Long Since Little Rock

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1957 crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, when the state’s national guard, on orders from Governor Orval Faubus, came to aid white “citizens’ counsels” determined to keep nine black school children out of all-white Central High School. The incident erupted three years after Brown’s prohibition on segregated schools replaced Plessy’s “separate but equal” standard, and two years shy of when Thurgood Marshall predicted segregation in American schools would be stamped out completely.

Hope inevitably turned to frustration ten years after Brown when Marshall learned that less than 2% of Black students in the South attended school with Whites. It wasn’t until the 1980s that desegregation proceeded in earnest, due in large part to strong judicial enforcement of remedial orders and civil rights statutes enacted in the 1960s.   The South became the most integrated region in the country until a new Court in the 1990s, wedded to the ideology of “local control,” stripped from lower federal judges much of the oversight authority they exercised in matters involving race and public schools. New standards required district courts to dissolve desegregation orders if school officials made a “good faith” effort to address desegregation “to the extent practicable,” regardless of when, or even whether, actual integration would result. See e.g., Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70 (1995); Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467 (1992); Board of Educ. v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237 (1991) .

In June we learned the limits to “local control” when the Court struck down race-friendly student assignment policies voluntarily adopted to integrate schools in Louisville and Seattle. See Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 127 S.Ct. 2738 (2007). Exactly how this development will change student demographics is unknown, but it certainly has not become any easier to improve public school integration or equality. A 2007 report issued by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project provides context to this latest pull back from Brown:

The children in United States schools are much poorer than they were decades ago and more separated in highly unequal schools. Black and Latino segregation is usually double segregation, both from whites and from middle class students. For blacks, more than a third of a century of progress in racial integration has been lost–though the seventeen states which had segregation laws are still far less segregated than in the l950s when state laws enforced apartheid in the schools and the massive resistance of Southern political leaders delayed the impact of Brown for a decade. For Latinos, whose segregation in many areas is now far more severe than when it was first measured nearly four decades ago, there never was progress outside of a few areas and things have been getting steadily worse since the l960’s on a national scale. Too often Latino students face triple segregation by race, class, and language. Many of these segregated black and Latino schools have now been sanctioned for not meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind and segregated high poverty schools account for most of the “dropout factories” at the center of the nation’s dropout crisis.  

I wonder how Marshall today would judge  the victory in Brown when even Plessy’s inadequate fallback remains elusive.

-Kathleen Bergin  


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