The fight to end school desegregation in the United States was long, ugly, painful and even bloody. The erosion of that victory has come silently, almost without notice.
An unsettling report issued Tuesday by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that public schools across the nation have become resegregated. Poor, black, and Hispanic children are not only increasing isolated from their white counterparts but the quality of their schools suffers in comparison to those of white students.
It was not by chance that the GAO released the report on May 17. That was the 62nd anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring that state laws establishing separate schools for white and black students was unconstitutional. The 9-0 decision of the Warren court was meant to insure that every child, regardless of color, would have an equal opportunity at a good education, a good job, and a happy life in America.
That ideal came true for some, but not for enough. Desegregation was fought in southern states but also in cities like Boston. At some point, the battle was declared over, or the combatants grew weary of the fight. A Washington Post report on the GAO study asserts that while educational battles raged over standardized tests, Common Core, charter schools and other hot-button issues, public schools across the nation quietly became segregated again.
The study reveals an "overwhelming failure to fulfil the promise of Brown," said Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, in the Post. Representative Scott requested the two-year GAO study along with John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
This re-segregation of schools took place in silence, largely absent the passage of state laws and the political statements that drew attention to segregation before the Supreme Court acted in 1954. It happened school district by school district, school by school. The victims were powerless to stop it.
According to the exhaustive GAO study, the number of high-poverty schools that serve primarily minority students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014. (The GAO defined high-poverty schools as those where 75 percent or more of the children receive free or reduced-price lunches.) Students in high-poverty, majority black and Hispanic schools were less likely to be offered advanced math and science courses, which are of critical importance in an increasingly high-tech world. Children who have little contact with those of another race are not likely to have contact as adults. This provides fertile ground for misunderstandings and racism.
Sadly, the federal government will have to re-fight a battle on all-too-familiar turf. That battle was rejoined on May 13 when a U.S. District Court judge ordered the town of Cleveland, Mississippi, to integrate its schools. The town of 12,000 residents is divided by railroad tracks that divide white families from black and the public schools reflect that divide. There is little that can be done to help a town divided so dramatically by color but, because of Brown v. Board of Education, something can be done about an illegal dual school system divided by color.
Regrettably, hundreds of school districts were released from court-ordered desegregation plans in the 1990s because the plans were thought to have become unnecessary. That was the same flawed logic that led to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court three years ago. Absent enforcement, segregation quickly returned to those districts.
Integrating schools, and keeping them integrated, must be an ongoing process requiring government vigilance. It is unlikely that a Trump Justice Department or federal court system will engage in that process.
That is one more reason why this November's presidential election is so important as America confronts its deeply ingrained racism.