This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional de jure segregation in American public schools. After Brown, one could no longer speak of racial justice without considering the state of American education, nor could one reasonably discuss American education without addressing the need for racial justice.
And yet, in a way that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago, an American conservatism that once fought court-ordered school desegregation at every turn is making the claim that its educational agenda provides the only hope for children of color trapped in failing inner-city schools. The right now declares, “We are the true heirs of Brown.”
In a concurring opinion in the recent Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, which upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers used to attend religious schools, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas quoted Frederick Douglass: “Education means emancipation,” and, said Thomas, today’s “inner city public schools deny emancipation” to students of color. Thomas and other conservatives contend that educational progress for African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities lie not in remedies designed to bring equity to public schooling, but in vouchers, privatization, and the dismantling of what they call the public school “monopoly.”
Brown struck down laws mandating racial segregation, and, after prolonged efforts that finally overcame segregationist justice, made possible meaningful desegregation in public schools in the American South at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. But attempts at dismantling de facto segregation in other regions of the nation were less successful, and they halted in the mid-1970s as resistance to school busing reached a fever pitch, fiscal crises took a toll on magnet programs designed to promote voluntary racial integration, and conservatives discovered race as a “wedge” issue. Starting with Milliken, a spate of Rehnquist Court decisions in the late 1970s and 1980s undercut judicial mandates for school desegregation. Since the early 1990s, there has been a trend toward the resegregation of American public schools, which Gary Orfield and his colleagues at Harvard’s Civil Rights Project have carefully documented.
Those who are not familiar with America’s urban public schools may not appreciate the enormity of de facto segregation in our nation’s classrooms. In the fourteen years that I taught in a large, academically respectable inner-city high school in Brooklyn, New York, I never saw a single white student in my classroom. During that period, of the tens of thousands who attended my school-located a short five-minute stroll from the gentrified neighborhood...
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