done by automated equipment, a process that is being speeded up by COVID-19. The first step on the job ladder, already out of reach for large numbers of young Black people, is disappearing, as will many other of the low rungs in the next few years. If young people of color have no real job opportunities, if the good jobs get further and further out of reach because they require a kind and quality of education and skills they cannot get, then it is entirely possible that this moment in our history will lead not to a fairer, more inclusive society, but to an uglier one, featuring growing despair.

In our country life chances are defined by your zip code, because your zip code tells which schools your children can go to and the quality of the schools determines your life chances to a degree that has never been greater than today. If we don’t greatly transform the education we provide to young Black Americans, we will not be able to build enough jails, enough public housing, enough social service centers, enough public transportation, enough food programs for the Black people who will need them when the machines take their jobs.

According to the well-proven Pygmalion effect, high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area and vice versa. In our schools, expectations are highest for the wealthiest White children and lowest for the poorest minority children. When these children face low expectations, they are given an unchallenging curriculum, which means that they have no opportunity to learn what the other children are learning. Starting out school with a limited vocabulary, they have a hard time following what is in the books and what the teacher is saying. Every year, there is more vocabulary they don’t understand, until they give up, act out, fake it, and drop out or, if they are lucky, graduate reading at a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grade level. That has to stop. Now.

On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Brown decision, it is important to remember that civil rights and educational opportunity are deeply intertwined. Though many politicians, including several of our most recent presidents, have stated that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, they have seldom elaborated or acted on this principle. Unlike President Lyndon B. Johnson, who connected the two issues directly with the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, and who understood that pursuing equality in educational opportunity was essential for advancing civil rights, most political leaders since—both Democrats and Republicans—have pretended that we could pursue one without the other. We have clear evidence that we cannot. Despite its flaws and limitations, the effort to racially integrate our nation's schools continues to be important to the health of the diverse nation we are becoming.


A study produced by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights entitled “Public Education Funding Inequity in an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation,” found that many students in the U.S. living in segregated neighborhoods and concentrations of poverty do not have access to high-quality schools simply because of where they live, and that there is potential for housing policy to help provide better educational opportunities for these students. Low-income students and students of color are often relegated to low-quality school facilities that lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and technology support, critical facilities, and physical maintenance. These absences can negatively impact a student’s health and ability to be attentive and can exacerbate existing inequities in student outcomes. As data on school spending becomes more accurate, there is concrete empirical evidence that funding is critical to positive student outcomes.

Because schools are largely funded through revenue generated by local property taxes, poorer communities are unable to generate the funds to adequately fund their schools, which creates funding disparities among school districts. States also allocate significant funds for local school districts based on funding formulas that may take into account factors such as student enrollment, financial need, or the characteristics of the students. Federal money makes up a smaller portion of a district’s overall revenue, and is meant to supplement state and local funds.

Throughout the country, most children of color are experiencing what might be termed "double segregation"—separation by race and class. Typically, increased racial isolation is accompanied by a concentration of the poorest and most disadvantaged students in certain schools. Because their achievement indicators are consistently low, many of these schools have been labelled as failing by state bureaucracies that theoretically are supposed to help them. Even though it is widely known that many of these schools struggle because they are overwhelmed by the wide variety of problems that frequently afflict poor families and communities (including violence, homelessness, hunger, and trauma), education policymakers often ignore and fail to address these issues or the academic challenges that accompany them. Instead, under the guise of accountability, education policy has more often been designed to apply pressure and impose sanctions on underperforming schools and districts. Thus, not only is segregation no longer acknowledged as an obstacle to educational advancement, but neither is poverty, or what we might call the "accumulation of disadvantage."


The evidence, at this point, is clear: Not only have we failed to live up to the promise of Brown, we have failed even to deliver on the promise of Plessy. Poor children of color across America not only increasingly attend schools that are separated by race and class, but they are also most likely to be assigned to schools that are profoundly unequal. Racial integration is a widely recognized goal. Unfortunately, our country continues to have Still Separate, Still Unequal.

Can you imagine what might have happened if instead of erecting additional barriers to make racial integration more difficult, the courts had built upon the legacy of Brown to tear such barriers down? Do you think the United States would be as racially polarized and divided as it is now if more individuals had had the experience of learning together? What if our society had gone even further than merely placing children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in schools together, but had also committed to equality of opportunity in accessing the curriculum and the supports needed to be successful? What if we had made a concerted effort to integrate the teaching force, and were more intentional about the need to prepare teachers to work in racially diverse classrooms and build learning communities rooted in respect, trust, and empathy?

In our current political climate, these ideas may sound like pipe dreams and fantasies. The current administration has not named the pursuit of racial integration as a priority, nor has it directed resources to communities with the greatest needs, although a small number of communities across the country remain committed to the pursuit of schools that are racially integrated and equitable (e.g., Evanston, Illinois; Durham, North Carolina; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Cambridge, Massachusetts).

If this country really wants to right these four-century-old wrongs, we have to rethink a system that is funded based on property wealth, we have to find a way to get more great teachers to the kids who need them the most, we have to make sure that every student has whatever it takes to enter first grade ready for a first grade curriculum and is ready each year thereafter for the work that will get them to global standards by the time they leave high school. We have to find a way to hold our schools accountable for doing exactly that. This is actually the key to a society that reflects justice and opportunity for people of color and their children in every corner of their lives.

Aside from the legal and policy setbacks, the lack of will to address the issue of growing racial segregation in education might also be explained in part by our failure to draw attention to the benefits associated with integrated schooling. My next newsletter will do exactly that – show the benefits of integrated schooling not only for Black children, but for all.

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