by B. Drummond Ayres, Jr.
Almost six decades have passed since the United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawed racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. That decision, handed down on May 17, 1954, was one of the most far-reaching civil rights rulings in American legal history and resulted in massive desegregation of the nation’s classrooms over the next 35 years, especially in the South.
Before 1954, there was virtually no racial integration in Southern public schools and, for that matter, not a whole lot more in the rest of the country. But by 1990, almost half of the South’s non-white students (that is, black students and, by then, increasing numbers of Hispanic students) were enrolled in majority-white schools, thanks not only to Brown v. Board but also because of a series of follow-up court rulings, Congressional acts and Presidential orders that mandated steps and procedures for classroom integration — most notably Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971, which said that federal courts could impose a host of remedies, including busing, to force school integration in Charlotte, and opened the floodgates for busing students in hundreds of school districts across the country over the next decade.In fact, by the mid-1990s the South’s public schools were the most integrated in the country.
Yet the promise of Brown remains far from fulfilled. Indeed, at present, because of a sharp anti-busing backlash that steadily built once buses actually started rolling – a backlash that eventually resulted in a 1999 lawsuit that halted cross-district busing — the fulfillment of the promise seems deferred for the foreseeable future.
The South’s public schools remain less segregated than the rest of the country. But since the 1999 law suit there has been no further improvement in Southern integration numbers — and the same holds true for integration numbers in most other parts of the country. Rather, there has been steady and massive re-segregation and much of the early integration progress has been reversed, to the point that today only one fourth of the South’s non-white school children are enrolled in majority-white schools, compared to one half back in 1990.
Put in another context, while Southern classrooms continue to be among the more integrated in the nation, because of re-segregation they are, nevertheless, more racially segregated today than they were at the time of Martin Luther King’s death, some 45 years ago. Or, as Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project, which closely monitors progress in classroom desegregation, recently observed: “We are, step by step, returning to the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy that so clearly failed the country for six decades between 1896 and 1954.
White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill.
Charlotte, North Carolina, whose U.S. Supreme Court case unleashed busing across the country in 1971, is a case in point for the change in attitudes that occurred. After more than two decades as something of a national model for school desegregation, Charlotte found the coalition that supported busing begin to fray.
As the city and county expanded, bus rides grew longer and children, both black and white, spent far more hours far from home. White parents tended to chafe over the system the most, but some blacks also began to question whether busing logistical challenges were worth the benefit, notes Pamela Grundy, a historian and school activists from Charlotte. “Where schools were most integrated [parents] saw the greatest gains in the achievement of African-American students,” she says. “I think the challenge was, the scores got better, kids did better. But the gap didn’t close as much as people would’ve hoped that it would.”
Another big factor testing the resiliency of mandatory busing was that Charlotte was no longer populated by people who had grown up there and seen what busing had done.
“People came in from other places without a sense of the history of busing,” recalls John Lassiter, one of the early anti-busing leaders. “They had no concept of ‘I’m going to put my kid on a bus to travel for 40 minutes to an hour-and-a-half each way to take part in a social experiment.’”
Bill Capacchione was among these new residents. And, in 1997, the letter he received stating that his 6-year-old daughter had been denied entrance to a magnet school, set him on his heels.
“There were seats sitting empty in that school. They said that didn’t matter, those were black seats,” he says. “I moved here from California. I didn’t know there were places still busing. What bowled me over was the whole magnet program, the whole busing program, basically you were eliminating kids educational opportunities based on the color of their skin. Which made no sense to me at all. Instead of shipping the kids from one side of the city to another, just make the schools equal.”
Capacchione decided to sue the school district to force a change in the policy. And, in 1999, in the face of the growing national wave of second thoughts about busing, a Federal judge ruled in favor of Capacchione and several other parents who had joined in the lawsuit, Taking a close look at the progress the district had made in desegregating its classrooms, he found that the original busing court order had been implemented “to the extent reasonably practicable,” and he lifted the order. And, in 2002, after several appeals, the Charlotte school board instituted what became known as the “choice plan,” ending race-based busing and other court-mandated means of creating racial parity in the schools.
“I felt like we were just trying to bring Charlotte into the 21st century,” Capacchione recalls. “It made me feel good that I was able to do this. It effected change that I felt was positive.”
Not all of it was, according to opponents of the change. The system’s classrooms are no longer roughly 50-50 white and non-white, a ratio that promoters of the city once proudly touted, hoping to spur its headlong Sunbelt growth. Instead, two-thirds of the system’s white students now attend schools in majority-white suburbs, and two-thirds of the system’s non-white students now attend schools in neighborhoods that are majority non-white. Since there is only limited housing integration in Charlotte neighborhoods, as in neighborhoods in most American cities, this reversal was bound to happen when the buses stopped hauling students to schools in neighborhoods across town and instead resumed pre-1971 style busing. That is, hauling students to schools in their own neighborhoods. Still, the speed of the re-segregation of Charlotte’s classrooms shocked many of those who watched it.
“Looking back, today,” says Arthur Griffin, a former chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, “we are a lot more segregated now, both racially and economically, than I think anyone would have imagined would occur.”
The result has been the same in other school districts across the south, which has increasingly won reprieves from federal courts.
The one bright spot in the rapid re-segregation of classrooms is that the reversal has not been accompanied by a return to the kind of hard edge racial discrimination found in Southern school systems before the 1954 Brown ruling. Still, rights advocates contend the reversal has, nevertheless, significantly slowed progress in race relations.
They say that because fewer whites and non-whites now go to school together, fewer whites and non-whites enter adulthood and the workplace familiar with racial issues and accustomed to dealing with them.
Further, rights advocates argue that pronounced educational benefits are being lost. The country has now had enough experience with school integration to know, despite some lingering protestations, all students benefited from the experience. Post-schooling studies of non-whites who went to racially balanced public schools have found that as adults they tend to rise higher on the economic and social ladder than do non-whites who attend majority non-white schools. And there is no drag on the academic achievement of the white students either. In Charlotte, as in many other cities, once schools re-segregated, academic achievements of non-white students began to slip back. Roslyn Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the Charlotte branch of the University of North Carolina, says that her studies of the desegregation of Charlotte public schools turned up overwhelming evidence that it was a major success, with both white and non-white students greatly profiting, academically and socially.
“Even though there were bumps in the road,” she says, “it was a success, creating schools that offered equality of education to most of the children.” But, she adds, the re-segregation does not bode well, especially for non-whites, who all too often now find themselves back in classrooms where poverty, broken families, limited opportunity and low educational achievement are the dispiriting daily facts of life.
The issues of poverty and limited opportunity will only become more pressing, they say in the years go come. Because the nation’s Hispanic population is growing so rapidly, the number of non-whites in the country will, for the first time in almost four centuries, exceed the number of whites by 2043, and very possibly sooner, a development with immense political, economic and social consequences, not the least being educational.
The nation, the rights advocates contend, must do all possible to guarantee that the school children in the new majority have unfettered access to the best possible schools and teachers – a guarantee that thus far in the nation’s history has not been extended to non-white children, by and large.
If the nation does not make good on that guarantee this time around, the rights advocates warn, the nation faces the foolhardy prospect of ending up a nation whose majority is its underclass.
“And that’s not overstating the danger,” as Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project sees it. He adds:
“Whites need to stop wasting the last generation of white majority pretending that race does not matter and ignoring obvious inequalities that they could see by simply spending time observing classes and talking to educators in nearby schools.”
What, then, to do next?
Perhaps the most difficult hurdle to clear when it comes to reintegrating the nation’s classrooms – in the absence of any help through court orders — is housing patterns. All across the country, the hard, cold housing fact is that whites tend to live in mostly white neighborhoods and non-whites tend to live in mostly non-white neighborhoods. And no court seems likely to take that on in the foreseeable future
True, increasing numbers of blacks and Hispanics in the North and the West, as well as in the South, are now steadily migrating out of declining intercity neighborhoods and resettling in the suburbs. But more often than not, what results is not an integrated neighborhood. Rather, the re-settlers end up creating a new black or Hispanic neighborhood or enlarging an already established neighborhood.
Given that Charlotte, once the nation’s poster child for successful school integration has been in this struggle longer than just about any other major city, do its city fathers have any new plan in mind?
Thus far, not much seems to be stirring. And Arthur Griffin, the former school board chairman who has been in the fight from the start, or at least at ringside, is far from sanguine about the future. He offers a single word on where, in his judgment, his city, and perhaps the whole nation beyond, stands today on the re-segregation issue: