This is the start of a new investigation by the Star News into segregation of New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina:
I still remember the first day of kindergarten at Hollin Hills Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. It was 1971, and along with about half my classmates, I arrived at school sporting tightly curled black hair over sun-kissed brown skin. The other half of our class had straight hair that spanned a rainbow of colors, from yellowish blond to dark black, framing their freckled faces and light complexions.
That mix seemed natural, normal, in the way that nearly everything does when you’re 5 years old. None of us had any clue we were taking part in a grand national experiment, the first wave of a short-lived movement to seat Black children and White children next to each other in American public schools.
If the 1970s sound like the wrong era to cite the start of America’s integration efforts, that’s because the history of integration efforts is largely absent in American schools. We learn about the bus boycotts, the marches in Selma, and the ringing declaration by a unanimous 1954 Supreme Court that separate classrooms can never be equal. “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,” Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka. “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
Not everyone agreed, and resistance to integration was fierce. Many public school districts simply ignored the Court. Others closed their schools in protest, sometimes for years. But by the 1970s, after dedicated work by activists and education advocates all over the country, Brown was gradually becoming the genuine law of the land.
The result for African American children like me was miraculous. I grew up in racially mixed schools, with resources that used to be reserved for well-off White families finally trickling down to me and my peers. Some of us — not nearly enough, but some — were even offered access to advanced classes, gifted and talented programs, and a host of opportunities denied to our parents and our older siblings.
On the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1971, Black 13-year-olds tested 39 points lower than their White peers. That gap dropped to 18 points by 1988 at the height of desegregation. Over the same time period math scores on the NAEP for Black 17-year-olds improved from 40 points below those of their White peers to 20 points. In fewer than two decades, the time it took me to advance from Hollin Hills to Groveton High School and on to Yale, the achievement gap between White and Black students was cut in half.
Integration worked. Black students enjoyed a wealth of new opportunity while our White counterparts became better acquainted with their fellow citizens and emerged no worse for the encounter. Test scores among White students held steady through the years of desegregation, suggesting that the core logic of Brown — separate was never equal for Black students — was absolutely correct. For those of us fortunate enough to enter American classrooms during this window of real commitment to integration, to benefit from the best America’s schools had to offer, the impact was enormous. Acceptance to competitive colleges, advanced degrees, successful lives and generational stability — all flowed from the Warren Court’s basic recognition that Black children deserved every bit as much investment and opportunity as White children.
Knowing all of that optimistic history — having lived it and benefited from it — makes Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s new book, “Breaking the Promise of Brown: The Resegregation of America’s Schools,” a searing read.
The slim volume by Breyer — who is about to retire from the high court — is largely a reprint of Breyer’s blistering dissent in the court’s 2007 Parents Involved v. Seattle decision. In what the book calls the most important of the “resegregation cases” that have effectively reversed Brown, the court ruled 5-4 that the Seattle school district had to end its long-standing efforts to integrate the city’s public schools. In his dissent, the longest ever delivered from the bench by any justice, Breyer assiduously chronicles the arc of the court’s ironclad support for school desegregation beginning with the Brown decision in 1954 — and its accelerating retreat since the end of the last century.
“What of the hope and promise of Brown?” Breyer asks in the final paragraphs of his epic dissent. “It sought one law, one Nation, one people, not simply as a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.”
As Breyer details, the Supreme Court’s insistence on drawing a bright-line distinction between de jure and de facto segregation — segregation enforced by law versus segregation that simply exists in the world, supposedly uncompelled by the state — has effectively criminalized the school policies that placed me and so many of my peers into integrated classrooms. You’ll have to forgive today’s young people, suffering from the de facto segregation of high-poverty neighborhoods and underperforming schools, for failing to appreciate the legal nuances that so fascinated the five justices who gutted Brown.
Today’s Black students make do with a patchwork of programs trying to mitigate the damage of our resegregated schools. Wider availability of Advanced Placement courses, better marketing of high-quality pre-K to low-income and minority families, and creative efforts to end neighborhood school assignments are all promising and worthwhile. But the fact remains that U.S. schools are more segregated today than they were in 1968, and the achievement gap between Black and White students is back to where it was in 1971. Our retreat from integration is now twice as long as our fleeting experiment with educational justice.
In 1994, only a few years out of college, I was teaching at Eastern High School in Washington, D.C. Located on East Capitol Street, about a mile and a half from the Supreme Court, the school enrolled about 1,600 students — virtually if not entirely enrolled by Black students.
At an anniversary celebration of Brown, held in the same chamber where Justice Thurgood Marshall persuaded nine justices that students have a constitutional right to integrated schools, our students sat in the front row. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy leaned toward them and earnestly proclaimed, “We did this for you!” Then we marched back to our Black public school.