On May 17, 1954, when a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated public schools are inherently unconstitutional, I was elated. At last, the high court’s former, disgraceful, un-American decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) legitimizing “separate but equal” public education had been overturned. I had been following a series of court cases, particularly the one led by lawyer Thurgood Marshall that finally expelled Jim Crow from the lives and futures of American schoolchildren.
But over time, the gains made by Brown v. Board of Education disintegrated. The extent to which the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws” is now denied to so many students was starkly shown in a May 16, 2014, New York Times report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg: “Today about four in 10 Black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools, the federal Department of Education reported on its official blog Friday, adding that only 14 percent of white students attend schools that could be considered multicultural.”1
And consider this statement by the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Catherine E. Lhamon: “We have slowly and very steadily slipped backward. All over the country we are seeing more and more racially segregated schools.”
Ocynthia Williams, a United Parents of Highbridge (the Bronx) parent organizer, pinpointed the basis for this thriving segregation in another article: “The way it is now, your zip code defines your destiny. It’s shameful and it’s really sad.”2
Added Ernest Logan, president of the Principals Union: “We forget to consider the social ills. Housing, poverty, hunger and health. How can a kid worry about what he’s learning if he’s not eating? We’ve been talking about it for 40 years.” Summarizing what our founders were unable to foresee—though some were uneasy about the breadth and depth of independence—Mona Davis, president of the New York City Parents Union, which focuses on the kids in New York City schools, said: “Our students are receiving a separate and unequal education.”
I live and work in New York City, wrongly regarded by its many domestic and foreign tourists as the most culturally advanced of American cities. So it is in many cities—and yes, even suburbs—throughout this hypothetical land of liberty. Will this crisis be a compelling issue in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections?
In her commencement speech before twelve thousand high-school seniors in Topeka, Kansas, where the Brown v. Board of Education case originated, First Lady Michelle Obama said: “Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were when Dr. King gave his final speech. Many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools, and many communities have become less diverse.” I commend her for speaking out. Maybe her husband—until, thank goodness, he leaves office—will address this betrayal of Brown v. Board of Education.
For years, the leading national expert on separate and unequal public schools has been Dr. Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles. On May 15, 2014, for that project, he coauthored a report, “Brown at 60; Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future.” Among his conclusions: “Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but white and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools. Segregation is by far the most serious in central cities of all sizes and suburbs of the largest metro areas, which are now half nonwhite.” And dig this: “Latinos are significantly more segregated than blacks in suburban America.”
How did this happen? The Civil Rights Project report adds: “The Supreme Court has fundamentally changed desegregation law, and many major court orders have been dropped. Our statistical analysis shows that segregation increased substantially after the plans were terminated in many large districts.”
Have you noticed this? I wonder whether probable presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her likely Republican opponents have.
And how many non-Latino Americans are aware of this: “The growth of segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the 1960’s, and segregation has soared. A clear pattern is developing of black and Latino students sharing the same schools.”
What I learned from Orfield, my hero as a journalist on this still-pressing issue, reminded me of my own public-school years at the nation’s first public school, the Boston Latin School (BLS), founded in 1635. (One of my fellow alumni was Samuel Adams, an instigator of the American Revolution.) In six precollege years starting in the late 1930s, I can remember only one black student in my classes there. There were no girls until later, at the Girls’ Latin school.
BLS is now well integrated. When I revisited the school some time ago, I saw and heard one of the best high-school jazz bands in this country, and it included performers of every race and gender. (Jazz was never mentioned when I was at BLS.)
The band was playing Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Duke was my mentor for years in more than jazz, and when I told these young players how much Duke would have enjoyed their rendition of his song, they were stunned that I was old enough to have actually known him.
But although things ain’t what they used to be at BLS, they are across this segregated nation. President Barack Obama should visit BLS to see, hear, and feel the difference. So should the next president.
1. “Michelle Obama Cites Views of Growing Segregation,” New York Times, May 16, 2014.
2. Regents Woe for Minorities,” New York Daily News, May 18, 2014.
Nat Hentoff is a Universal (UClick) syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books, Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2003). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010). He is currently working on his next book, Is This Still America?